Planning Sustainable Urban Mobility From the Feminist Urbanism Approach

It is a common sight to walk out of a metro station in Bengaluru and come across swaths of ‘smart’ bikes and cycles for the convenience of last and first-mile connectivity. However, these cycles are accessible only through a mobile application and little suited to the automobile-choked main roads or the badly lit, poorly maintained, pothole ridden lanes and by-lanes of the city. This system ensures access to a cycle based on ownership of a smartphone, that is already inaccessible to vast segments of the city population, especially girls and women from caste and class disadvantaged backgrounds. If the presence of cycles is not accompanied by well-thought out policies that are sensitive to gendered dimensions of bicycle use such as road safety, street harassment and attire worn by majority of women, then such facilities are rendered not only ineffective for large segments of the city but also become discriminatory in nature.

Urban mobility affects every facet of urban life including safety, access to opportunity and independence. Unfortunately, urban planning and mobility planning have largely been gender blind with limited understanding of the interrelationships between gender, socio-economic inequities and violence. If safety determines access to the city for half the urban population, then any urban mobility policy that doesn’t integrate safety in its formulation will be a failure.

Sustainable urban mobility policies, that focus on the promotion of Non-Motorised Transport(NMT) infrastructure, such as provision for pedestrians and cyclists and emphasis on low-cost public transport, particularly bus transport, need to critically integrate a feminist perspective. This is essential to ensure the NMT policies are equitable, inclusive and successfully executed. In a 2015 report on promoting low carbon transport, a gender sensitive transport planning was advocated to achieve the goals of sustainable mobility. Research indicates that women in the city rely on walking at higher rates compared to men. In addition to walking, women also tend to be highly dependent on public transport. Even if a household’s income increases, it was found that the men switched to using private vehicles, while women continued to use public or paratransit modes of transport. This indicates that women are already the dominant users of non-motorised transport forms such as walking and highly reliant on public transport systems, especially bus services. This requires sustainable mobility policies that integrate planning with safety, convenience and comfort for women and girls.

The problems with planning sustainable urban mobility which focuses on NMT is multi-fold. Firstly, transport planning seems to be dispersed among different, siloed agencies without integration with the larger urban planning processes in the city. Secondly, within urban transport planning itself, NMT planning has been largely ignored or paid mere lip-service to. Thirdly, there seems to be an utter and complete lack of a feminist perspective in thinking about mobility design and planning that is inclusive of girls, women and gender minorities.  

(Disclaimer: Women here refers to cis-women, transwomen and feminine-presenting people affected by misogyny)

Why do we need a feminist approach to planning sustainable urban mobility?

Gender mediates the access to the city – women experience the city very differently from men, compounded by other facets of identity such as age, disability, class, caste, religion, sexuality among others. Much like space, mobility is an embodied experience too – it involves a dynamic interaction between physical bodies and material spaces over the course of time, each of us changing the roles we occupy as we move. Therefore, when planning for sustainable urban mobility, one must plan for a people-centric, multi-modal transport in an integrated manner, centring the needs of women and girls in their everyday lives.

Feminists have long noted the way in which patriarchal gender roles result in women being disproportionately burdened with the unpaid domestic activities and care work, even if they are engaged in paid labour outside the home. The social roles of a person significantly influence the differences in trip purpose, trip distance, transport mode and other aspects of travel behaviour, time of travel and differences in destinations. In India, women’s use of public space is marked by complex trip-chaining, a series of short trips linked together between main or primary destinations, Eg. A trip where a woman leaves home, stops to drop a child at the day care centre, stops for grocery shopping and then heads to her workplace or returns home.

In this context, understanding the use of urban space and activities undertaken will depend on everyday life experiences of city dwellers and it becomes important to examine how these spaces respond to the everyday needs of people, especially girls and women. This is why Feminist Urban Planning, an approach that considers the needs of different societal groups in urban development is critical to use.

Affinities between Sustainable Urban Development and Feminist Urbanism

Sustainable urban development policies to arrest urban sprawl advocate adopting a ‘compact city’ model or the 15-minute city as an environmentally conscious alternative. This model is also advocated by feminist urban planners who recommend compact, mixed use and diverse neighbourhoods that allow women to find affordable housing, undertake paid work and find accessible childcare within the same vicinity. By adopting a feminist urbanism approach to planning sustainable cities, we can not only ensure that cities are built and designed to be environmentally conscious but also gender-inclusive and promote participatory planning approaches.

Planning Mobility – A Feminist Approach

Drawing on his work in Bengaluru, Govind Gopakumar describes the phenomenon of an automobility being installed in the city which caters to the mobility needs of the privileged elites, while simultaneously marginalising the mobility needs of the rest. In the process, it encodes mobility needs of the dominant urban, male, and elite segments in mobility regimes, at the expense of the diverse experience of different people navigating the city. This has significant implications on the mobility avenues of girls, women, and gender minorities resulting in their exclusion in the city.

A feminist approach to mobility infrastructure focuses on provision of non-motorised transport (NMT) such as pedestrian and cycling infrastructure, and promotion of free or low-cost public transport, particularly quality bus transport, with adequate frequency, connectivity and well-maintained and designed bus stands. An excellent example of such a policy is the initiative of the Government of New Delhi to make all public transport free for women and girls on request. This encourages the use of public transport by women and girls, which makes these spaces safer and accessible for them, enabling them to be independent. In the same vein, it also promotes the use of low-carbon public transport over private vehicular use.

(Sneha Visakha is a Research Fellow at Vidhi, Karnataka working on Urban Development and Municipal Governance. She is interested in feminist urbanism, local governance and socio-legal research. She hosts a podcast series on cities called the Feminist City.)