Amy Dunckel-Graglia

Women-only taxis and buses can help female travelers feel safer. But are they also delaying gender equality?

A female traveler emerging from Dubai International Airport, day or night, will find a unique public transport option: women-only "pink taxi" services. Ladies clad in pale pink outfits and white headscarves who accept only women and families as passengers squire customers around the city-state in cream vehicles with pink roofs.

While similar services can be found in Middle Eastern cities like Beirut, Tehran, and Cairo, where Muslim sensibilities may encourage separation of the sexes, women-only transportation has also caught on around the globe. In the past few years, taxis driven by women, for women have cropped up in cities ranging from Melbourne to Delhi.

Much of the impetus behind these services is to curb male violence against women on urban public transport. While it's hard to say for certain whether there's been an actual increase in this type of violence, from leering to groping to rape (it's possible that women are merely reporting incidents more often than in the past), the perception of increased aggression and the fear that accompanies it has intensified. Horrific cases that feature prominently in the global media, such as the 2012 incident in Delhi in which a 23-year-old student was gang-raped on a bus and later died from her internal injuries, have brought more attention to the issue.

Many women appreciate services like pink taxis, saying that they feel more comfortable traveling with women as opposed to men. "I feel safer in a women's taxi, from all points of view," Roqaya Khalili of Tehran told the BBC in 2008. And on a 2011 Amsterdam-based online forum about Dubai's pink taxis, one respondent agreed that the service is a great idea, adding, "I was once in a cab driven by a dirty old man who couldn't stop talking about women as sex objects!! Major nightmare!!!"

But others worry that female-only transport merely serves as a Band-Aid that slightly covers, rather than truly addresses, the deep and structural global problem that is male violence against women. "Gender segregation seems like the easy way out," wrote Osama Diab in The Guardian in 2010 in response to a Cairo taxi company setting aside some of its cars for female drivers and passengers.

After the Delhi rape, some argued that such separation threatens the gains that women have made in education and the workplace. These critics suggest tackling the problem via men rather than women; remedies include programs that treat sexual harassers with psychological counseling, or improved background checks for taxi drivers when they first apply to a company.

Researchers who study women-only urban transport suggest that the issue is more complicated than being either "good" or "bad" for women. Amy Dunckel-Graglia studies "pink transportation" in Mexico City. The city began providing women-only taxis, buses, and train cars over the past several years, with the goal of helping women feel safer and increasing their mobility and access to employment and other urban resources.

Yet Dunckel-Graglia notes that studies showed that these options didn't appear to be changing things. "Violence was actually on the rise," she says. Civil society groups and the Mexico City government then decided to try to address the violence not only through women-only transportation, but a wholistic "pink transportation" campaign. The difference was that pink transportation, in addition to providing women with their own means of getting around, aimed to change public attitudes, namely the prevalent idea that women “deserve” or “invite” violence because of the spaces they frequent, the clothes they wear, or the times of day when they are out.

Through strategies such as hosting public discussions and splashing positive images of women from Mexico’s history around the city, Dunckel-Graglia says that the pink transportation campaign has encouraged collective action and consciousness among citizens. This in turn is helping to shift the public discourse to one that seeks to address gender inequality and discrimination rather than assign blame to victims, fostering a safer environment. 

As such, services like pink taxis can be seen as, at a minimum, an initial step toward bringing about structural change.

"The ultimate goal is to change public practices so that segregation isn’t necessary," Dunckel-Graglia says.

Inset image courtesy of Dubai Taxi. Top image courtesy of Amy Dunckel-Graglia.

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