Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Report: Moving Safer


A workshop on women's safety on the streets and in public transport

From left to right: Shiamala Baby, Caroline Samponaro, Shilpa Ranade, Kalpana Viswanath and Swarna Rajagopalan

As part the 2013 Prajnya 16 Days Campaign against Gender Violence, we in partnership with the Institute of Transportation and Development Policy organised ‘Moving Safer – A Discussion on Women’s Safety on the Streets and in Public Transport’ on Saturday, 7 December, 2013 at Jivana Jyoti in Chennai. More than 40 women belonging to various localities in Chennai participated in this event. The following is a summary of the discussion. 

Through this event we hoped to facilitate a platform to discuss issues at the intersection of urban development, planning and gender violence. We envisaged this programme as a panel of expert presentations by urban development specialists and followed by break-out discussions with members of the audience on street and public transport. 


M. Shiamala Baby offered a perspective on Chennai women’s experiences as they access public infrastructure, especially transportation and streets. Her comprehensive listing of problems included: 
  • Missing footpath – in commercial areas, space meant or walking often taken up by parked vehicles and street vendors 
  • Lack of usable public toilets
  • Rampant problem of chain snatching
  • Due to recent development of one-ways and the lack of enough zebra-crossing, in the absence of traffic police, women, especially the old find it difficult to cross the road
  • Continuing street sexual harassment, especially outside women’s colleges
  • CCTV cameras in trial rooms of certain shops
  • Elderly, physically handicapped – though there are reservations on public transport nobody takes it seriously. Places reserved for these groups often occupied by able-bodied young men
  • Absence of ramps and other facilities like braille notices for the physically challenged
  • Lack of security in local trains late at night 
Shiamala Baby’s presentation also made some suggestions on tackling these problems. Women’s groups and groups representing the disabled should be consulted in the city planning process. Traffic police should be sensitised about gender violence, and in general, there should be better deployment of police. Active steps should be taken to induct women into transport service jobs and to train them as drivers/conductors. 

Shilpa Ranade in her presentation showed how the design of public spaces can serve to discourage and exclude women from their use. Not just sexual assault, but denial to access public spaces is gender violence, she stated. Access to public spaces is predicated on multiple identities – caste , class and gender. She pointed to some persistent design-related challenges women face while accessing public spaces. 

One challenge relates to the tendency to design closed spaces—with fencing or even shrubbery that closes out the view. Public spaces need to opened out, not closed in. Women tend to avoid fenced in areas as they think it will be difficult to escape in case of a bad situation. They prefer open, crowded areas and feel safe on roads with street vendors and lights. Solutions include: 
  • More spaces like parks and beaches opened up to the public rather than closed at a certain hour, because deserted places make women feel unsafe more often than crowded spaces
  • Don’t close off parks with huge walls/railings/grill, but make it more open and well-lit
  • Zoning makes certain places deserted at particular times of the day and night. A mix of residential and commercial ensures that the place is ‘alive’ at all times of the day or night. 
Another challenge Shilpa Ranade highlighted was that there are far fewer women’s toilets than men’s toilets and they are often closed post 10 p.m. However, research shows that there should be twice as many women’s toilets as there are men’s because women tend to use the toilets for longer, they also take their young children to women’s toilets irrespective of the young child’s gender. Some obvious solutions: 
  • More women’s toilets
  • It must be ensured that the toilets have running water, that they are located in well lit places and have hooks on the doors so women can hang their handbags

Kalpana Viswanath reiterated the point that women are most insecure in “everyday” places like bus stops, and on buses and trains. Young women are especially vulnerable in these spaces. 

This presentation introduced the idea of safety audits, now carried out in cities around the world. It introduced the use of mobile apps for safety audits and safety information to the audience. Apps like Safetipin, which the speaker helped develop, allow women to do safety audits of various areas on the go. Safetipin provides a map to its users which shows areas of the city that are unsafe (in red), moderately safe (orange) and safe (green). Users can also record instances of harassment and security hazards, including broken street lights, open sewers etc. The creators of the app hope to share information to public service providers (such as the PWD) with access to information from the app — such as non-functioning streetlights, to help them improve their level of service ( 

Kalpana Vishwanath pointed to five dimensions of better infrastructural and urban planning for safety: 
  • Gender inclusive urban design (lighting, toilets)
  • Increasing policing and improving legal frameworks
  • Improving support systems – counselling centres 
  • Educating youth – both young women and men
  • Training women conductors and auto drivers 

Caroline Samponaro was concerned about the impact of heavy vehicular traffic on both the natural and social environment of cities. Most cities lack protected cycle spaces that give women and men an incentive to take up cycling for everyday commuting. The heavy, badly regulated traffic that results has a negative impact on urban communities. She quoted research that showed that on streets with heavy traffic, neighbour socialise less with each other, as a result of which those streets are less safe, more polluted and the both children and adults get less physical activity. 

