It’s a tempting thought. What if local bus rides in Mumbai were made free of cost for women, at least over weekends to begin with, and the facility then extended to the rest of the Mumbai Metropolitan Region? Or certain frequencies of buses were made women-only? The number of women using the BEST buses would definitely show an increase, there would be a corresponding rise in revenues of small businesses they frequent, and eventually there might even be some profits for the BEST undertaking. Every time that I have attempted to speak about the gender aspect of public transport and mobility in our cities, planners and policy makers have come at me with the usual disdain that “women must stop bringing gender into everything”. Find the absurdity in that lament.
Many like me argue that it is no longer feasible or conducive to imagine mobility and transport in cities without factoring in gender which, by the way, is not only about women but all genders other than male. It is, by now, well known that men and women interact with their cities differently. Just as the same urban space holds varying meanings for different genders, their use of urban transport systems also follows this principle. Innumerable studies have shown that women have a more complex and varied use of transport systems or modes than men do in any city. While men largely show a linear pattern of commute from home to work and back home with the occasional leisure routes thrown in, the majority of women’s commutes tend to be non-linear because they combine several tasks in one trip – go to work and return but also drop children to school or pick them up, shop for the home, organise elderly care and so on in a day.
This is known but it is not completely acknowledged or responded to in urban development plans or city planning. What we then get are transport systems that favour the pre-dominant male use – roads designed to carry private cars point to point, metro lines that largely connect residential and commercial zones, bus routes which do not meander along the streets which is where women’s care work is likely to be. We, as a nation, are still a far way off from bringing gender to bear into the design of our cities; what we do have now, in some cities, is the tweaking of existing systems to suit the needs of women and other genders. Even this brings a backlash as we saw in Karnataka.
In about a month since chief minister Siddaramaiah introduced the Shakti scheme for women in the state, making all travel for women free in buses in cities and across Karnataka, there has been a massive increase in the number of women using buses – which was expected – followed by an increase in revenue for the city bus network in Bengaluru which was a surprise for many. To some women, the free bus rides meant savings in their meagre incomes giving them a wee bit of relief in juggling their monthly household budgets; to others, it meant not having to depend on the men in their lives to visit leisure venues or temples. Reports have pointed to an increase of women in temples, donations made to temples, and frequenting small businesses around temple areas.
In New Delhi, chief minister Arvind Kejriwal announced free metro rides for women in 2019. This brought more women to the metro network, had more of them see and be in parts of their city they had never been to, and generally opened up possibilities for education and work. Even before the metro rides were made free, the fact that the metro network enabled greater mobility – even a different kind of mobility – for women was studied. On the basis of her ethnographic work, writer Rashmi Sadana found that this greater mobility gave women the opportunity to change their relationship with the city itself.
Women’s varied and complex – often circular – use of public transport in cities is certainly not unique to India. The pattern is seen almost everywhere around the world, as studies have shown. This is an inalienable part of what is now popularly called gender mainstreaming in cities – deliberately thinking how to make amenities more gender-friendly and, in fact, gender-just. In several cities, this has meant making access to public transport easier, making transport systems safer, building in the varied and complex use into transport design, and so on.
The foremost measure which cities did – including some Indian cities – was to introduce women-only compartments in metros and trains making it less intimidating and safer for women and other genders to commute. Beyond this, international cities offer other examples – Toronto started a “request stop system” in its bus network to enable women to get off closer to their homes especially late at night, Berlin broke down the distinction between home and office – residential and commercial – and made more mixed-use areas which suit women more, Argentina’s Rosario city turned its public squares dominated by drug users and petty criminals into public squares with amenities which would allow women to bring their children and elderly there, and Vienna introduced the Frauen-Werk-Stadt which was to create safe areas around apartment blocks with kindergartens and clinics all located close to public transport stops.
Mumbai’s suburban trains have had the ‘ladies compartment’ for decades, this was extended to more than one compartment when the rakes were increased from nine to 12, and later to 15. For millions of women and other genders, railway commute without the ‘ladies compartment’ is unthinkable. BEST buses, of course, have seats ‘reserved’ for women and the system allows women, especially the aged or with children, to use the front doorway to board buses avoiding the crush at the rear doorway. This is necessary but not sufficient. When it cut back on routes in 2018-19 to minimise its high losses, BEST management cancelled buses on inner routes in areas or those without a large ridership. Many of these adversely affected women, going by the anecdotal evidence available then.
What is needed are measures that move beyond the reserved compartments and seats – better pavements which enable safe and pleasant walking because women walk more than men do as they have local errands to run and work closer to their homes, well-designed and properly-lit bus stops with adequate overhead cover and signages considering that BEST buses run late into the night, routes which connect residential zones to the city’s leisure areas which will encourage more women to step out for something other than work, circular routes within an area which fulfil their need of moving short distances for varied work close to their homes, and so on.
BEST and transport policy makers, mostly men, can take the easy route out that this can be addressed when other issues of the undertaking such as its financial stability have been sorted out, or they can get women representatives on board right away to begin the process of gender mainstreaming the bus service which remains the most dependable and accessible transport system for millions of women in the city. Planning and policy decisions do affect women.
(Smruti Koppikar, journalist and urban chronicler, writes extensively on cities, development, gender, and the media. She is also the Founder Editor of ‘Question of Cities’)