The gender divide in urban mobility

Vidya Mahambare / Sowmya Dhanaraj | Updated on November 02, 2018

While cab-hailing services have helped working women, their expansion may increase congestion and pollution

Only around one in five women in the working age takes up paid work in urban India. In China, the number three in five. One key determinant of women’s ability to work, namely, the role of travel mobility — the available modes of transport, time and distance, convenience, and the cost of travelling — remains unexplored in the Indian context.

Women tend to have lower travel accessibility than men for two reasons. First, married women have less bargaining power in terms of a residential location. Second, men have a far greater access to personal vehicles such as cars and two-wheelers which are faster and more convenient modes of travel. As per the Census 2011, in urban India one in four men travel to workplace either by a two-wheeler or a four-wheeler compared to one in 10 women. There is a clear gender divide in terms of access to personal vehicles which seems to be narrowing only marginally over the years.

Given that women continue to be primarily responsible for household work and childcare, longer commute tends to push even educated women out of work. However, in recent years the spread of convenient tech-enabled cab services such as Uber and Ola have begun to provide an alternative to personal vehicles. Unlike traditional taxis or auto-rickshaws, the new age cabs offer door-to-door service, and are more comfortable. In a recent study more than one-third of women using Uber in India said that it has increased their mobility and 28 per cent said it helps them to reach places not served by public transport and enhances their independence.

Survey findings

A primary survey that we conducted of about 300 working women and men in the Chennai metropolitan region in the first half of 2018 corroborates the use of door-to-door cab services among women in high-skilled occupations. In our sample while over 50 per cent of the women working in the IT sector uses cab services to travel to work, only 27 per cent of men do so. In contrast, around one in five women ride a two-wheeler to the work compared to one in every two men, and less than 10 per cent women have an access to a private car compared to around 20 per cent men. With more women using the cab services, the average cost of transport however, is significantly higher for them than men.

While travel distance of IT workers is similar to unskilled workers from other industries in the survey (housekeeping and retail outlets), travel duration is significantly less due to faster modes of transport. Further, highly educated women in the IT sector who are yet to be married have a freedom to choose their place of residence closer to the workplace and thus are able to overcome the lack of access to private vehicles.

For women with a lower level of education however, neither is the new-age cab service of benefit nor do employers provide transport facilities. Further, most of these women do not have a choice in residential locations and so it makes sense to find a job nearer to their location of residence. But in the absence of it, they are compelled to travel longer distances by inconvenient public transport.

Men in both high and relatively low skilled occupations have increasingly managed to get around this constraint by owning and riding a two-wheeler. In fact, the Chennai metro region has the highest two-wheeler ownership anywhere in India with around 72 per cent of households owning a two-wheeler, largely motorcycles used by men.

Women’s travel time is also increases because of necessity of making multiple stops, what is called trip chaining, for the purpose of household related work including grocery, dropping/picking up children so on. The lack of transportation alternatives, crowded public transport and a lack of last mile connectivity lowers women’s ability to sustain a full-time job.

While door-to-door cab services have improved travel mobility of working women, the expansion of these cab services will come in question, given that they contribute to further traffic congestion and environmental concerns. An increasing number of city authorities are likely to follow the city of New York, which has capped on the number of Uber cabs.

Mahambare is Professor – Economics, Great Lakes Institute of Management, Chennai, and Dhanaraj is Assistant Professor – Economics, Madras School of Economics.

Published on November 02, 2018

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