How urban infrastructure affects women’s safety

When I first saw the invitation for Uber’s discussion on women’s safety, I was prepared for an event dealing with the incorporation of the gender aspect in Uber rides. However, as the event’s conversation progressed, the multifaceted and nuanced nature of this issue unfolded and made me realise how much more there is to it. Women’s safety requires alterations in the entire ecosystem of urban governance and infrastructure. Certain significant concerns which were brought up in this regard have been highlighted below.

An alternate toll-free route introduced last year has multiple benefits for a commuter travelling back from the Kempegowda International Airport to Bangalore city. This route allows a vehicle to bypass the NH-44 highway leading to a reduced cost of travelling. Amidst quadrupled toll costs which amount to an increase of Rs.125-30 in absolute terms, the opportunity cost of taking the alternate route is lower still. Within the first couple of days of its opening, this route saw around 5000-6000 vehicles using it. The road is also saving commuting time for travelling to South and East Bangalore. This blissful toll-free alternative, however, has proved to be a concern from the perspective of women’s safety while travelling app=based cabs like Uber. This concern came to light after a woman was molested on this route. A solution to avoid such unfortunate incidences would be to incentivise Uber drivers to take the safer highway route and offset the reduced monetary costs of taking the alternate route by providing perks such as coupons. This would require a combined effort by cab services like Uber and toll authorities.

Uber has made a ‘panic button’ available in countries like the US since last year. Just as the name suggests, the panic button is like an SOS message sent out by the rider in case of emergency. In an interview with The Verge, the Head of Product Management at Uber United States, Sachin Kansal said that this feature is likely to be effectively because they realize that a lot of situations and a lot of criminal activity arise when people think they’re not being watched. This ‘panic button’ is located in a new “safety center” menu. This menu is accessible from the Uber app’s home screen. In an event that this button is pressed, the police get automatically contacted and receive the information of the whereabouts of the rider. This panic button has been tested in India but could not be implemented as it failed to achieve the integration between the police force and the Uber operations team.

An alternative feature would be a panic button which can be manually pressed by the rider in case of emergency which sounds like a burglar alarm going off. The advantage would be that the people nearby would be alerted. However, the catch in this case is that it assumed multiple things-a)there would be people on the street ,b)these people would necessarily have the intention of helping and not create further harm to the rider ,c)these people have the requisite training for being successful in stopping a moving vehicle without creating any kind of personal or collateral damage. As the possibility of all these conditions being met is slim, the feasibility of a manual panic button has been debatable.

As some women tend to be feel safer in a pool ride, the safety issue would now extend to the behavior of co-passengers along with the driver. A suggestion which came up was to have an all-female rider pool on the ‘Uber pool’ option. Uber pool matches are based on an algorithm which ensures that the potential riders are matched effectively in a given radius and as within as little time as possible. However, when another criterion of having female pool riders is brought in, the effectiveness of the algorithm reduces substantially as the location and time factors are no longer being applied on a priority basis.

As the problem of women’s safety mainly arises because the driver is male, having more female drivers would solve the problem of crime against women and lead more women to feel safer. However, female drivers face issues due to lack of infrastructure such as public toilets for women, being unable to be accepted by other male drivers with whom they need to interact while on duty. Also, they face the same safety concerns which are faced by female riders limiting them from working late hours.

Though the concerns are relevant and significant in the contemporary context, there is no feasible solution to these as of yet. Implementation is one of the biggest roadblocks to achieving these solutions. And the tech infrastructure and the lack of data sharing between various agencies has made working with all stakeholders simultaneously a mere aspiration. Hence, to ensure the safety and empowerment of women, along with gender sensitive corporations, we also need gender sensitive urban planning.