City planners need to work on safe movement of womenUpdated: Dec 10, 2019 20:53 IST
The gang rape of a 23-year-old woman on a moving bus on December 16, 2012 in Delhi had sent shock waves across the country and the world. Seven years later, are our cities — the engines of growth — any safer for women? We often attribute the rising crime data against women to increased reporting. However, the fact of the matter is that women’s safety is still a severe issue in the country, which was evident from the recent horrific incident in Hyderabad.
As per the World Health Organization, one in three women across the world has experienced some physical or sexual violence. A 2018 study by Thomson Reuters Foundation found India as the most dangerous country for women with sexual abuse rife. One may argue about the ranking, but even the official statistics reveal that women’s safety is a significant issue in our country. As per the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) data for 2017, a total of 3,59,849 cases were reported against women. It includes murder, rape, kidnapping, and sexual harassment. This issue is not restricted to any particular part of the country but is a national one.
Women’s safety is a complex issue and involves education, legislation, enforcement. However, a lot can be done by improving the design of our cities, especially improving the transportation system. Let me highlight three issues that require immediate attention:
The 2011 census looking at how people travel to work found that almost half of women, 45% to be precise, walk to work. Therefore, designing streets with high walkability is also a women’s safety strategy. The great urbanist, Jane Jacobs, introduced the concept of natural surveillance, or what she described as “eyes on streets” in 1961. She recommended a simple model of ensuring diverse land uses, to enable more people to move around freely, who will then keep an eye on what’s going on around them. This concept was part of the traditional cities and the old city area. However, we lost the sense of planning in newer road design; instead of planning for people, we started planning for vehicles. Therefore, we need to begin designing streets for all and ensure that all roads have adequate footpath, pores edges, and activity on the sides.
It’s often seen that men in the family usually get the first right to private vehicles. It means women have to use public transport for long distance travel. Studies from various parts of the country have revealed that women are subjected to continued harassment, both physical and verbal, in our public transport system. This is one of the reasons that even though women form half of the country’s population, they form only 18% of bus transport usage. Therefore, it is essential to make public transport safer for women if we want higher usage. Increasing the frequency of public transport also improves safety for women as they are not subjected to crush loads. Also, properly lit bus stops placed at appropriate locations have a positive impact. Reasonable fares lead to more women using the system, which, in turn, improves safety.
It is not rocket science to understand that areas with no or inadequate lighting in the city are prone to crime. Roads and streets which are well lit at night provide a safer environment to the users, especially pedestrians. In 2008, many cities in the United States reduced the street lights duration as they wanted to reduce power bills due to the ongoing economic recession. While the cities were able to reduce electricity bills marginally, the negative impact of women’s safety was disproportionately high, as many cities saw a spike in gender-related violence and harassment during that period. There are no such studies available to document the impact of lighting on women’s safety in Indian cities, but ‘poorly lit roads’ are often cited as a cause of concern. Therefore, lighting streets and public spaces are crucial to improving women’s safety in our cities.
Men and women use spaces in our cities differently, be it public, private, or transitional. Therefore, we need to move away from this notion that what works for men will also work for women. Therefore, we need to find a mechanism for including women’s need in planning, and that’s where city planners play an essential role but creating safer cities by addressing safety through design.
Gurugram’s draft Comprehensive Mobility Plan (CMP) document had nothing on this topic. Therefore, as Gurugram finalizes its CMP, it should ensure that the safe movement of women is an integral part of the plan. That’s because a city that provides freedom of movement for women will reap not only social benefits but profound economic benefits as well.
(Amit Bhatt is director, integrated transport, at WRI-India)