Cost-benefit decisions on new transportation infrastructure that are gender-blind create a cost for women and the societies they live in, says an analyst with the International Institute for Sustainable Development (IISD).
“Transport allows people to juggle busy lives, allowing them to move safely and efficiently from their homes to places of education, care, work, retail, health care, and community,” writes IISD policy analyst Ronja Bechauf in a recent blog post. “Consequently, transport use is gendered: all genders use and experience transportation differently, owing to gender roles, biases, and discrimination, as well as cultural contexts.”
That means improved transport systems “are key for advancing gender equality,” she adds. But the cost-benefit analyses used to guide decisions about transport infrastructure are typically “gender-blind,” a myopia that leads to personal, social, and economic losses, especially for women.
Women use transportation differently than men, says Bechauf, citing abundant evidence that a combination of care-work and household chores in many cultures finds women engaging in more complex mobility patterns, with less access to the time, money, and vehicles that facilitate travel. Women are further constrained in their movements, especially after nightfall or in isolated places, by the threat of gender-based violence.
Bechauf shares the example of the 15-year non-motorized transport (NMT) plan developed by Coimbatore, the second-largest city in Tamil Nadu, India, with a population of 1.6 million. Designed to tackle traffic congestion, long commutes, public safety concerns, and air pollution, the plan “includes 300 kilometres of walking and cycling routes across the city and aims to benefit one million people, especially women, the elderly, and low-income communities.”
IISD’s analysis of the NMT plan’s economic, social, and environmental outcomes declares it a clear winner, with each dollar invested generating around US$4.75 for society. But like most initiatives of its kind, it does not “disaggregate the added benefits and avoided costs by gender,” Bechauf explains. And those would be considerable, starting with what reduced congestion could do for time-strapped and ill-paid women in Coimbatore.
“In Indian cities, women comprise only 18.5% of the formal labour force and spend about 10 times more time on unpaid domestic work than men,” writes Bechauf. “They often juggle multiple roles and responsibilities, leaving little time to pursue education, paid work, or personal development.” Improved walking and cycling infrastructure reduces congestion from motorized vehicles and lowers the time spent on transportation, “helping address time poverty, and in turn enabling women to take up paid work and increase their income.”
Such changes “contribute to gender equality and women’s economic empowerment, while boosting GDP and unlocking additional funds for NMT investments,” she adds.
The boost to local economies that walking and cycling brings can further improves the fortunes of women. Fostering mixed-use neighbourhoods that contain everything women need to address their own needs and those of their families would free up even more time to pursue paid work or education.
But for the women of Coimbatore to truly benefit from NMT, municipal leaders will need to address the pervasive problem of gender-based violence. Citing a 2021 study by the Observer Research Foundation, Bechauf writes that some 56% of women in India report being sexually harassed while using public transit.
Gender-sensitive design and safety policies may help women use NMT infrastructure safe from such harassment. But systemic action will also be needed “to change restrictive cultural norms, and to ensure women’s fundamental human right of accessing public spaces.”
IISD found that avoided collisions “are the largest benefit from investing in Coimbatore’s NMT network, saving costs of US$368 million over the project timeline,” Bechauf says. Here, again, gender-disaggregated data matters, as men and women are affected differently by these incidents. “Men in India are about six times more likely [pdf] to be killed or injured in road accidents, while women disproportionately bear the burden after accidents that affect family members, often taking up extra work and care for the injured.”
IISD points policy-makers to a free tool from the Global Infrastructure Hub that helps planners conduct cost-benefit analyses of bus transport projects that specifically factor in gender impacts.