Being able to move around in urban settings is a prerequisite for socio-economic development as access to appropriate modes of mobility allows inhabitants to integrate into cities. However, commuting is not always easy, especially for women, who face a multitude of challenges when it comes to mobility. Lack of mobility reduces freedom of movement, and ability to fully participate in education, work and public life.
A major factor that restricts female mobility in cities is lack of safety in public spaces. Women often face harassment, such as catcalling, ogling, groping, stalking, etc., whether they are walking, riding bicycles/scooters or using public transport. Availing other expensive alternatives, i.e., Careem, Uber, taxi or cab-hailing services comes with its own concerns pertaining to safety. Many women, therefore, resort to alternatives that avoid the risk of being harassed or objectified. This leaves them with limited commuting options such as using private vehicles, pick and drop or depending on their male family members to accompany them, which reduces their ability to engage freely in educational, professional, social and recreational activities outside of their homes and/or neighbourhoods.
When commuting in private vehicles, women predominantly prefer cars over bicycles or scooters because riding bicycles and/or scooters by themselves attracts unwanted attention. Even if they decide to look past the stigma attached to women riding two-wheeled vehicles, many cities lack the protective infrastructure required for bicycles and scooters as city authorities have largely associated mobility with facilitation of movement of cars and other fast-paced vehicles on roads. Moreover, due to culturally-defined gender roles, women are mostly in charge of responsibilities such as managing children’s transportation needs, grocery shopping and other housework related errands that are difficult to carry out on two-wheeled vehicles. This does not bode well for women especially since the world is moving towards making urban transportation eco-friendly by substantially replacing the usage of cars with walking and cycling, and usage of public and shared transport.
The vast gender gap, which exists in urban mobility in Pakistan, needs to be bridged if we, as a nation, want to achieve inclusive development. Female capital is an important factor for social, economic, political and environmental development of the country, and a major headway in leveraging this potential would be to make transportation safe and secure, especially since Pakistan is seeing a rise, albeit a gradual one, in participation of women in the formal sector. We need to recognize the concerns of women and redesign urban mobility by including women in the decision-making process to make it more responsive to their needs; for this it is vital to expand the transportation network, schedule services, provide reliable transport in urban areas, improve the design of women’s-only services, educate drivers and conductors on sexual harassment, and improve public safety.
Promoting increased usage of sustainable modes of transportation would require a two-pronged approach. On one hand, there is a dire need to increase acceptability of women’s usage of traditionally unconventional modes of transportation, such as walking and cycling, by removing social stigmas and making public spaces harassment-free. On the other, efforts should be made to upgrade the overall transportation planning and infrastructure to make it more safe and women-friendly.
In a bid to enable Pakistani women to become more mobile, the Government of Pakistan, with the help of Japan, has introduced ‘Pink Bus Service’ in Lahore, Karachi, Mardan and Abottabad. The buses have been painted with pink cherry blossoms, or Sakura, which is the symbol of spring or the start of a new fiscal year in Japan..
Pink Bus Service aims to provide safe and comfortable transport facilities for women.. It also promises to create employment opportunities for women who are able and willing to work in the transport industry..
Punjab’s Transport Minister Jahanzeb Khan acknowledges that social development and progress of a nation can only reap success if women are allowed unrestricted access to all opportunities. He says providing such facilities to women is important to ensure social development as they constitute more than half of the total population.
Safe and reliable public transport relates intrinsically to whether women can work outside the home and that has a direct impact on the economic growth. Pink Bus Service will help overcome barriers to women’s mobility, which will result in closing the gender gap in Pakistan.
Urban areas should have protected pedestrian walkways, designated cycle/scooter lanes and safe crossover pathways. In addition, public transport network should be expanded to make it accessible within walkable distances for city dwellers. The ergonomics of public transport vehicles should be designed to ensure that the personal space of female commuters is respected not only by other passengers but also by the staff, such as drivers and conductors. Moreover, the staff should be sensitized to maintain a respectful attitude towards girls and women who ride their vehicles alone. A special section on how to interact with female commuters and people with special needs could be made a part of the driving test where applicants are required to demonstrate how to ensure that commuters feel safe with them during the journey. The city authorities should also have adequate redressal mechanism for incidents including harassment on public transport and stops. Technological innovations, such as mobile applications could be launched, which allows the victims to instantly report such incidents along with their live location, and provide evidence in the shape of recordings, pictures, videos, etc. Other e-solutions, such as female exclusive car sharing or pooling services with female drivers, could be launched with the help of Public-Private Partnerships (PPP) to facilitate women especially those who do not have an access to private vehicles or safe public transport. A safe and secure public transport alone is not enough. Women need to feel and be safe in all public spaces, thus building proper sidewalks, improving street lighting, and providing police surveillance close to public transport routes and stops is imperative.
As the world works toward integrating women in mainstream social, economic and political spheres, Pakistan can no longer afford to delay formulation of policies and provision of facilities that proactively make public spheres more gender-inclusive and safe for all citizens. Since mobility is a key factor in facilitating women outside of their home, a concerted effort is required reimagine and redesign urban mobility for inclusive urban development, which also maintains an ecological balance of urban areas and thus helps Pakistan in achieving its overall development goals. HH
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