Building cycle tracks on city roads would help deal with several challenges of urban life. 


Problems articulated: 
  • Pedestrians find it difficult to walk given the near-complete absence of footpaths.
  • Pedestrians also face difficulty because in recent times roads have been dug up for the Metro construction and are then not levelled properly. The monsoon worsens this problem. 
  • Crossing the road becomes difficult due to the increased number of one-ways, few zebra crossings and inadequate deployment of traffic police. 
  • Street dogs continue causing a menace in non-central areas of the city. 
  • Subways and MRTS stations are poorly lit, leading to concerns over safety for those who use them. 
  • Foot-overbridges are poorly placed and are too few in number, inconveniencing train users. 
  • Police protection on local trains, MRTS trains and MRTS stations is inadequate. 
  • Buses are infrequent, leading to overcrowding on most buses. 
  • Not only are there not enough bus shelters but the ones that are there have poor lighting and seating. 

Solutions suggested: 
  • Traffic police must be sensitised in order to minimise possible harassment, especially of those who travel late at night. 
  • SMS/Toll free number must be provided to address complaints regarding transport/civic amenities.
  • When a person moves into a community, they should be provided with numbers of the local authorities so they can be contacted if necessary. 
  • Technology and apps like Safetipin must be used for better communication between the citizens and government servants. 
  • Bus drivers/conductors and other ground level staff must be sensitised on what action can be taken in case of a complaint of harassment. 
  • Planning must be inclusive. Consultations must be held with women, the aged and the physically challenged. 
  • Adequate footpaths, bus shelters, subways, lighting and seating must be provided. 
  • Encourage shops in subways to prevent them from becoming deserted, unsafe places. 
  • Plan and provide segregated toilets. 
  • Increase the number of well-maintained public toilets. 
  • Provide more police surveillance near TASMAC shops. 


It was agreed that women’s safety on the streets and in public transport was dependent on a large number of issues, infrastructural needs being one of them. The women felt that increased and regular correspondence between end users and planners was the only way forward. Women should be included in the planning processes and public meetings on local issues must be held before policies are put in place. Moreover, technology like apps, SMS and toll free numbers can be employed and publicised to enable easy communication between authorities and end users. And as Kalpana Viswanath summed it up, “While cities are experienced individually, solutions to problems involving urban planning can only be found collectively.”


M Shiamala Baby is the founder-director of Forum for Women's Right and Development. FORWORD is a secular and non-profitable Women's Organization in Tambaram, Chennai. FORWORD reaches out to oppressed women primarily through awareness and education programmes. Apart from counselling programmes and advocacy, regular seminars and workshops on domestic violence are conducted. FORWORD works with various groups, across Chennai and its suburbs and in Kancheepuram district, at different levels.

Shilpa Ranade is a practicing architect and researcher based in Mumbai. She trained in architecture at CEPT, Ahmedabad and did her M.A. in Cultural Studies at the University of Arizona, Tucson. She is founding partner with Quaid Doongerwala, of the Mumbai-based design practice DCOOP where her portfolio includes interior, architecture and urban design projects ( Shilpa is also an associate of PUKAR (Partners for Urban Knowledge, Action and Research) where she has been involved with the seminal Gender & Space Project ( She has co-authored a book on women and public space, Why Loiter? Women and Risk on Mumbai Streets (Penguin India, 2011) with Shilpa Phadke and Sameera Khan. Shilpa’s writing on architecture and on gendered spaces has been published extensively in academic journals and professional magazines. She has conducted design studios and humanities courses at various colleges including the J.J. College of Architecture, Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai and CEPT Ahmedabad.

Kalpana Viswanath is a researcher who has been working on issues of violence against women and safer cities for women for over 20 years. Kalpana has been involved with UN Habitat, UN Women and Plan International in planning safe city programs in Cambodia, Pakistan, Kerala, Mumbai and Kolkata. She is the Chair of the International Advisory Committee of Women in Cities International and has published widely. She is a consultant at Social Development Direct and is Co Founder at Safetipin, a mobile phone application which works to make our communities and cities safer by providing safety-related information collected by users.

Caroline Samponaro is the Senior Director of Campaigns & Organizing at Transportation Alternatives, New York City's leading transportation advocacy organization, with a citywide network of more than one hundred thousand supporters committed to reclaiming New York City’s streets for people. Caroline has helped spearhead New York City’s rapid transformation into a bicycle-friendly city since 2006. In her role at Transportation Alternatives, Caroline directs dozens of grassrootscampaigns to transform streets and adopt sustainable transportation policy in NYC. She manages the network of thousands of New Yorkers making that change a reality on the ground.

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