Latin American transport networks are the most dangerous for women; New York's is the safest

A woman rides a crowded bus in Bogota, Columbia. Image: Getty.

Public transport networks can be wonderful things. In many cities, they’re the quickest and cheapest way to get around; most networks now operate, in some capacity, at least, around the clock. In some cities, though, they unfortunately come with a downside.

Yesterday, the Thomson Reuters Foundation released a poll of 6,000 women in the 15 largest capital cities (plus New York, as the largest US city) about their perceptions of safety on public transport. The survey found that many networks were not considered safe for women, especially at night.

The poll took the form of a series of questions and “to what extent do you agree…” statements, covering topics such as verbal and physical harassment, night travel, travelling alone, assistance from other travellers, and the response of the authorities. Researchers then used the data, along with information taken from interviews with gender and city planning experts, to rank the cities.

Counterintuitively, a higher ranking means a more dangerous transit network. The top three cities are all in Latin America; around six in 10 women polled in these cities had been physically harassed.

Worst of the lot is Bogota, where 82 per cent of respondents agreed that safe public transport is not available anywhere in the city. Beatriz Rodriguez, a Bogota resident, told researchers that public transport in the city is a "nightmare" for women.

Martha Sanchez, the women's rights secretary in the city’s mayor's office, said harassment is not regarded as sexual abuse in Columbia – and onlookers are unlikely to intervene. Another contributing factor may be that the city has no train network: the average commuter waits 40 minutes to board the city’s overcrowded buses.  

In Lima, which ranked third, the situation's not much better. In June, authorities introduced undercover police officers on public transport after a semi-famous local actress caught a man masturbating behind her on a bus. At the time, a minister helpfully recommended that women should carry scissors or other sharp objects to protect themselves from harassers (a brilliant safety policy if ever we’ve heard one).

London’s public transport was rated the fourth safest, but the city’s polling data still doesn’t make for cheerful reading: only 51 per cent agreed that the city’s transit networks are safe.

Here’s a comparison with Bogotan women's responses: 

London is worse than Bogota on only one metric: bystander assistance. It seems women in London have little faith that grumpy fellow passengers will come to their aid.

Studies, such as this one from the OECD, have repeatedly found that a lack of safe travel options affects women's ability to work and study – and their enthusiasm to do either. In these large cities, public transport is pretty much the only way to get around. If women feel unsafe on public transport, it’s unlikely they’d feel terribly secure while walking or cycling, either. 

One solution gaining in momentum is women-only train carriages or buses, which are already in use in Japan, Brazil and Indonesia (they've been raised as a possibility for London, too). Somewhat depressingly, around 70 per cent of the poll’s respondents said they'd feel safer using single-sex transport. Perhaps unsurprisingly, only 35 per cent of women from New York – rated the safest city – were keen on the idea.

A woman-only train carriage in Japan.

Julie Babinard, a senior transport specialist at the World Bank, told the researchers that while single-sex carriages might help reduce the number of incidents, they wouldn't be a long-term fix:

The emerging interest....[in] women-only initiatives should be seen as an opportunity for improving security in cities but not as a silver bullet for dealing with gender-based violence.

Other solutions could include more transport police, more transport options (to reduce crowding) and better lighting in stations. Many cities could do with better reporting systems, too: even in New York, more than a third of respondents didn’t feel confident that authorities would investigate a reported incident. In London, it was more than half.


Segregated playgrounds are just the start: inequality is built into the fabric of our cities

Yet more luxury flats. Image: Getty.

Developers in London have come under scrutiny for segregating people who live in social or affordable housing from residents who pay market rates. Prominent cases have included children from social housing being blocked from using a playground in a new development, and “poor doors” providing separate entrances for social housing residents.

Of course, segregation has long been a reality in cities around the world. For example, gated communities have been documented in the US cities since the 1970s, while racially segregated urban areas existed in South Africa under apartheid. Research by myself and other academics has shown that urban spaces which divide and exclude society’s poorer or more vulnerable citizens are still expanding rapidly, even replacing public provision of facilities and services – such as parks and playgrounds – in cities around the world.

