Bridging the gender gap in public transport is crucial for achieving equality

No matter how established, extensive, and sophisticated a city’s public transport system is, it probably wasn’t designed with women in mind. If you’re a woman, you might have suspected that’s the case—but it’s not just in your head. 

As Caroline Criado Perez notes in her book Invisible Women: Exposing Data Bias in a World Designed for Men (2019), it’s something that impacts every aspect of transportation, starting with the routes. Picture the public transport routes where you live; or better yet, pull up an online map and plan a route from your home to the city centre. Now, do the same thing but add in trips to a school, a grocery store, and an elderly relative’s home (if you have one living in the area). Notice how much simpler the first one is and compare it to the complexity of the second one (even if it’s broadly in the same direction). Now, think about which trip is more likely to be taken by a man and which is more likely to be taken by a woman. 

Whether or not the people who planned those routes realise it, their designs actively contribute to gender inequality. Transforming that state of affairs means that everyone involved in public transport needs to take a far more consciously gendered perspective. 

Understanding the gender transport problem 

Before exploring what that perspective might look like, it’s worth taking a deeper dive into how transport routes contribute to gender inequality. Existing route patterns make it more difficult for women to make the journeys they need to, sometimes changing routes multiple times on the way. But this also means that women’s journeys can work out more expensive than those taken by men. The time women spend on those trips also has a cost, making it more difficult for women to study, take on extra paid work, or spend time with friends and colleagues. 

Safety is also a major concern. And with good reason. According to research released in 2022, some 55% of Londoners who are women have experienced sexual harassment on public transport. That’s to say nothing of the fear that comes with waiting at a bus or train stop in the dark. Those safety concerns are only magnified for women travelling with children and other dependents. 

In the Majority World, those challenges are often much greater. For billions of women in emerging-market countries, formal public transport networks are either underdeveloped or completely non-existent. As a result, they have no choice but to rely on informal public transport networks. 

Make no mistake, those networks do fulfil a vital function and often have the agility necessary for enabling women to take the complex trips they need to. But their informal nature can also make navigating a city more challenging. Bus systems being comprised of hundreds of individual operators, lacking centralised coordination, can equate to more cost and more time spent travelling. Safety challenges are particularly compounded in these contexts.

Designing with a gendered perspective 

Those realities were something we knew we had to be cognizant of when designing our consumer public transport app Rumbo. Remember, women are, on average, 21% (Goel et al, 2022) more likely than men to use public transport to travel to work, with the gap increasing significantly when all trips are combined, making it even more important that public transport solutions are designed with them in mind. 

To ensure we build Rumbo with a gendered perspective, we took a human-centred approach using data and research. Through a suite of bespoke tools developed in-house, we mastered the mapping of public transport networks in multiple emerging-market megacities, digitalising every mode of formal and informal public transport however it operates. But we also talked to women in those markets, joined their commutes, and learned about their day-to-day transport experiences. 

The lessons we learned through that initial research influenced every aspect of building Rumbo, up to and including font choice and typography. Given the stressful situations women all too frequently find themselves in when using public transport, we knew that we had to make the app as simple and intuitive as possible to use. In other words, by designing for women, we helped ensure that Rumbo was as safe and usable for everyone as possible. 

But that research didn’t stop once the product was launched. We’ve also worked with the think-and-do tank Data-Pop Alliance to survey women using Rumbo. The qualitative survey revealed a number of interesting results. We found out that women travel to study, work, visit relatives, and for entertainment purposes. This is likely why, in both cities, women frequently travel by public transport outside of rush hour: 44% in Lima and 53% in Mexico City. We also found that the number of women using public transport decreases as daylight fades, largely as a result of security concerns. That’s starkly illustrated by the fact that just nine percent of women in Lima and 12% of women in Mexico City travel after eight o’clock at night. 

By taking a research-driven approach, we’re helping to make commuting safer, more affordable, and faster. That’s not conjecture either: we’ve found that, over the past year, Rumbo has given commuters back 24 minutes every week. Getting that time back is useful to everyone, but is especially so for women, who most frequently have to balance work with the role of primary caregiver. 

Incremental changes add up 

Of course, we know that a single app can’t magically make public transport more equitable for women. But our data shows that it can help, saving time and creating greater certainty in an extremely uncertain context. As we build information solutions alongside others building infrastructure and creating cultural change, those changes will add up. 

As a result, we’ll start seeing public transport systems built with women in mind. Ultimately, this will enable us to unlock fairer and more equitable cities for everyone.

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Emma Chapman is a Lead Product Designer at WhereIsMyTransport. She has over 15 years experience and is dedicated to designing intuitive digital products that harness technology to positively impact people's lives.

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