Planning Sustainable Public Transport Using an Intersectional Lens

By Kate O'Brien, Senior Writer for Meeting of the Minds

Kate O'Brien is a consultant and writer for Meeting of the Minds. A collaborative consultant focused on facilitation, coaching, and capacity building, Kate supports an array of change agents and their transformative work in communities across the United States.

This month Meeting of the Minds’ Senior Writer Kate O’Brien sat down for a conversation with Heather Allen, an international expert on sustainable transport and gender.

Early on in her career, Heather worked for the Secretariat of UITP (International Association of Public Transport), the professional and representative convener of public transport stakeholders, including operators, the industry (such as train, tram, and bus manufacturers and other suppliers) and authorities. She then worked for one of UK’s centers of research excellence in transport, the Transport Research Laboratory (TRL), and is now working as an independent researcher and advisor.

How did you come to focus on women’s transport experience, specifically?

As a woman working in transport, I have experienced my share of challenges in terms of being at the decision-making table, getting my points heard and bringing forward multiple perspectives on urban transport beyond the typical ‘white middle-aged male’ perspective! While I was at UITP, I visited many countries and experienced first-hand how public transport is planned and organized. There, I helped develop a voluntary charter for UITP members to commit to bringing sustainability thinking and reporting into their daily business approaches and practices. I noticed in this work that there was more focus on the economic and environmental aspects of sustainability, and this kicked off my interest in the gender space.

It was clear at that time that most transit systems were designed using information and data that rarely included a female-specific perspective. There are fairly robust ways to set baselines to cover the environmental and economic aspects, but social indicators that gauge benefits to women are still ancient. Helping to figure out how to set baselines and indicators has become a core focus of my work.

I work to ensure that a more diverse point of view, especially the gender-specific, informs the planning, design, operations, and user experience of transport systems. Safe and reliable access to public transport is a key driver of so many issues we face as a society. Cities cannot aspire to being inclusive unless more attention is given to this aspect of sustainable transport.

How did the Safe and Sound project come about, and did you expect the report to gain traction with policy-makers and decision-makers?

This report was one of the first times, to my knowledge, where published and “gray” research from various sources was brought together around women’s challenges to using transport, and their related personal security issues. Of course, studies had been done, and they had shown very clearly that women suffer sexual harassment and assault while using transport.

But, disappointingly, the commentary about those studies focused on this being a local issue rather than something that the majority of women pretty much everywhere were facing when traveling every day. By collecting information from around the world we were able to show with this report, that sexual harassment is not only found on public transit in the developing world, but  it’s also happening in the developed world— in London, Milan, Paris, and New York. This was and is quite a surprise to many transport authorities and planners everywhere.

Is it correct to say that the transport profession has historically been comprised of males in leadership and decision making roles?

Exactly right. The Safe and Sound work in South Africa initiated this conversation, and inspired people’s thinking. It opened the eyes of policymakers and operators about the fact that women’s experiences using public transport was different from that of men. We were able to frame these issues as being interconnected. It’s not only happening in one city or another, but rather, pretty much everywhere. The leaders we were engaging began to realize that there was no single strategy or solution to the problem.

Your initial research was piloted in South Africa; how did you take this forward?

Quite simply, we wanted to identify some of the key drivers that enable harassment on public transport. In South Africa, we developed a methodology that would allow us to find answers  to three big questions:

  1. How does that harassment affect women’s transport experience as a whole?
  2. How does that experience shape women’s travel behavior?
  3. How can we design transport systems to account for this dynamic?

Following on the success of Safe and Sound, which was funded by the FIA Foundation, the Development Bank of Latin America (CAF) co-funded us to do a set of comparable studies entitled Ella Se Mueve Segura (She Moves Safely) in South America. We worked with local research teams specifically in the cities of Santiago, Chile; Quito, Ecuador; and Buenos Aires, Argentina. Our three teams developed a methodology for the Latin American context that was based on the Safe and Sound work we’d done in South Africa. The questions were the similar in each city, the data was collected and analyzed in the same way, and we also held an international seminar in each city to exchange knowledge between the cities. It was the first time we were able to show that challenges to women’s safety and security on public transport are not due to local context; that the issue goes far deeper than that.

I loved reading the Safe and Sound report. I felt like, “finally—women’s perspective informing policy!” But it left me wondering how women are going to enter transport leadership and decision-making roles.

Yes, it’s true, transport remains very male dominated and we need more women to join the sector. Very few ministers of transport are women. Even fewer heads of municipal departments responsible for transport, and very few industry transport heads are female. This isn’t simply a feminist issue. Making transport better for women will make it better for everybody.

What was great about the Latin American study is that we were developing a more comprehensive approach to the research, the messaging, and a framework that looked at this complex combination of factors and put forward a number of solutions that were worked out with the cities and the research teams. Transfer of knowledge was essential in taking the research forward. Along with conducting valid research, one of the key objectives was to create a backbone of strong research organizations that would last after I was gone.

The inter-city exchange seems to really have helped to connect the cities and allowed them to share both experiences and solutions.

We found that sharing depersonalized the problem. Each participant could see that they all shared the same challenge, and that they didn’t need to be defensive. No one was forcing them to own up to a “failure” specific to their city. In addition, it was quite shocking for them to discover that women report harassment less often than it actually happens, and this hides some important aspects of security that needed attention. This included problems with effectiveness of the reporting processes in place, and women’s lack of trust in the authorities to take appropriate action on a reported incident. All this was counterintuitive to planners who rely on numbers to guide their decisions.

