Complexity and Contradiction: MaaS and the Gender-Sensitive Lens

By Dr Nicole Kalms, Director XYX Lab & Associate Professor, Monash University and Ross Douglas, Founder & CEO, Autonomy

Fact: Urban mobility is not gender-neutral. 

Women’s anxiety and trepidation about safely moving through cities and accessing public transport reveals how spaces, systems and networks of urban mobility carry implicit and explicit hierarchies of power. This creates a conundrum in the high stakes world of MaaS.

While experts and stakeholders are becoming increasingly aware of the ways that women modify their travel patterns in cities, many stakeholders and service providers are struggling to understand the impact of spatial inequities on the future of mobility. With 1.2 billion cars on the planet causing massive pollution and congestion, the drive toward Mobility as a Service (MaaS) aims to greatly reduce the number of privately-owned cars and improve cities. Yet recent international research with young women suggests that these ambitions may not be straight forward. New data reveals that across the globe, women’s lack of safety on city streets and when using public transport is so concerning that more than 50% regularly modify their behavior and avoid going into public spaces to reduce their risk of harassment.

Across five international cities, “on the street” is the most unsafe place for young women and girls (Plan International + Monash University XYX Lab 2018)

The ubiquity of sexual harassment in cities might be unsurprising in cities like Delhi or Lima but in those ‘livable cities’ like Sydney, Melbourne, London and Madrid women relay very similar stories. 

I used to use this area as a meeting point with my friends when we met up but now I avoid it because whenever I waited for them alone someone would come to try to chat me up etc. At night the situation gets worse. (Madrid, Age 23)
Horrible bus stop for late nights, will now only catch buses to Manly if coming home from the city. Have been groped here, and stalked home. (Sydney, Age 27)

While there has been a long and politicized conversation from feminist critics about women and girl’s* travel patterns including their preferences and concerns – there is little discussion around the avalanche of sexual harassment experienced by women and the impact on their everyday mobility.

Certainly, in Australia, North America, Europe and the UK, any increase in knowledge about the fear and risks faced by women and girls moving through cities has not translated into measurable action by the urban transport sector. This seems ironic, if not foolish. 

Innovators are promising a new mobility future with quick convenient mobility for all starting and ending on the streets, however, very few are undertaking the translational work required to understand the realities of women’s daily urban travel. Fewer still are concerns about why we continue to overlook more than 50% of the commuters? 

If MaaS is implemented without a gender-sensitive lens (more on what that is later) then greater inequity may result as women are excluded from the spaces of accessing new forms of mobility. And if that isn’t enough to spark your interest then all you need to do is turn your attention to environmental impact of not listening to women’s voices. And then there is the missed financial returns.

Let’s take a closer look at the research and what women and girls are telling us.

Free to Be

The Monash University XYX Lab has worked in partnership with Plan International and CrowdSpot on the Free to Be project since 2016. The research has analysed contributions from more than 21,000 young women about their experiences in public places, and the concerning impact of unwanted sexual behavior on their mobility and access to public life. 

Image: More than 21000 geolocative pins and stories about public spaces were collected by Plan International, Monash University XYX Lab and Crowdspot in the Free to Be project in 2018.

The research uncovered a range of statistics and stories that challenge the ambitions of MaaS. What dominates is young women’s inability to move around the city without some form of harassment or fear of harassment. This was evident in all of the five cities surveyed, with an average of 50% of all young women and girls having affected access to education and employment. 

Public transport was the site of a high number of negative experiences.

Across five international cities “public transport” is an unsafe place for young women and girls (Plan International + Monash University XYX Lab 2018)

All the comments noted a high incidence of sexual harassment on public transport and around transport hubs. This kind of predatory behaviour greatly increases stress for young women and girls as they commute to education or employment. All sexual harassment serves as a reminder to young women and girls of their social and physical vulnerability, and therefore has a significant role in increasing the fear of more serious incidents and controlling their movement through cities

Image: The percentage of women stating that sexual harassment indicates that a space is unsafe or “bad”.

