Gender in the balance: the win-win of designing innovations for all

This UN International Day of Women and Girls in Science, Magdalena Olczak-Rancitelli encourages us to seize the opportunity for more inclusive transport policies in the wake of the Covid pandemic

Increasing numbers of people cycling and walking has been one of the few pieces of good news to come out of the Covid crisis. But what if you live in a society where girls are not even allowed to learn to ride a bike? What if you’re afraid to walk to home from work at night? The pandemic has revealed many long-standing problems and highlighted many urgent issues for women and girls as transport users, and as employees in the transport sector. But there is hope: these issues can be addressed using the many tools at our disposal, from technological innovations to better government policy.

If we want to change behaviours, attitudes and capacities, the best place to start is by listening to the experiences and proposals of those most directly concerned. The third edition of the ITF Compendium on Transport Innovation for Sustainable Development: A Gender Perspective does just that. The publication presents a wealth of ideas from women on how to make transport more inclusive and sustainable.

The wide-ranging contributions share a common starting point: transport is not gender neutral. Women prefer flexible modes that facilitate trip chaining more than men, for example. And since women do most of the unpaid care work that many families depend on, they travel more with children and other dependents – the “mobility of care”. Anyone who has struggled to get small children and related paraphernalia up public transport stairs or onto a bus will be painfully aware that these needs are usually not accommodated in the design of transport infrastructure, services or vehicles.

Women also feel less safe and secure in public spaces, which deters them from choosing public transport, taxis, shared mobility, or from cycling and walking. Ultimately, this limits women’s and girls’ access to schools, jobs, health and other public services. The digital gender gap further hampers women’s access to online mobility services.

Even if the observational evidence is there for all to see, well-designed policies reply on good data. Gendered analysis helps assess whether specific gender needs are met properly and what the impact of innovation could be on mobility. Understanding what women want from cities, and how this translates into a vision for urban transport, should be at the heart of urban public policy. This, however, will require much finer and more differentiated knowledge of travel behaviour and users’ needs than has been the case until now. New data sources can help develop that knowledge base, but it is important to avoid biases that have become ingrained in past transport policy making. Public-private co-operation to collect, share and process gendered data is a solution, not least as a way to benefit from the wealth of mobility data created during the Covid 19 pandemic through track and trace apps.

Technology and planning alone will not suffice to improve our transport systems. Access to and affordability of transport often depends on education and income. Digital competence now also determines access to new mobility solutions, as well as the need to own a smartphone. Universal access to innovative transport services can only be achieved when these aspects are placed squarely at the centre of governance framework design.

Ride hailing is a good example. Few industries have been so greatly impacted by the pandemic, but the form of impact has varied enormously. In some markets, passenger trips have stopped, while in others there has been a sudden surge in demand as wary riders shift away from public transport. Focusing on women would not only be morally justifiable: it would enable a resilient recovery for the sector. Post-Covid recovery plans that are attentive to the concerns and needs of women will lead to an increase in female customers.

The experiences of women working in the transport sector been highlighted, and changed, by the pandemic. Customer-facing staff have seen their role expanded from ticket sales and information to policing social distancing and mask wearing regulations. Often their jobs are more dangerous where public co-operation is lacking. Transport staff, of course, risk greater exposure to the virus, as born out by infection and death rate data.

Women are often hailed as front-line “heroes” of the pandemic. The increased automation of ticketing, cleaning and other activities in response to the virus is more likely to threaten their jobs, however. Women must be given access to the training and skills development needed to benefit from the employment opportunities led by innovation. Some of the most innovative sectors – like remotely piloted aircraft systems (drones) – have pronounced gender disparities. The industry as a whole reflects the existing gender inequalities in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM). Governance, nomenclature, and education must be combined in our approach to right this injustice.

Good governance is essential to point technological innovation towards equity and sustainability. But we need to rethink governance itself to follow rapid innovation and increased complexities. Exchange of good practices and ideas among all stakeholders – policymakers, business, civil society and academia – is essential to any good governance framework. The ITF Annual Consultation on gender provides a unique platform to advance dialogue on gender issues in transport and to facilitate knowledge exchange.

Our latest Compendium on Transport Innovation will inspire the discussions at this year’s consultation on 11 February 2021. But the discussions won’t stop there, and will continue in the lead-up to and during the 2021 ITF Annual Summit on Transport Innovation for Sustainable Development: Reshaping Mobility in the Wake of Covid-19.

2021 ITF Compendium on Transport Innovation for Sustainable Development: A Gender Perspective

Magdalena Olczak-Rancitelli is a Manager for Summit Preparation at the International Transport Forum