“Garbage in, garbage out”: Why gender-blind transport policies are not gender-neutral

With just one month until International Women’s Day 2022 on the theme “Break the Bias”, María Santos Alfageme calls for action to solve transport data’s gender bias

You reap what you sow with GIGO

Despite decades of investing in better analytics and storage systems, many organisations still struggle to make optimal use of their data. Data enables governments to govern, and good data enables governments to govern efficiently (International Transport Forum, 2021). However, the adoption of data-driven approaches in policymaking comes with several challenges. These include having an under-skilled workforce, digitalising valuable data trapped on printed paper, or accounting for citizens who do not produce digital data. Too often, the public sector has an abundance of data that is underutilised or yet to be discovered (GovTech, 2021). Not harnessing this “dark data” is partly responsible for our gender-blind transport policies.

Infinite examples of gender biases in the transport sector exist. Probably the most prominent ones are the design of default-male transport products like buses, bus straps, or seatbelts. Gender biased transport policies are even more worrying when we realise that, even if women represent the majority of public transport users, public transport planning has historically been shaped around the standard male A-to-B travel patterns. Or when we realise that samples used to determine vehicle safety standards make women 73% more likely than men to be seriously injured or die in a car crash. As we become increasingly reliant on artificial intelligence and different technologies to manage our databases, the need to address this bias is more urgent now than ever.

Why car design is killing women | Caroline Criado Perez

Achieving gender equality in transport requires quality, policy-relevant data on women and girls’ transport use. Without it, we cannot make informed decisions, and we cannot track if or how those decisions are improving lives. The good news is – we have that data! In recent years, there has been a proliferation of concepts underlining the gender bias in transport policies, like NYU’s “pink tax on transport “or Professor Inés Sánchez de Madariaga’s coined term “mobility of care “. The last two decades have seen public investments in projects to bridge the data collection gender gap (e.g. DIAMOND project, the Transport Innovation Gender Observatory, etc.), as well as free, self-paced training courses. These contribute to a growing body of evidence collating best practices to address this issue institutionally.

The International Transport Forum (ITF) works to better understand both female transport users and transport professionals. For instance, the ITF published a compendium highlighting positive examples of how women can benefit from the transformative innovations in the transport sector, proving that transport connectivity is a decisive factor in women’s empowerment. ITF will soon publish a Gender Analysis Toolkit for Transport Policies to help countries carry out their own gender analysis. Last year, ITF’s official platform for interaction with the corporate sector – the Corporate Partnership Board – held a workshop on gender bias in transport data, and a joint and public event with the Science Technology and Innovation Division at the OECD, entitled Addressing the Gender Bias in AI Data. These exchanges made it clear that without inclusive, purposeful public-private data partnerships between mobility operators and authorities, the biases of our systems risk being perpetuated.

Joint ITF-OECD event on Addressing the Gender Bias in AI Data

These events were not aimed at data professionals, though. They served as an eye-opener to the social consequences of not addressing gender bias and the benefits that ethical, inclusive use of databases could bring to society. The adoption of data-driven approaches can increase objectivity, equity and fairness. And they will, if we ensure that the data we collect and use to design policies is representative by default.

Contrary to what many still claim, a gender perspective to transport planning is not ideological. It is about effectiveness. Not accounting for half of the population means that we will not deliver policies that serve all citizens. This is not only unfair and inequitable, but unsustainable. “Garbage in, garbage out” (GIGO) is a concept common to computer scientists and the tech industry to express that the quality of output is determined by the quality of the input. Since a computer processes what it is given, we must be mindful of producing policies that do not blindly perpetuate old injustices, as Caroline Criado-Perez upholds in her book Invisible Women.

Women-only subway car in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil

The OECD March on Gender calls us to raise the bar for better policies for gender equality. Now is the best time to rethink and restructure the way we collect data and use it meaningfully. At the same time, new governance frameworks are being developed to effectively govern digital spaces. It would make sense to push to create systems that ensure a gender lens is embedded in all aspects of public policy. Let’s prioritise equity, and let’s not lose sight of heterogeneity within the “women” cluster. We must be ready to assess multi-variable realities that have an effect on travel patterns, such as income, race, background, occupation or age, to ensure a “global dialogue for better transport”.


María Santos Alfageme is a Research Officer at the International Transport Forum’s Corporate Partnership Board

Women-only ride-hailing: new data inspires the movement

More ride-hailing companies are offering women-centred services, but do they get women on the road?

By Alexa Roscoe, Disruptive Technology Lead, International Finance Corporation

The next time you open your favourite ride-hailing app, you may find a surprising feature: the option to choose a woman driver or rider.

