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 Hidden problems in public transportation
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Hidden problems in public transportation

It’s not only about the commute but journey

In the daily lives of Ethiopians, overcrowded public transportation like the bus or the train are utterly unavoidable; even grueling traffic congestion are becoming a common feature in some of the largest cities of Ethiopia.

But the majority still depends on public transportation in their day to day lives. At length, scholars argue that civilization and mass transportation have always been inseparable. Just like any other social infrastructure that brings about forced human interaction, the mass transportation system is also fraught with many challenges. And from time to time some of these challenges rear their ugly heads.

According to Care international, shockingly, 90% of women in Ethiopia have experienced sexual assault during their commute using the public transportation system.

“African countries are developing rapidly, yet industrial growth is very low meaning that it is becoming a circus of challenges,” said Haileselassie Medhin, World Resource Institute country director. Although there is very limited research done on Gender and transportation, he explains, it is clear that the public transportation system isn’t very well planned in Africa. In this, he notes that usually the needs of vulnerable groups such as women, elderly and the disabled are forgotten. Currently, the transportation system in Ethiopia and many African countries are not suitable to vulnerable people, a problem that is shared by many developing countries, leaving a visible gap in the service.

That is why Flone Initiative and the World Resources Institute Africa organized the second edition of the Women and Transport Africa Conference, with the aim to create safe, sustainable and accessible public transportation in Africa. The event featured top dignitaries, researchers, and policymakers working within the transport sector in Africa and around the world.

Transport is not a gender-balanced sector: only 22% of the people working in sector are women as compared to the 46% in the overall economy. The event served as an opportunity to review what can be done to attract more women to the sector and provide solutions to the challenges faced by women and other vulnerable members of the community who depend on the public transportation system.

According to a recent finding by Flone Initiative, public transportations in Africa are notoriously unsafe for women, children, people living with disabilities and other vulnerable groups. The conference brought together ideas that will increase the visibility of women, explore and address the gender parity in access to transportation and mobility, the responsiveness of the transport systems to needs and preferences of women such as safety and personal security and the participation of women at the decision-making level in the transportation sector.

Naomi Mwaura, founder of Flone initiative, says: “Transport is and has never been just about transport. It is about better connected streets and cities linking us together in facilitating our social lives”. In this regard, in two different incidents in Nairobi, Kenya, two young women were pushed out of a public transport resent; this shows how dangerous public transportation can be. The vision of the conference is to figure out a public consensus that will last through time, raising profound questions about efficiency, fairness and inclusion; and encouraging women to actively be present in the transportation sector. Investment in transportation infrastructure in Africa is predicted to reach 69 billion USD by 2020. This demands an inclusive, sustainable and safe transport system.  

She explained that the main challenge for advocating for women in this industry has been the sexism; to the point where there is systematic oppression of woman. For example, in Kenya, about 95% of the women are conductors and not drivers of public transport, partly due to the very few women in policymaking. One of the main issues in all African countries is that there is a lack of data to support observations.

The vision of Flone initiative is to take women into transport in various African countries and ensure women participation in transport within several African countries.

Dagmawit Moges, Minister of Transport of Ethiopia, herself the first woman to be appointed as the transport minister, stresses that the population in developing countries is increasing much faster than car ownership. “And hence, a good transport system is vital to these countries’ development”.

Imagine a young woman having to be pushed in overcrowded busses; imagine an old grandmother crossing through a highway with a very young child; imagine the risk; imagine a meeting taking place about public transportation with no women around the decision-making table; and now imagine the decisions that would be made. The fact of the matter remains, very little is being done about women, children, the elderly and the disabled people in the public transportation.

Dagmawit believes more women are needed to be employed in the transportation sector as decision-makers, conductors, designers, and innovators of sustainable transportation to remedy the situation. In addition to that, Stakeholders and the ministry should start documenting, collecting and analyzing gender based data. She concluded by saying that everyone needs to start piloting gender based transport that is accessible, safe for all including disabled individuals and accessible.

Ethiopia has been making positive moves, this regard; half of the cabinet are women and are key players. Anbessa bus company and Sheger bus company are working hard to encourage women drivers to operate their busses.

Hirut Amare, procurement officer of Anbessa city bus service enterpriser, attended the conference. She says that the conference effectively addressed the problems in public transportation: “I have become more aware of the sector’s issues faced by the individuals with disability”. She claimed that women in Anbessa bus company are doing a better job. Women who were previously conductors are being given training and levelling up to bus operators, so they are encouraged to also be bus drivers. 120 women are working as bus drivers and there are more under training. Around 40% that work in Anbessa bus are women.  As to the disabled people, now, Anbessa have brought busses that are low floor that are more convenient and accessible to use. From this conference, we have learned that there is more expected needs to be met for disabled people, Hirut said. We will be working to provide better services that are suitable for disabled people, for instance, the timetable for buses and other information.

This conference is directly related to sustainable development goals, which are to provide access to safe, affordable, accessible and sustainable transport system for all involved and giving special attention to vulnerable groups such as children, woman, physically challenged and other individuals.

Crystal Asige is a musician, singer song writer, a public speaker, and visually impaired people’s ambassador, a youtuber, and disability consultant with the open institute. She said, “Disability drives innovation” For instance, she claims that text messaging was developed by a person who wanted to help a friend who is deaf. As a visually impaired person she finds public transportation in Africa incredibly uncomfortable and inefficient. Crystal’s white cane is her only supporter and she calls it “the faith”. She puts all her faith into that cane when she is walking around, that faith is a symbol of independence, opportunity, inclusion, safety, confidence and courage. However, she says it is very difficult to get around in a lot of African countries and that transportation is not convenient; there are a lot of barriers.

In open institute she leads a program called ability, where they advocate for the universal design of infrastructure for all people no matter their ability or disability. They mapped out several entities such as roads and buildings and wondered how accessible these were for disabled people. The inspiration of this came from sustainable development goals and the convention on the rights of persons with disabilities.

Universal design principles focus on accessibility, behavior and citizen awareness. Their data is generated by citizens who volunteer with the project. Universal design is ensuring any place: buildings, streets and the like are accessed, used and understood by all people regardless of age, size, ability or disability. Jeff Turner, DFID-funded high-volume transport Research Program, on his part, said that, “Delivering universal access will require appreciation, understanding and the participation of a range of social groups and interaction between them”.

During the conference, they conducted a mini social experiment. Where they choose people to participate as a disabled person, some were blind folded, while others were told to use crutches and the rest used wheelchairs. They were instructed to go from the end of the conference room to the stage, which was where the imaginary bus is parked. You could visibly see the difficulties they were facing. It was uncomfortable, awkward and a dangerous journey; and this was just an experiment and just imagine a real life situation.

These issues should not be ignored because as Crystal Asige said “No one is exempt from disability. It can happen to anyone in a second by an accident, as well as age.” This problem is everyone’s problem, brushing it away might not be a good idea, as we are all affected by it. 

Ed.’s Note: Sesina Hailou is on an internship at The Reporter.

Contributed by Sesina Hailou