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Opinion: We need public transport that feels safe for women

Perceptions of safety are a significant factor in women’s travel choices, so we need to create a better environment, writes Rachel Cahill.

Rachel Cahill Transport Infrastructure Ireland

IN THESE PANDEMIC times, we have seen women bearing a huge share of the load of this crisis.

Employment sectors such as tourism, retail, hospitality, and aviation have been hit the hardest by the Covid-19 pandemic. In the EU women account for 61% of workers in these industries.

In Ireland, the unemployment rate amongst women rose by 53.8% and 23% for men between July and September 2020.

Globally, this has shone a light on the highly gendered division of labour. Focusing on women’s mobility needs, supporting their vital work and their right to full participation and wellbeing, has never seemed more important.

Unmet needs 

Travelling in a Woman’s Shoes is a recent report commissioned by Transport Infrastructure Ireland (TII), bringing to life the experiences of women in Ireland through data gathering and real-life stories.

The study focuses on the travel behaviours of women in Ireland and shows that women have transport needs that are often unmet by current system design. It identifies design challenges and ways to improve equal access to the transport network and found a growing desire among women to take up more sustainable modes of transport.

Door-to-door safety, family-friendliness and proximity are key considerations when designing new infrastructure.

A two-step research methodology was developed, first uncovering behaviours and needs through 21 ethnographic interviews with women in Dublin and Cork, then validating the findings quantitatively through a nationally representative survey of 1000 respondents.

The interviews highlighted that public transport provides many women with moments of peace giving them time to unwind between work and caring for the family.

The study identified life-stage as a critical determinant of travel behaviour. Researchers observed young women juggling many duties such as work, education, household responsibilities and community activities.

With many women still performing most of the caring responsibilities in households, having a child was a notable turning point for a woman’s relationship with mobility.

With children and a pram in tow, the women interviewed found that it was neither convenient nor enjoyable to use public transport.

Women who previously used public transport switched to the car, perceiving it as the most reliable and child-friendly transport option. For some, this involved purchasing their first car, often shifting their habits permanently.

Interestingly, as many women interviewed grew older, they turned to walking, cycling and public transport for a break from the car on weekends and holidays.

For some, public transport was an adventure or a break from their daily routine.

Safety first 

The report also found that women feel “heavily responsible” for their safety when travelling. There was an ingrained fear and burden for women going about their daily lives.

Whilst unsafe and violent incidents are not an everyday occurrence for most Irish women, a single incident significantly impacts a woman’s sense of safety, well-being, and travel choices.

One bad incident is enough to alter a woman’s relationship to transport fundamentally.

One woman, Gillian, said the lack of reliability made her lose the habit of getting the bus, while “scary” incidents made her nervous about taking public transport alone. 

“There have been two or three occasions when Jim [her husband] and I have been on the bus when it was attacked with stones. Legally, the bus driver is not allowed to continue driving so you have to get off the bus and risk it. You would then have to walk home and I would not want to walk home if that happened so I prefer taking a taxi if I am going out without Jim,” Gillian told researchers. 

Similarly, the unsafe experiences of friends, family or those heard on the news can make women more vigilant or “prepared” with flat shoes, modified clothing and makeshift weapons when going out.

19-year-old Alice told researchers that she and her friends are always thinking ahead when getting ready to go out – developing their own workaround to feel safe:

You want to draw the least attention to yourself as possible. I bring a big coat so I can wrap up and hide in it. If you need to run you don’t want to waste time getting your heels off.

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The report found that 1 in 3 public transport users have seen or experienced some form of harassment or violence while using public transport. Both men and women across Ireland are equally likely to experience violence.

Still, sexual harassment and assault are predominantly experienced by women, especially in Dublin.

Perceptions of safety are a significant factor in women’s travel choices. 55% of women surveyed, would not use public transport after dark or late at night. A further 34% of women stating that this insecurity has on occasion stopped them from going out altogether.

For Irish women, a lack of safety infrastructure and support from fellow passengers often exacerbated women’s feelings of isolation and vulnerability when travelling.

To build trust in alternative modes of transport, we need to create an environment that feels safe through initiatives like lighting, route design, better incident reporting, and co-designing solutions with women.

This study is the first step towards creating a more equitable travel experience and we now need to focus on how we collect gender-disaggregated data to balance the apparent male bias in the design of future transport solutions.

TII has developed a tool, ‘Applying a Gender Lens to TII Public Transport Projects’, in conjunction with an international expert advisor on gender, a checklist tool aiming to put gender-sensitive thinking at the core of the transport design.

Our work has identified several interventions that would improve women’s experience using transport and require more than just TII to implement.

Rachel Cahill is head of the chief executive office at Transport Infrastructure Ireland 

This work is co-funded by Journal Media and a grant programme from the European Parliament. Any opinions or conclusions expressed in this work is the author’s own. The European Parliament has no involvement in nor responsibility for the editorial content published by the project. For more information, see here

About the author:

Rachel Cahill  / Transport Infrastructure Ireland

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