Women face being harassed on a daily basis in the majority of cities. Being able to compare results in a scientific way helped put everyone on the same footing, and promoted an honest exchange of knowledge and strategies. This, in turn, allowed cities to co-create solutions, while gaining support from one another. These support structures and the new capacity embedded in the cities are some of the greatest outcomes, and a legacy of this research. It’s how we knew we were starting to make progress.

Tell me more about the results you saw, and where you saw them.

I have been really encouraged by the cities’ response, and we‘ve seen pretty deep policy change happen, especially in Buenos Aires. The city governor has really embraced these issues that previously had been completely invisible to him. Just a few of the policy changes that resulted in Buenos Aires:

  • Decision-making started to include gender considerations and gender budgeting
  • Indicators were developed, not only for transport, but for all other aspects within the municipality, including public health, public safety, roadway design, etc.
  • Local and international seminars were organized to increase capacity locally
  • Investment in CCTV on all city buses in Buenos Aires
  • Changes in the legal framework to define sexual harassment as a criminal offense

We also came to see culture shifts within city administration. There was a collective realization that “we need to change how we are doing things—our internal decision-making processes, our messaging, as well as how we react to this.” The leadership recognized the need to build capacity among people within the municipality so they could make decisions differently no matter what their position or station.

I can’t say we were 100% responsible for these policy changes. Our research happened to be very timely, and it helped accelerate changes at a time and in places when and where the ball was already rolling. Our research in South America concluded in 2018, and many changes were underway within eighteen months. Each city has taken on this issue in different ways and we have seen a number of measures that probably wouldn’t have been undertaken without the study.

What I’ve been hearing you say is that there’s a need to broaden the “gender + transport” conversation by adding a variety of “third lenses.”

Absolutely. Both transport and gender intersect with other aspects of sustainable development and equity beyond those directly associated with transport:

Gender, transport, and…

Poverty Alleviation
  • The links between poverty and education are clear. It is difficult to rise out of poverty without education, and women are usually the poorest of the poor. Safe and affordable transport must be being available to girls and young women for them be able to benefit from education opportunities. If there isn’t an accessible system, girls typically only complete primary school (because it’s near to home), and rarely complete secondary school or university. Thus, investing in transport for women can be an important pathway out of poverty.
Intergenerational Health
  • There are numerous impacts and factors involved in the process of getting women to hospital at the time of childbirth. Once a woman has multiple children, the potential for degeneration of family health rises with poor transport access. Women still fulfill the majority of care-related roles in raising children, and looking after elderly parents and other family members. If they are not able to access health facilities easily and safely, health factors may accumulate into crisis which could have been avoided by preventive care. It’s critical to look at both the immediate and cumulative health impacts of limited access to doctors, medicines, and the costs to society associated with that limited access.
Urban Freight
  • Women more often hold informal and part-time vocational positions, as these allow them more flexible work hours to accommodate family duties, especially in the developing world. Many of them are market or street traders, or they work from home, especially in the developing world. The transport of micro freight is often overlooked in transport planning and this presents transport issues and related challenges of extortion and insecurity. Transport of small volume cargo is not factored into the system, and yet has to somehow be accommodated within the passenger options. These positions are not protected by law, making them precarious. Much more attention must be paid to the variety of working roles women have, and how transport influences those activities and livelihoods, and vice versa.

There’s much more I haven’t even mentioned here, but the single most important area that we need to improve on is the collection of disaggregated data, by gender and by time. Just with these two parameters alone, we could understand a lot more about how women (rather than men) travel, and what is needed from transport to better satisfy their specific needs. 

It’s historically been difficult to secure research projects with a collaborative approach. I like to do very practical research in the field, and I have seen the results when different disciplines are integrated into studies. This was the case with Ella Se Mueve Segura, where we had sociologists, anthropologists, urban planners, and other experts on the research teams. Much of today’s gender research in transport focuses on the problems rather than solutions, and it’s quite difficult to find robust evaluations of successful measures.

We need to be able to provide guidance for cities to make changes to the present transport paradigm without the issue being reduced with a “feminist” moniker. For that to happen, we need to lift up the core societal values of equity based on the value of diversity, and somehow bring this sensibility into the transport equation. Regardless of how that will happen, enlightened leadership by men and women is required for the task at hand.


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1 Comment

  1. Kate,

    My coauthor (Professor Giannopoulos) and I have published a major book on the accelerating transport innovation revolution. It combines a theoretical perspective based on ecosystem principles and a policy learning model (Sabatier,1993) with case studies from around the world (Israel, Europe, Silicon Valley, China, Denver, etc.).

    The book was recently published by Elsevier Press in May 2019. Not only does it identify the enablers, tipping points,and constraints to innovation, it provides a seminal understanding of the changing nature of innovation which requires integrated eco-systems to facilitate accelerated innovation development and deployment. The book has significant implications for the nature of industrial and economic development in the context of the green revolution.

    I am interested in speaking before your group…I am confident that your audience will find my findings, hypotheses, and strategies for sustained innovation very interesting. I would only ask that you provide partial support for travel to your next meeting. I am semi-retired and I do not have extraordinary resources to subsidize my travels, especially given the fact that I am helping my daughter pay off the expenses of attending NYU.

    By the way, this is not my first “rodeo.” I was commissioned (along Angel Aparico, professor, Spain) by the Transportation Research Board and the European Union to write a White Paper on Transportation Research Implementation in the European Union and the United States. We presented the paper at the Second EU-US Transportation Research Symposium April 10-11, 2014, in Paris, France. The Symposium Proceedings (Conference Proceedings 51) were subsequently published by the Transportation Research Board in 2015.

    If you are interested, I can send to a copy of the book. Please send me your address. Thank you. John F. Munro, PhD…410-964-2345


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