How technology can protect women using public transport

Transport is not gender-neutral. Research has repeatedly shown that women’s safety concerns have a huge impact on how – and when – they navigate cities, and their fears are not unfounded. It is a systemic, cultural problem that many are grappling with and that no organisation can hope to change alone. But what can we do to make women feel safer in public? 

In recent If you’re a woman reading this, there’s a good chance you’ve experienced harassment on public transport at some point. For most, it is disheartening, for too many, it is life-threatening. Surveys from around the world have shown, time and time again, that a large proportion of women have been harassed in public, with statistics hovering around the 80% mark.

Globally, more women use public transport than men, and women travel differently to men – often taking multiple short trips in a day, using buses or minibuses to carry the shopping or meet family responsibilities. Yet public transport does not cater to women’s safety in these situations. This is something city planners and transport operators must take into consideration to ensure inclusiveness as a default. Until this happens, there are smaller steps that we can and must take to make travel safer for women.

At WhereIsMyTransport, we value on-the-ground engagement because it builds a deep understanding of the markets in which we work. We employ local teams to ensure our data is high quality, reliable, and complete. The data we produce reflects the circumstances of each individual city, creating a digital layer that’s genuinely useful to those looking to understand transport networks, the informal economy, and what makes local people tick. We know, for example, that location-sharing is key to many women in emerging markets. The ability to track movements provides a safety net for women navigating public transport in cities, with loved ones able to check their location in real-time. We also know that women build informal communities to increase safety, enlisting street vendors to keep an eye on children on the way home from school, or meeting and travelling with other people to work and school. We have a breadth of data inherent to each individual city that can be used to better understand hazards and dangers. 

Research Findings

Our research has shown us that one of the main challenges to women in emerging markets is access to information. This is not just a case of making the invisible visible in terms of transport network data availability – it’s also about women having access to technology. Although connectivity is rapidly increasing in emerging markets, it remains the case that women often have second or third-hand smartphones that are shared within the family, meaning it’s not always possible to check transport hindrances in real-time. We know that women are more likely to rely on Wi-Fi hotspots, as data costs are prohibitive. And we know that women are less likely to open their phones in public unless that moment feels safe. As a result, women need to be able to check their phones before they travel, and information needs to be glanceable, so that they can understand how best to navigate spaces safely – to create a mind map, almost.

This goes for both transport methods and the hubs that women travel through. Violence perpetrated against women does not occur only on public transport during travel, but just as often in the environments around public transport – bus stops, train stations – at hubs that are frequently confusing, chaotic, and lack signage. In places like Bangkok, or Mexico City, the crowdedness of these spaces can be dangerous. At the same time, passing through these hubs too early in the morning, when it’s quiet, is equally as dangerous. Women, and many men, have to consider the time they travel to ensure maximum safety. 

“Women do not travel on their own, mentally. Women travel with everybody else in mind”

At WhereIsMyTransport, we are working to counteract the difficulties that a lack of contextual information can cause. Our own ethnographic research showed that one challenge of taking public transport in emerging markets is knowing which vehicle is the one that stops at the right stop. In Mexico City, a sign hung behind the windshield displays this information, and for a woman in a rush to get home before dark, perhaps with a toddler and shopping bags, it’s not always immediately obvious which vehicle is the right one. With our Android app Rumbo, we make it possible for passengers to upload photos of vehicle signs so that passengers can identify the right vehicle in advance, and board them on time.

With Rumbo, we have made it possible for users to save frequently made journeys, and the app provides alerts specific to these trips. They are not bombarded with information not relevant to them.  Instead, each alert can help them make better choices when travelling. At the same time, we map informal and formal public transport networks and enable the planning of the multi-stop journeys women are more likely to make.

Women do not travel on their own, mentally. Women travel with everybody else in mind – their children and partners, their coursemates or co-workers – because safety is often intimately linked to these people. But women also travel with their potential perpetrators, evaluating choices based on what could happen to us. Alert information can help women plan better. It provides information about their child’s journey to school or lets them know when their co-worker is running late, so they don’t need to wait for them at the bus stop, for example.  

Future Plans

WhereIsMyTransport’s future plans include deeper mapping of transport hubs and their surroundings, giving women a better understanding of the lay of the land and ensuring a well-rounded overview of entire public transport environments so that they can move through these spaces more quickly and confidently.

Making women’s lives safer requires behavioural change. It requires a wide understanding that women experience cities differently from men’s. If we can build cities with the worst scenarios in mind, the middle ground is taken care of automatically. This goes for all of us that are creating technology to improve people’s lives.  

Chantal Lailvaux is Head of Research at WhereIsMyTransport 

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