Is there a case for free rides for women?

Revenues from appropriately charging personal transport can make public transport cheap

July 02, 2019 12:15 am | Updated 09:40 am IST

 “Free public transport can therefore bring more women to public spaces, and, consequently, make those spaces safer for women.” A metro train coach in New Delhi.>Shiv Kumar Pushpaka

“Free public transport can therefore bring more women to public spaces, and, consequently, make those spaces safer for women.” A metro train coach in New Delhi.>Shiv Kumar Pushpaka

Women may soon get to travel for free on buses and Metro trains in Delhi. This gender-based public transport fare subsidy programme, announced by the Aam Aadmi Party government, has not been tested anywhere in India in the past. Proponents claim that the policy will protect and liberate women. Critics argue that it is financially unviable and unfair. As polarised debates over the intent and impact of the policy continue, it is useful to assess whether this idea, in principle, has any merit.

Subsidies to the disadvantaged

Cities often provide public transport fare subsidies to all or some citizens to encourage them to use public transport, or for easing their travel cost burdens. Singapore, for example, offers a discount to rail commuters who are willing to travel before the morning rush-hour. Public transport is free for residents in Estonia. Luxembourg, with a population of about 600,000, has made public transport free for those under the age of 20. Paris, with a population of over 2 million, has announced a comparable plan. Hong Kong has implemented a public transport fare concession scheme for people aged 65 years or more. Berlin offered women a 21% ticket discount for one day in March this year to highlight the gender wage gap. In India, however, urban transport fare discounts are less common, although concessions for seniors, students, and other socioeconomic groups are available for government-operated flights and long-distance railway services.

Fare discounts intend to make public transport truly public as some people are at a relative disadvantage in urban transportation markets due to their unique social, economic, and health circumstances. Article 13 in the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights recognises freedom of movement as a basic human right. If we consider transportation as a fundamental social need and providing mobility for the transportation-disadvantaged as our collective responsibility, then any urban transport policy should include subsidies targeted at the disadvantaged. Specific supply-side investments or fare price discounts to help the disadvantaged travel, conduct activities and prosper are therefore justified. Public transport may even need to be free for some. In this context, let’s take the case of women.

Women in India travel far less than men, and this has significant impacts on their education, employment, and enjoyment. A study in Delhi found that college girls, compared to boys, chose lower ranked colleges with safe and reliable transport access. Similarly, an estimated 60% of women workers in India choose to work from home or at a place which is less than a km from home, according to the 2011 Census. The remaining working women tend to rely excessively on public transport, according to a World Bank Study conducted in Delhi. An RTI application revealed that, in 2013, only 13% of Delhi driving licences were issued to women. These findings are suggestive of gender differences in travel choices and patterns.

Wage discrimination, gender segregation in employment, and household labour divisions contribute to gender inequality in transportation. Because men’s jobs are considered to be more valuable, they tend to own the household vehicles and commute privately. This lopsided rationing of household transport budgets also results in women taking slower commute options to save on expenses. When Delhi Metro hiked fares last year, around 70% of women surveyed in a study suggested that they would have to choose a less safe travel option for work, or travel less. Compromises on education and jobs for travel purposes is one of the reasons for women earning less than men, leaving the workforce, and consequently being more cash-poor than men. Finally, limited money to travel also means that women are willing to forgo hospital visits, significantly affecting their health.

There may be a case for free or discounted public transport for women. A subsidy like this is most likely to benefit women who might consider taking up jobs for which they are better suited but are further away from home. Women can engage in a range of activities that promote their well being. Free public transport can therefore bring more women to public spaces, and, consequently, make those spaces safer for women.

The high cost of free rides

Two questions remain. Who will pay for the subsidies aimed at the transportation-disadvantaged? And will such subsidies make it difficult for public transport to achieve its other major goal — reducing car use and cleaning up the air?

To address these questions, we must first recognise that personal motorised vehicle travel is highly subsidised globally, including in India. Believe it or not, driving is cheap. Car and motorised two-wheeler users are not required to pay for the full costs their travel choices inflict on society in the form of traffic congestion, environmental pollution, and distortions in urban form. Promotion of cleaner fuels and vehicle-sharing can reduce but not eliminate the costs. Indian cities must consider pricing interventions such as congestion charges, mileage-based road use charges, parking charges, and higher petrol taxes so that private driving costs better reflect full social costs. London and Stockholm, for example, have been charging for congestion for over a decade. Such measures, in addition to discouraging driving, can help governments generate funds for expanding, improving, and operating relatively cleaner transportation alternatives such as public transport. Better public transport service is key to getting people out of cars, reducing air pollution, and making cities more liveable. It is possible that revenues from appropriately charging personal motorised travel will be sufficient to make travel by public transport cheap or free for the transportation-disadvantaged, without any additional public subsidy requirement.

Even if free public transport for women makes economic sense and seems fair, would all women support the policy? Informal surveys conducted after the Delhi government’s announcement suggests that women are divided in their preference for the policy. Women who feel this policy treats them as lesser citizens should have the choice to opt out. Whether a free public transport pass for women should be income-based is unclear; means-testing for a public transport fare concession programme may not be worth the effort.

Finally, this debate is not for Delhi alone. It’s time that all Indian cities crafted efficient, effective, fair, and context-specific public transport policies. Men and women do not enjoy equal freedom to move in India, and policymakers should act.

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