Separate But Equal: A Winning Policy for Women in Transit?
The women's only trains have been in Mumbai for about ten years. Photo by Madhav Pai.

Women-only trains have been in Mumbai for about 10 years. Photo by Madhav Pai.

Women in cities all over the world bear the burden of constantly having to strategize in order to remain safe, comfortable and secure in the face of sexual harassment by men on overcrowded public transport. Depending on their profession, geography and age, women must weigh where to go, where to avoid, what to wear, who to travel with, when to travel and what transit modes to choose.

“The perception that a bus station, train car, parking lot or particular neighborhood is dangerous forces many women to alter their travel patterns,” according to Anastasia Loukaitou-Sideris, a professor of urban planning at the UCLA School of Public Affairs. “This limits their access to the most basic of rights — to move freely in the public sphere.”

The limiting nature of public transit is worse for low-income and minority women who “may reside in high-crime areas, travel back from work at odd hours and lack the resources for private transport such as cars and taxis,” Loukaitou-Sideris says. Although her research focuses on public urban environments in the United States, her description holds true for much of the world. Globally, one out of three women experience sexual assault or rape. The figure is the same for the U.S.

On crowded trains, women can be a prime target for groping, theft and other personal safety concerns. One way of addressing such concerns is by providing trains specifically designed for women who, in jam-packed cars, have no easy way of escaping or even targeting an assault once people file out of the train. These cars, sometimes labeled in pink as “women only,” have proliferated internationally from their start in Japan in 2000. (The New York Times reported of plans for women-only cars on Cairo’s subway as early as 1990.) Now such cars and buses are available in India, Malaysia, Taiwan, Indonesia, Mexico and Brazil.

The safety of women in transit is especially important as the role of women in the workforce evolves, especially in developing nations. As people flood cities from rural areas, more women are commuting today than ever before, and this includes girls and youth expected to travel independently to and from school or work.

A sign reading "women only" in Hindi on the platform of the Delhi Metro. Photo by Erica Schlaikjer.

A sign reading "women only" in Hindi on the platform of the Delhi Metro. Photo by Erica Schlaikjer.


Japan instituted women-only train cars after a staggering 64 percent of women in their 20s and 30s said they had been groped at transit stations or on trains and subways in Tokyo, even though gropers face imprisonment or hefty fines.

This past August, Jakarta’s state rail company Kereta Api introduced a women-only train. Its seats are pink and a female guard monitors each car.

In Mumbai, trains have female-only compartments and at certain times everyday, entire trains—called “Ladies Specials“—are reserved for women only. These relatively “luxurious” trains (they are usually less crowded) are met by Ladies Special buses at some stations like Andheri, a suburb of Western Mumbai. (Kashmir just started a Ladies Special bus service, as well.)

“I try and travel on the Ladies Special as often as possible,” says Tahira Thekaekara, program manager of the Center for Sustainable Transport in India (CST-India), a member of the EMBARQ Network (the producer of this blog). “A friend captured the spirit of the Ladies Special when she said, ‘It always feels like a festival.'” Elaborating on the comfort of these trains, Thekaekara says, “It’s not uncommon to see women in the trains saving time by cutting vegetables, which they will use to make dinner once they get home.”

Surprisingly, India’s booming megacity, Mumbai, is considered the safest city for women in the country. More than 56 percent of people surveyed by the Hindustan Times think that the city is safest for women in India. And 32 percent of women felt safe traveling alone late at night, while 54 percent felt somewhat safe traveling.

“Whenever I visit other cities I am appalled by the instant loss of independence I experience,” Thekaekara says. “In Mumbai, I meet up with friends after work, and frequently get home at midnight or later, but in cities like Bangalore and Delhi, my plans are determined by whether or not I can get a ride back home after dark.”

Train conductor shooing away a man in the women only car. Photo by Erica Schaikjer.

A female train conductor encourages a man to leave a women-only car on the Delhi Metro. Photo by Erica Schlaikjer.


There are safety issues unique to the close quarters and anonymity of cramped trains, subways or buses. But segregating women and men seems like a short-term solution. What happens when women get off the train or subway? Or when they are waiting for a bus? (A study found that women in the U.S. are more scared waiting in bus stops than they are within the enclosed space of a transit vehicle.) For other transit modes, like buses, bike lanes, or pedestrian walkways, such gender segregation is not as easy to enforce. Still, many women prefer the female-only option, at the very least because they are less crowded and women can usually get a seat.

A World Bank report found that if you build it for women, they will not necessarily come…to bike lanes in Peru, at least. A study found that the top four priorities for women using mass or non-motorized transit were security from theft and harassment, road safety (accidents), expenses and comfort. For men, top priorities included getting to the location quickly, road safety, order (schedule, routes, stops) and fares. The bike lanes built nearly 10 years ago have attracted limited ridership, largely because they did not address the specific needs and concerns of women. Although bike paths protect bikers from traffic, they do not necessarily help women feel personally secure when biking.

In countries like Indonesia, particularly in the city of Jakarta, the recognition of gender issues by policy makers is a sign of progress. (Jakarta has also developed a few strategically located women-only parking spots.) “Gender mainstreaming,” recognized by the United Nations as a key part of achieving gender equality, involves incorporating gender perspectives into policy development, research, advocacy, legislation, planning, implementation and monitoring of programs and projects.

Some other measures that improve safety include bike and walking paths with good lighting and a vibrant street presence. Additional suggestions from UCLA’s Loukaitou-Sideris to eliminate the gap between the needs of women and the practices of transit operators include incorporating women and nonprofit voices into the planning process. For example, a nonprofit in New York City, Rightrides, runs a program that offers women free late-night rides on weekends.  Involving people who run on-the-ground programs will help identify and prioritize women’s needs.

Focusing on safety, security and access in transportation is also a must. Policies should be creative, incorporating environmental design, policing and security. Public education on gender awareness and outreach strategies is also necessary in regions with persistent rates of assault. And, of course, ordinances should be in place for prosecuting men who harass women.

Transport for London (TfL), the city’s major service operator, has taken on a multi-pronged approach. TfL promotes job opportunities for women in bus operations and is increasing awareness of traveling concerns of pregnant women by encouraging priority seating. Back in 2004, TfL developed a Women’s Action Plan that includes a “Safer Travel at Night” campaign, a program run with a few other city agencies, that helps women use licensed-only cabs. Other changes include increased frequency of services and local links to essential amenities, allowing women easier opportunities to access parts of the city. (For more of TfL’s efforts to improve transit conditions for women, go here.)

A female tuk-tuk driver in Kathmandu. Photo by Sirensongs.

A female tuk-tuk driver in Kathmandu. Photo by Sirensongs.


Ultimately, improving transit conditions for women is compatible with improving access to services and the quality of public space and mass transit for everyone. Changes like achieving greater equality in the transportation workforce, a sector heavily dominated by men; engaging with a range of city residents; targeting and responding to and understanding individual needs (through services like call-in numbers or social media like Twitter) all point to opportunities for transit agencies and police to better target issues and engender greater public confidence in their services.

New technologies also improve safety by minimizing the time riders wait for the bus, helping women, in particular, to feel more secure. Tools like SeeClickFix, allow residents to document and share issues in their city, including areas where they feel are unsafe.

In the end, female safety is an argument for integration: all sections of the journey need to be safe to encourage ridership. If a bus station is well-lit, but the walk to the station or the parking lot is dangerous or intimidating, people, not just women, won’t use the service.

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