Safety is a determining factor when women decide how, when, or if to drive and travel. In the face of widespread harassment in the transport sector, social mores restricting women’s mobility, and overall market demand, sector leaders like Bolt, Didi, and Uber are increasingly adopting women-centred products. This surge begs the question: Do these services succeed in supporting women?

There has been a rapid expansion of women-only options in ride-hailing…  

Last year, IFC published the first research on women-centred services in ride-hailing, interviewing more than 30 companies and identifying seven different active models of women-centred ride-hailing services. The paper explored whether gender-segregated transport, long a topic of heated debate in mass transit, increases women’s mobility and participation in ride-hailing- or whether it just reinforces existing barriers.

Since the report’s publication, services have scaled significantly, growing from pilots to formalised products active across multiple countries. Uber extended its “Women Rider Preference” product from Saudi Arabia to 11 countries in Latin America and Africa, recently extending it to drivers who identify as non-binary as well.  Didi, which in IFC’s initial report described using “Algorithmic Prioritisation” in China to connect women drivers and riders automatically, launched Didi Mujer (Didi Woman), giving women drivers the option to match only women riders in select markets. Most recently, Bolt launched a “Women-only” feature, now active in five countries, which takes a slightly different approach, allowing riders to request matches with women drivers rather than the reverse.

Rapid scaling of women-centred products – even in the face of a global pandemic – has brought them into the mainstream, making it increasingly essential to explore their impact.  

…but do they really open up opportunities for women?

Women-centred services have shown market demand across a remarkably diverse range of contexts. Previously, IFC’s six-country study found that these services would boost women’s use of ride-hailing across locations, particularly when travelling at night, alone, or in insecure areas. In Sri Lanka, 90 per cent of women PickMe riders would like to choose the gender of their drivers, and 25 per cent would be willing to pay a premium to do so.  

Yet confirming if these services succeed in getting women to work in ride-hailing is more complex. Following the legalisation of women’s driving in Saudi Arabia, Uber data shows many women started out by using the “Women Rider Preference” feature exclusively, but gradually transitioned into the main app.  Similarly, in Latin America one in five women who use the feature use it 90 per cent of the time. This suggests that segregated services could serve as a bridge for women into a sector in which they might not otherwise consider working.

Equally important, more than half of drivers who used the option in Brazil drove more overall and at night, when women drivers are least likely to be on the road but demand for rides is higher. This means the product has the potential to increase incomes by helping women work more, and more profitable, hours. As of June 2021, “Women Rider Preference” users had completed over 7 million trips.

Bolt also reported promising data for the first six months of the launch of its “Women-only” option, telling IFC that availability of women drivers increased by as much as 66 per cent in active markets. The feature also seems to be linked with higher trip completion rates for women, addressing a common challenge where men cancel their ride when assigned a woman driver. Globally, women drivers have an average 4.9/5.0 service rating, making them eligible for performance bonuses. As Bolt Regional Director for Africa and the Middle East, Paddy Partridge, noted “Women riders and drivers are essential to the advancement of the ride-hailing industry. The success of these “Women-only” categories proves that the more deliberate inclusion of women contributes to the growth and sustainability of the ride-hailing sector.”

Detours ahead?

Even in the face of strong demand, companies face significant operational hurdles. For instance, matching women drivers, who remain a minority across contexts, with women riders can mean that few drivers serve a large population, potentially decreasing driver incomes and increasing rider wait times. A homogenous user base can also mean dramatic fluctuations in supply and demand: in the early stages of their launch, founders of Egypt-based Fyonka couldn’t understand why they faced a sudden drop-off in driver availability- until they realised many women were at home helping their children prepare for upcoming exams.  

Successful companies intentionally exceed industry standards related to training, social norms, and security. For instance, Ghana’s LadyBird Logistics, a long-distance trucking company, sends out women drivers in pairs and arranges for safe overnight lodging.  Several others offer dedicated training or ensure family buy-in to help build the pipeline of recruits.

Getting women on the road

Women remain a small fraction of transport providers everywhere in the world. Transport gaps for riders reduce women’s labour force participation by more than 15 percentage points. Tackling both challenges means making all forms of transport affordable, accessible, and safe for women. Neither gender-segregated transport nor ride-hailing alone will ever be sole solutions, but as markets reopen and more ride-hailing companies recognise the need to better serve women as drivers and riders, we need to continue to look for new solutions from across the sector and to keep alive the debate on how best to serve women in ride-hailing.

For further discussion and case studies, see “Gender-Segregated Transport in Ride-hailing: Navigating the Debate” and join the conversation using #DrivingEquality. For more on women and ride-hailing, check out the resources below:

See more on ITF’s work on Gender in Transport, including the latest project on developing a Gender Analysis Toolkit for Transport Policies

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