LONDON - Safety is the biggest concern for women using public and private transport in five of the world's biggest commuter cities, according to a global poll released Thursday as improving city access for women becomes a major focus globally.
A Thomson Reuters Foundation survey of 1,000 women in London, New York, Mexico City, Tokyo and Cairo found 52 percent of respondents overall cited safety as their main worry, with women in Mexico City the most fearful about safety.
Almost three in every four women in Mexico City lacked confidence they could travel without facing sexual harassment and abuse or sexual violence, with Cairo coming a close second.
The ratio was one in four women in the other three cities.
The time it took to travel around the city — with studies showing women often take more complex routes with more stops than men because of household and child care duties — was named as the second-biggest concern, cited by 33 percent of women.
Time was the biggest worry for women in New York, with two-thirds saying it influenced their decision to take or stay in a job, while the cost of transport concerned women in London most, with nearly three in four women saying it was expensive.
The poll came as city authorities have been looking at ways to ensure women have safe, efficient transport to reach jobs, education and health care. The cities are seeking to tackle inequality and poverty and boost their economies by getting more women into the workforce.
The poll also came amid growing concern in the #MeToo climate that transport networks are magnets for sexual predators who use rush-hour crushes to hide behavior and as an excuse if caught.
"It is very rare to find a group of women in any city who don't have concerns about safety, and it is important for planners to think about that when designing a transport system," said Jemilah Magnusson, spokeswoman for the U.S.-based Institute for Transportation and Development Policy.
"Most transport systems focus on the solo male commuter traveling at peak hours from home and work, but women have different trip patterns. … Women must be involved in planning transit to meet their needs."
Laws and smartphones
The survey, conducted Aug. 13-24 and supported by Uber, asked 200 women in each of five of the world's largest commuter cities with underground train networks in different cultural regions about safety, time spent traveling and cost, among other issues.
A recent International Labor Organization study said limited access to and safety of transport were estimated to be the greatest obstacles to women's role in the labor force in developing countries, reducing probable participation by 16.5 percent.
Transport authorities and experts said moves to improve transport for women had become a major issue in recent years because of safety concerns and congestion.
World Bank reports have stressed that improving transport can have immediate positive results on women's lives, be it through adding safety laws, including women in planning, or offering alternative transport, such as ride-hailing apps or bikes.
The World Bank introduced gender as an issue for the first time this year at an annual conference on transforming transportation.
Magnusson said including the issue of women and transport exploded into a major issue after the 2012 fatal gang-rape of a student on a bus in Delhi shocked the world.
"This was one story that brought out lots of other horror stories from women and really galvanized people," said Magnusson, whose group promotes environmental and livable transport.
This has led to a surge in women-only train carriages and taxi services, but just 47 percent of the women in the poll said this would improve women’s safety.
Maria Jose Bermudez, 45, a cook who commutes three hours a day using public transport in Mexico City, said more needs to be done instead to educate men about women's rights generally.
"Women-only carriages don't really solve the problem because the issue has to do with Mexico's culture and how men treat women," Bermudez told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
Coping with congestion
Steve Swasey, spokesman for public transit app Moovit, said smartphones had triggered a "revolution" in mass transit with the emergence of ride-hailing apps and apps to use transport more efficiently by cutting wait times and avoiding bottlenecks.
The Inter-American Development Bank found the higher the compliance with a transport schedule or the less congested, the lower the probability that a woman will be a crime victim.
The Thomson Reuters Foundation poll found that 56 percent of women globally said ride-hailing apps had improved their ability to get around their cities. More than half of women in every city but Tokyo said these new forms of transport were helpful.
"City roads are at full capacity, and there is not one major city where congestion is not a major concern," Swasey said. "You can't easily or quickly put more lanes on a bridge or rails in a tunnel ... but you can use data to regulate the influx of traffic and change the way people use transport."
Magnusson said most cities were aware they should make transport more efficient and faster — but this could be a very politically unpopular move as it means cutting back on cars.
"Taking lanes from cars to make bus lanes and bike lanes, and introducing new parking and restriction schemes, can stop cars going into cities and help speed up transport," she said.
"It is not about just one thing, but it is about creating a transport system that is fair and allows women to fully participate in society, but that in itself can be very threatening to many people."