For example, two thirds of all women engaging with the Free to Be stated if they have an unsafe experience in the city that they would never go back to that place alone. 13% said they would never go back again. Indeed, a third of young women surveyed in Australia believe it is unsafe to go out at night, choosing instead to stay at home. One woman writes:

I rarely go out after dark in the city any more after years of harassment… To be catcalled, then verbally abused in a very aggressive manner if I don’t respond or turn them down is incredibly scary. I don’t like that they’ve won over the space, but I don’t want to be bashed or raped. And the only way seems to be not for the men to stop but for me to leave. 

This creates for each participant a complex personal geography of Sydney of ‘no-go’ and ‘take-extreme-care’ zones that they must negotiate every day. Plan International Australia Deputy Chief Executive Officer, Susanne Legena states:

 “The data tells us girls think the responsibility for violence or sexual harassment towards women and girls rests with them and not the perpetrators of the crimes. It’s disheartening that so many girls think they’re better off staying at home than doing things as simple as catching public transport on their own.”

Image: After an unsafe experience 47% of young women in Sydney avoid going back to that place alone, 12% will never go back again and 1% will change their job or change school as a result of that experience.

Future Mobility and gender

Cities are looking to MaaS to end car ownership and single-car driving in cities, what this means is that commuters will need to feel safe on the streets in order to catch and use public transport, jump on a bike or scooter or hail a ride. In many instances, women change their public transport travel patterns as a result of harassment and violence. This ranges from avoiding certain stations and bus stops to more dramatic actions like buying a car or catching taxis/Ubers home from work after dark.

I have a rule that I cab it home any time after 9pm. The $30 from the city is fully worth it for peace of mind. (Sydney, Age 43)

There was an older, intoxicated man who touched me inappropriately. This was a number of years ago. There was security there who saw it and did nothing. I was in the bus interchange, waiting for a bus to get home from work. I bought my first car the next day. I couldn’t afford it, but I refused to be put back in that same position.(Sydney, Age 21)

Innovators and policy makers seem to believe that men and women have the same mobility realities, yet this research shows the opposite. Women feel most vulnerability on the streets and using public transport. It is unlikely that women who are privileged enough to own a car are likely to give it up if the single-owned car provides a sense of security. And those that cannot afford a car? Well they will opt out of public life altogether – indeed they already are.
If the megatrend of this century is a rapid increase in urban population, if there is no longer space for single-car use in urban areas, How do women’s stories fit into this future? If we are all to commute by public transport, women need to feel safe or they will not have access to the same opportunities as men.

Furthermore, this research challenges the constraints to sustainable urban mobility which are always thought to be infrastructure (charge stations, investment) technology and innovation. While technology is important, changing behavior and understanding diverse experiences is always going to be more challenging and is certainly not going to happen before MaaS implementation. 

A Gender Sensitive Lens

Gender sensitive design acknowledges that urban environments are not gender-neutral. Urban planners, stakeholders and designers are increasingly seeking to understand how gender-sensitive design can combat the spatial inequities faced by those who identify as women and girls of all demographics, ethnicity and socio-economic groups.

Image: Recommendations from the Monash University XYX Lab about understanding and designing for women and girls in urban mobility sector.

For the Monash University XYX Lab the process of engaging women and girls – from all sectors of the community – as co-designers, is crucial for gender-sensitive cities. Participatory co-design brings stakeholders into direct contact with women and their stories, forcing them to recognise that design for women is not designing for an abstract homogenous group. 

While the proportions shift from city to city, essentially the numbers paint the same picture –  harassment is endemic in the female populace and too often embedded in the very fabric of the city. For cities to be accessible to all who live there, this needs to be addressed.

* “Women and Girls” are not a homogenous group and represent enormous diversity in their cultural background, socioeconomic status, where they live, their sexuality, disability, and age. The term is therefore inclusive of all women, including cis-women, trans-women, and intersex women.


Passionate about the intersection of gender and mobility? Brush up your knowledge with these additional UM Daily articles:

The Gender Gap in Shared Micromobility

The Real Reason why Mobility is Not Women Friendly