While living in Mumbai in 2022, the most exhilarating experience for me was to travel from Bandra to Chembur in an auto-rickshaw at 3 am. It was hard to believe that I had the privilege of seeing a city be alive at such an ungodly hour.
As a woman born and brought up in Delhi, I wasn’t used to this. Commuting for me had always been more of a mental exercise than a physical one. It involved making a mind-map of my travel before I stepped out – like calculating when (and if) I would get an auto/cab, coordinating with my brother if he would pick me up in case I get too late, deciding how much extra money I am willing to give for the ride to get home safe and sound and so on. Safety was something I had to create in every step of my journey – the city never took the onus of providing it for me.
Commuting within Mumbai was different. The coincidental suitability that auto-rickshaws of Mumbai provided to commuting needs of women became the driving force for the liberation and safety I experienced in the city.
Travel patterns across the world show that women travel differently than men. Women tend to choose jobs and universities closer to home – immediately changing their travel vicinity from that of between areas to within an area. This implies that a facility like the Delhi Metro or the Mumbai Local that covers different areas within a city, are largely sufficient to those whose mobility is guided by and related to employment – that is, men. This is what makes the auto-rickshaw walas more relevant to women’s travel in cities like Delhi and Mumbai – they suit the commute needs of women by allowing them to move easily within an area.
Further, women try to weave different purposes of travel into one journey more than men do, thus adding multiple stops to one trip, known as trip chaining. A working mother of two will pick her children up from daycare after work, then go to the grocery store with them, visit the chemist for medicines and then head home to manage the burden of care responsibilities in the time she has. One of the times I traveled from Bandra to Chembur at 3 am, I decided to pause for the ATM, picked up my take-away and then home. My biggest concern? Not finding another auto at 3 am. Trip chaining is a method of making travel effective – which is why all kinds of commuters engage in it; while men do so to save time, women do so to not lose out on more time or compromise their safety. Such trip chaining is only made possible in a city like Delhi when it meets a compensatory fee. In a city like Mumbai, not only was trip-chaining easier, but a go-to option for safety.
The meter-system of auto-rickshaws in Mumbai, where the passengers are charged according to meter-indicated fare chargers that accounts for travel time along with wait time, plays a large part in offering this relief to women. It eliminates the bargaining time prior to the journey, as it exists in Delhi where a woman commuter has to consistently negotiate between her safety and money. It allows a woman to choose which route to take, how many short trips to make within a journey and provides the option for traveling as close or farther as needed – without much interference from the auto-wala. It allows a woman passenger to hold a ride until someone comes to fetch her, so that she doesn’t have to wait on the road. The meter-fare system also acts as a safety net for the auto-wala. He can simply receive the fare as justified according to the journey – without having to deal with a cost-cutting tussle with a passenger.
Another aspect of the transportation system is the first-mile and last-mile connectivity i.e. the beginning of a passenger’s journey from home, catching the transit and finally arriving at their destination. In every city, metro stations or local stations are located at particular transit points in the area – for which people walk, cycle, or take auto-rickshaws. As a woman commuter in both Delhi and Mumbai, my resort for last mile connectivity has been the auto-rickshaws as walking and cycling hold with themselves a narrative of danger.
In Delhi, this option however comes with an added cost – after I get off from the metro station, I have to choose to either pay extra to the auto to reach my destination in time or to wait for other passengers to share the ride with me. Mumbai again resolves this conflict for me – for the ride from and to the Local station always cost me the same, whether or not I am accompanied by other passengers.
While the auto-rickshaw and the meter-system in Mumbai become a saving grace for women’s mobility and access across the city, they carry with themselves the bias of only being able to do so for the privileged middle and upper class women. Unfortunately, safety and mobility for women are guided with the inherent “pink tax” that doesn’t seem to spare them. Women who can’t make these choices owing to monetary concerns resort to the most accessible transport available to them – walking, which simply means that in the quest for money and safety, money has won.
Making transport women-friendly means designing for women’s unique commuting needs, designing for care-travel as much as is done for work-travel, creating transit that women can rely on right when they leave their homes. It means thinking about, designing for and implementing safety in transport systems – and not asking women to design it for themselves.
Kirti, is a 23-year-old single woman from Delhi, working as a Counselling Therapist currently.