Posted by Aila Bandagi
“There is a default male bias in urban design and planning,” said Meghna Chaudhury. This stems from deep seated patriarchal beliefs and continues to reinforce these stereotypes by making it harder for women to access public spaces and transportation. Many countries have already recognised the need to change this and incorporate women’s needs. Gender responsive planning as defined by the European Commission is “an active approach to planning which takes gender as a key variable or criterion and which seeks to incorporate an explicit gender dimension into policy or action.“
While we talk of building back better after the pandemic, there is a need to recognise not just the differences between how men and women commute but also to address the deep seated inequalities that women face. In a previous article, I talked about the negative impacts of the COVID-19 lockdowns on urban women’s mobility and its relationship to women’s workforce participation and empowerment. This article looks at strategies to mitigate the negative impacts on women’s mobility and ensure an equitable and inclusive recovery process – it is my analysis and interpretation of interviews with Firoza Suresh, bi-cycle mayor of Bombay; Dr. Karen Coehlo, Madras Institute of Development Studies; Kalpana Viswanath, founder of Safetipin; Meghna Chaudhury, co-founder of We Unlearn; Nandita Baruah, India country representative of the Asia Foundation; and Tara Krishnaswamy, founder of political Shakti and citizens for Bengaluru.
Short term projects
If women cannot get back to work soon, they might not be able to do it for a long time. Addressing the pressing concern of increased care work, Nandita Baruah suggests innovative and entrepreneurial solutions. She said, “In partnership with NGOs, CSOs and RWAs, creches and short stay centers could be set up” in order to facilitate women’s return to workplaces.
Firoza Suresh suggests that “Cycling is a much better option for people to travel in the 5 to 7 kilometers distance.” However, Dr. Karen Coehlo points out that “Cycling will only work if women have access to cycles and cycling itself is safe with cycle lanes.” To make cycling safe and accessible, Suresh suggests three action points.
- Firstly, she argues that “The free cycles programme is needed in the urban poor areas.” We have seen the success of the free cycles schemes in rural areas in multiple states, extending this to urban areas would give women access to a sustainable mode of transportation.
- Secondly, she suggested that “The state should enable a public bicycle sharing system in cities.” A robust PBS (Public bicycle sharing system) can act complimentary to formal and informal public transport options, providing affordable short commute options and last mile connectivity.
- Finally, she explained that “Poor families cannot spend on maintenance and repair of cycles.” The state could encourage cycling by providing free maintenance services. It is also essential that cycle training programs, where women are taught how to cycle, for free are conducted by the city or the civil society because a lot of women do not know how to cycle.
Addressing the fear around the public transport system, Dr. Coehlo said that the state “Needs to invest in safety, hygeine and maintenance but also in public trust in the system.” The fear of health in a post pandemic world might make public transport an unattractive choice – pushing women to shift to unsustainable modes like two-wheelers and cars (if they can afford it) or forcing them to not take the trip at all.
Addressing the affordability concern of public transport, Baruah highlighted that “The Delhi government’s stand to make transport free for women was commendable. It provided opportunities for women without the cost of transport.” Tara Krishnaswamy also argues for improvements in bus services stating that “If we want to recover, we need to run more buses, more frequently, with less capacity.” She also added that “The state has to subsidise public transport for women, because like health, it is a public service.“
Kalpana Viswanath suggests quick ways of re-designing the city to ensure the safety of women. She stated, “We have seen examples of pop-up cycling lanes, improvement of walking infrastructure, and providing services within 15 minutes walking distance.” These quick interventions can also be used as advocacy tools in order to convince governments to make longer term, sustainable investments into women’s mobility and safety.
Policy and planning
In the medium term, it is important to start re-imagining our cities and expanding the short term interventions. Dr. Coehlo suggests that cities could “Reduce overcrowding through staggered timings, transit oriented development and promoting bicycles.” If the city governments can stagger the timings of different offices (or work spaces) instead of everyone trying to travel at the same time, it could reduce overcrowding and consequently reduce the risk of spreading the virus. Transit oriented development would bring offices, homes and market places closer to each other and connected through mass transit modes, reducing both travel distance and time.
“Cities need to create comprehensive mobility plans,” said Firoza Suresh. These mobility plans have to be prepared considering multiple modes of transport and the unique needs of women. Kalpana Viswananth argues that “Women have never been at the center of urban planning or transport planning. If we can bring them as one of the constituencies with which we can re-plan, we would have achieved a lot.” Creating mobility plans with women as their focus would make the city safer for everyone – especially children and elderly people.
For gender responsive planning to work, we need gender disaggregated data. Meghna Chaudhury said that “Sex seggregated data can be used for providing lighting in different areas and to cater to people who are invisible, like trans women, disabled women etc.” She added that “We need to look at big data analytics and small data, like the everyday inferences on how women use roads, why are women still scared, and is the safety button accessible to women. Big data alone is not enough.” The lack of sex disaggregated data in our country is highly concerning and collection of this data can be a very important step in understanding the needs of women and implementing the necessary changes.
Also read: Designing Urban Employment Schemes For Women
Responding to the concern of getting different departments to work on the issue of women’s mobility, Kalpana Viswanath suggests a safety cell, which will be “…a forum or a platform headed by someone like the chief secretary which could be the safety department of a city government. This should involve all the departments, including the home, transport, WCD, finance etc and they should all report regularly as to what they are doing. But it is important that this is headed by someone who is very senior and who has the power. The forum will have goals and targets – it is not another structure but an interdepartmental collaboration.”
Long term vision
“Neutrality does not mean equality when the balance is unequal to start with,” emphasised Baruah. The focus on women’s mobility is not something that can be put off to another time. Mobility is a basic need for women to have access to education, employment, recreation, health care and leisure. “Mobility is not just the mechanics of moving around…we should think about making conditions that facilitate women’s movement outside the house.” said Dr. Coehlo. Mobility, when designed for the most vulnerable, serves everyone. “The DNA of mobility organisations has to change and imbibe a gender perspective,” said Krishnaswamy while highlighting women’s different travel patterns and needs. Addressing the role of the civil society, Kalpana Viswanath said that “Civil society needs to build good data that is speaking to policy makers. We need to find innovative ways, collaborate and use technology, while recognising that everyone does not have equal access to it.“
With a timely and proactive approach, the negative impacts of the COVID lockdowns on women’s mobility can be reduced. The time to act is now.
Aila Bandagi is an urban researcher and activist. Her work focuses on gender and cities in India. She is an India Urban Fellow from IIHS, Bangalore; A Writing Urban India Fellow from CPR, Delhi; and holds a master’s degree in development studies from TISS, Hyderabad. She previously worked as a fact-checker with Factly and as a research associate for inclusive development with the Institute for Transportation and Development Policy (ITDP). She is currently a PhD scholar at the department of geography, University of Nevada and is trying to define what a gender responsive city in the global south means. You can find her on Instagram and reach out to her on email here: firstname.lastname@example.org
Featured Image Source: Times of India