Gated developments in Gurgaon, India, have created a patchwork of privatised services; elite developments in Hanoi, Vietnam, offer rich residents cleaner air; and luxury condos in Toronto, Canada, displace local residents in favour of foreign investors. An extreme example is the Eko Atlantic project in Nigeria – a private city being built in Lagos, where the majority of other residents face extreme levels of deprivation and poverty.

A commodity, or a right?

Although these developments come with their own unique context and characteristics, they all have one thing in common: they effectively segregate city dwellers. By providing the sorts of facilities and services which would normally be run by public authorities, but reserving them exclusively for certain residents, such developments threaten the wider public’s access to green spaces, decent housing, playgrounds and even safe sewage systems.

Access to basic services, which was once considered to be the right of all citizens, is at risk of becoming a commodity. Privatisation may start with minor services such as the landscaping or upkeep of neighbourhoods: for example, the maintenance of some new-build estates in the UK are being left to developers in return for a service charge. This might seem insignificant, but it introduces an unregulated cost for the residents.

Privatising the provision of municipal services may be seen by some as a way for wealthier residents to enjoy a better standard of living – as in Hanoi. But in the worst cases, it puts in a paywall in front of fundamental services such as sewage disposal – as happened in Gurgaon. In other words, privatisation may start with insignificant services and expand to more fundamental ones, creating greater segregation and inequality in cities.

A divided city

My own research on branded housing projects in Turkey has highlighted the drastic consequences of the gradual expansion of exclusive services and facilities through segregated developments. These private housing developments – known for their extensive use of branding – have sprung up in Istanbul and other Turkish cities over the past two decades, since the government began to favour a more neoliberal approach.

By 2014, there were more than 800 branded housing projects in Istanbul alone. They vary in scale from a single high-rise building to developments aiming to accommodate more than 20,000 residents. Today, this development type can be seen in every city in Turkey, from small towns to the largest metropolitan areas.

The branded housing projects are segregated by design, often featuring a single tower or an enclosing cluster of buildings, as well as walls and fences. They provide an extensive array of services and facilities exclusively for their residents, including parks, playgrounds, sports pitches, health clinics and landscaping.

Making the same services and facilities available within each project effectively prevents interaction between residents and people living outside of their development. What’s more, these projects often exist in neighbourhoods which lack publicly accessible open spaces such as parks and playgrounds.

This is a city-wide problem in Istanbul since the amount of publicly accessible green spaces in Istanbul is as low as 2.2 per cent of the total urban area. In London, 33 per cent of the city’s area is made up of parks and gardens open to the public – which shows the severity of the problem in Istanbul.

These branded housing projects do not feature any affordable units or social housing, so there are no opportunities for less privileged city-dwellers to enjoy vital facilities such as green spaces. This has knock-on effects on excluded residents’ mental and physical health, contributing to greater inequality in these respects, too.

Emerging alternatives

To prevent increasing inequality, exclusion and segregation in cities, fundamental urban services must be maintained or improved and kept in public ownership and made accessible for every city-dweller. There are emerging alternatives that show ways to do this and challenge privatisation policies.

For example, in some cities, local governments have “remunicipalised” key services, bringing them back into public ownership. A report by Dutch think-tank the Transnational Institute identified 235 cases where water supplies were remunicipalised across 37 countries between 2000 and 2015. The water remunicipalisation tracker keeps track of successful examples of remunicipalisation cases around the world, as well as ongoing campaigns.

It is vitally important to keep urban services public and reverse subtle forms or privatisation by focusing on delivering a decent standard of living for all residents. Local authorities need to be committed to this goal – but they must also receive adequate funds from local taxes and central governments. Only then, will quality services be available to all people living in cities.

The Conversation

Bilge Serin, Research Associate, University of Glasgow.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.