Mumbai: It can take Rekha Bajpai* (28), who works as a consultant at a Mumbai-based start-up, anywhere between one and 3.5 hours to cover 6 km from her home at Chembur to her workplace in the popular commercial area, Bandra-Kurla Complex, and back. "Getting a bus is a struggle everyday where some buses are filled over capacity, while some are stuck in traffic and some don't come on time." Women like Rekha depend on the public transport system as taking a taxi is a luxury, which can cost up to 30% of her monthly income.

Buses in Mumbai provide fares as low as Rs 7-15 for a 6 km ride, and are far cheaper than private transport.

Currently, Mumbai has 15 buses per 100,000 population with a bus fleet of 3,284 buses, against the global norm of around 50-120 buses per 100,000 people, show data from the Brihanmumbai Electricity Supply and Transport Undertaking (BEST).

The quality of urban transport services places different burdens on women and men, with higher costs often borne by women. For example, women may turn down better employment opportunities further away from home in favour of lower-paid local opportunities when the public transport system is unreliable or unaffordable.

Maharashtra's urban female labour force participation rate (FLPR) is at 24.9%, which means, of all women above the age of 15 years, only a quarter either work or are looking for work. In comparison, 73.4% of men in urban Maharashtra are part of the labour force. Across urban India, female labour force participation is as low as 23.2%.

For women, safe, comfortable, convenient and affordable transport can play an important role in connecting them to workplaces, in reducing the fear of violence on the street, in and around public transportation, schools, workplaces and other public and private spaces.

Buses are especially important as they run on more routes and provide flexibility in travel, as well as last-mile connectivity from trains and metros. They are also more suitable for remote or less populated areas, and can be rerouted easily in response to changing needs. From the perspective of governments, buses have lower operational cost and provide more flexibility.

Mumbai's bus transport system

The Comprehensive Mobility Plan of Mumbai mentions providing "development of transportation networks for all modes including pedestrians, cyclists and IPT" (Intermediate Public Transport, comprises informal modes of transport that facilitate connectivity between different areas and major public transport systems, such as e-rickshaws and autos).

Mumbai's Climate Action Plan also suggests expanding the public transport network, along with increasing access to public transport, making it more affordable, integrating multiple modes of public transport and last-mile access.

But on the ground, governments focus more on expansion of roads, construction of new flyovers and now, electric public transport, with Maharashtra's Electric Vehicle Policy saying that 25% of public transport would be electric by 2025.

Mumbai's approximately 3,284 public buses carry 3.5 million on weekdays and 2.1 million on Sundays, as per information from BEST. In response to IndiaSpend's questions, BEST said it does not have data on the number of women who use BEST buses.

Currently, buses operate on 434 routes, compared to 507 in 2021 and 2012-13. BEST runs 3,284 buses, compared to 4,128 in 2021 and 4,336 in 2012-13.

Buses run over capacity, especially in the peak hours when people go to and back from work, experts and travellers on the buses say. During Covid-19, to reduce the spread of infection, BEST buses allowed only 30 people within a bus, and would not allow more than five people to stand. But with the pandemic abating, these rules are no longer applicable.

A survey of 1,000 people in Mumbai published in 2018, by AECOM, a Gurgaon-based infrastructure consulting firm, found a "majority" of people were "not satisfied with the reliability of public transportation", and 75% found it "increasingly stressful to use".

Apart from BEST, there are several private operators like Cityflo, MYLO etc. which operate on specific routes, but at higher prices than BEST buses. For a distance of 40 km, BEST bus charges Rs 52-57 for a non-AC bus while Cityflo charges Rs 219.

With complex patterns of activity, women need access to well connected public transport

Women's daily patterns of activity are more complex than men's because it includes domestic chores, childcare, elderly care as well as paid work. According to the National Time-Use Survey, 2019, women in urban India spend 431 minutes on domestic and caregiving work per day, while men spend 169 minutes a day. Women's travel is characterised by multiple destinations within one trip; and they are often required to change, divert and break journeys to pick up children, run errands, shop or take on other family obligations, according to a 2021 report by the Initiative For What Works To Advance Women and Girls In The Economy (IWWAGE).

The report also said that due to greater dependence on means of public transportation, the costs of poor urban transport services are often borne by women, giving the example of a 2017 study undertaken by Jagori and UN Women in Delhi, which found that 51% of women reported facing harassment inside public transport.

Overall poor public transport has increased the use of two-wheelers and auto-rickshaws by both men and women, as per a World Bank study in Mumbai. Yet more women are dependent on public transport. In 2019, 39% of women reported walking and 32% reported using public transit (rail or public bus) as their primary commute mode. In contrast, 28% of men reported walking and 24% reported using public transit, the study found.

In addition, high waiting time for the bus at the bus stop makes women switch to other modes of transport, which are comparatively more expensive. Because of their caregiving responsibilities, women--especially from marginal income groups--prefer work closer to their home so that they can save time and money on transport. At times, women opt out of jobs due to high travel time and cost.

"Being a woman, it often gets difficult to board the bus when the bus is already over capacity. Standing in the bus makes me feel more uncomfortable because the bus handrails are designed for people with good height, not women like me who have small height," says Nirmala Devi, 49, a domestic worker in Chembur. "With the everyday struggle of reaching home on time, it makes me more exhausted and it gets difficult for me to do household chores."

City governments should consider several parameters while designing a bus stop, including ramps, clean passenger waiting areas, tactile and other signs for the disabled, according to the Accessibility Guidelines for Bus terminals and Bus Stops by the Ministry of Road Transport & Highways.

But in Mumbai, most bus stops fail to fulfil these requirements, leading to uncomfortable waits at bus stops, passengers say. Although passengers can live-track their bus through the BEST CHALO app, allowing them to check if the buses are crowded or not, this has not addressed the issue of long waiting times at the bus stop, passengers said.

The frequency of buses, which on some routes used to be one bus per hour, has come down to 20 minutes, Lokesh Chandra, general manager of BEST told the Indian Express in December 2022.

How safe women perceive buses to be also depends on how safe they feel bus stops are, according to research in Ahmedabad and Bengaluru by Meghna Verma, associate professor of marketing and analytics at the MS Ramaiah Institute of Management in Bengaluru.

"Across the board, better seating arrangements, good hygiene, broad sidewalks, sufficient lighting and active public spaces are aspects that improve the perception of safety for women commuters," said Vishal Ramprasad of the World Resources Institute (WRI) India, working with government agencies in developing policies to regulate new mobility models.

Further, it is essential to create and design handrails and bus furniture properly to improve passenger comfort, wrote Mervyn Edwards, Head of Structural Crashworthiness at the Transport Research Laboratory in Berkshire, in his research on making buses in London safer for passengers.

"BEST should consider incorporating a gender-disaggregated data collection method to capture mobility patterns of its male and female commuters," said Harshita Jamba, a social scientist and researcher for Safe and Inclusive Urban Mobility & Transport at WRI. "Women have different travel patterns from men, and this is not reflected in current planning practices. A gender-disaggregated approach will give insights into how women travel so that services can be further curated to cater to their needs."

*name changed on request

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