The Delhi government announced plans to make metro and bus trips free for women in the city "to encourage them to use public transport”. It is estimated that 30% of commuters are women. Whilst this announcement has been met with mixed reactions - positive and negative, I think this is a welcome move for many reasons.
- More women in public spaces and using public transport improves the perception of safety. Hopefully this initiative will incentivise more women to use public transport more often. Seeing women out at all times of day and night is essential in giving a sense of comfort to other women and reduces the risk they will be unsafe. Sexual harassment is a universal problem and the rampant experiences in India have put the country on the list of most dangerous countries for women. On a daily basis women and girls experience a range of violations - staring, commenting, stalking, groping, sexual assault and even rape. Most women adjust their behaviours to avoid it. They make themselves invisible, change their route, refrain from staying out late, take private transport and basically avoid the issue. The current solutions of segregated transport in trains, metros and fixed seats in buses don’t address the problem of safety and sexual harassment and don’t make men accountable in making spaces safer. With this initiative, the situation might change as there may soon be more women allies present who will be available to come to one’s aid.
- It creates accountability of institutions regarding women’s safety. A Brown University study has calculated that women and girls in Delhi spend about USD 290 a year extra on safe transport options. This is a matter of privilege where a woman can afford to spend more on her safety. Opening up public transport to all women will give them choices. Also, when more women commuters demand for better services, the transport service providers will have to ensure their safety.
- It can enable more women to join the workforce. Currently, despite India having the most number of women graduates ever, their numbers in the formal labour force are at the lowest ever - 26%. This is way below other countries in the same economic potential as India. A 2018 McKinsey report states that if true gender equality was to be achieved (read: women taking up employment), India can add 770 billion USD to its gross domestic product. One of the reasons why women are dropping out of the workforce is fear over their safety. In my opinion, it is easy under the guise of “safety” for families to prevent a woman from taking up a job or career.
- More women are taking up informal employment and could use the benefit. These women often are at a disadvantage as they lose out on benefits that employees in formal labour might get from their employers, like transport allowances, insurance, health benefits, etc. This initiative will actually address the inequality that exists when it comes to transit benefits and provide women in the informal market a respite in earning capability and disposable income.
- Women take more trips than men due to the nature of their work. Women constantly juggle work at home and at the workplace. They multitask as they go about their day - dropping off kids, picking up groceries, running errands and going to work. The 2018 McKinsey study further indicates that Indian women do 5.5 hours more of family work each day compared with their male spouses. Having free transport to juggle their multitude of tasks would mean one less thing for them to worry about.
To be sure, some have argued that this initiative disadvantages under-privileged men who do not get the same benefit. I believe that this issue has to be looked at separately and in no way is harmful to men.
In fact, many cities around the world especially in Europe are considering making public transport free for all to reduce pollution or incentivise people to give up private transport. Paris is one of them whilst Tallinn, Estonia which made public transport free for all claims it actually turned a profit as a city. The #fairshot initiative in Washington DC has Circulator buses which are free to all and it has made a great difference in people’s savings.
If this experiment works, then the Delhi government might evaluate extending it to other vulnerable groups, if not to all.
For now, I believe that this initiative if done right will benefit women in the spirit of the intention of this initiative.