Safe is accessible: Women and public transport in Latin America
 Latin American cities must work incorporating women's needs into transport planning to increase access to opportunity. Photo by Gary Denness/Flickr.

Latin American cities must incorporate women’s needs into transport planning to increase access to opportunity. Photo by Gary Denness/Flickr.

Seventy million Latin American women have entered the labor force in the past 20 years. These women are contributing significantly to national economies, supporting communities and families, and becoming more active users of their cities’ infrastructure and public transport systems. A recent survey conducted in Mexico City found that 57% of the city’s transport users are women.

However, these women have specific mobility priorities and needs that their current transport infrastructure does not serve. In particular, women need to feel safe as they seek out economic and social opportunities. Research from the World Bank has shown that when women feel their physical safety threatened, they change their transport behavior, often to the detriment of their economic success. To ensure women’s access to opportunity, Latin American cities must take steps to raise awareness and guarantee women safety in public spaces and transport facilities.

Safe public transport: What is the role of the city?

In 2013, city officials in Mexico City reported that only 10% of harassment cases were reported to transit authorities. Even fewer were ever investigated. Of these cases of harassment, 95% of the victims were women. This example is indicative of Latin American cities as a whole, where cases of sexual harassment – particularly on public transport – go unreported largely due to lack of trust in police and judicial institutions.

Cities need to fulfill their mandate to look after public safety, both for the benefit of residents as well as broader societal gains. By not doing so, cities are missing out on potential public transport users and revenue and women are limited in their economic and social opportunities. Examples of inspiring practices around the globe provide some hints of how Latin America might move forward in enhancing women’s mobility through safe public transport through a range of short, middle, and long-term strategies:

1. Increase reporting in cases of abuse

Cities in the United States have been able to increase the number of reported cases of abuse, and in turn increase arrests, through successful campaigns that discourage harassment on buses and trains. In Boston, transit authorities have promoted campaigns targeting gropers, using such catchy slogans as: “Rub against me and I’ll expose you” which help to warn potential gropers of consequences, while empowering women to report any improper conduct. In the first year of the program, the number of harassment reports increased by nearly 75% while the number of arrests for incident assaults and battery went up by 85%.  Similar campaign strategies have been carried out in Washington, D.C., New York City, and Chicago.

In Latin America, where the need for such a campaign is greater but the barriers to galvanizing such action are higher, city leaders have been hesitant to replicate this approach. While there is a reputation risk for cities and their leaders, these measures to increase reporting are crucial. Not knowing the full scope of the problem only makes it more difficult to combat.

2. Designing safe cities for all

The next step in creating a safer transport system is to identify and address places of concern for women’s safety on transport – “women’s safety audits” can do just that. A concept that originated in Canada, these audits are currently adapted to a range of urban contexts across the globe to spot where potential sites for harassment exist within a system. Train and metro stations, along with buses, have been identified as likely places of violence against women. With information from women about where and when they feel most uncomfortable, city officials can bring about targeted changes, empowering women and helping public authorities prioritize public safety concerns. These audits typically cite small changes like more lighting or accessible footpaths, these small fixes are simultaneously concrete enough for cities to fix quickly, while contributing to a longer-term environment of safety for women.

3. Considering gender in transport and urban planning

Collecting data and increasing safety in the physical environment are important steps in counteracting unsafe situations for women. But to truly create safe environments, cities also need to take proactive measures in developing policy to ensure safety for all. Preemptive measures are popping, including the 8th Session of the Commission on the Status of Women including a special working group on Mobility as Access. These women acknowledged that sexual harassment in transport has not been adequately addressed in transport policy and planning, and are pushing for a change in the mindset of urban planners. They state:

Male dominance of the transport system is not only about women being under-represented within the current structure, but male transport planners not being gender sensitive at all in shaping the transport infrastructure.

While this issue may be more pronounced in Latin America, it is certainly one that resonates globally. Mainstreaming the idea that gender is a pivotal component of how many people use transport systems can help cities move from collecting data about harassment or correcting current design flaws to engraining gender into planning. It’s an uphill battle, but one that can allow cities across the world to create the kinds of mobility systems that increase access to opportunity for all.

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