Towards Mobility without Gender Barriers in Buenos Aires

By Manuela López Menéndez

Two women and a girl at a bus stop in Buenos Aires, waving a bus down.

ender inequalities in the home and at work have become increasingly visible, documented, and addressed with policies and transformations attempting to achieve equity, both in public and private spaces.

However, inequities in the transportation sector and the way people move around cities have only recently begun to be questioned. In recent years several studies made it possible to address mobility from a gender perspective.

In 2016, the Buenos Aires City Government conducted a study that found that more than half of the cyclists using bike lanes were women, while almost all the cyclists outside the bike lanes were men. Realizing the need for additional data, we partnered with the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) and published a research paper titled “Women and Urban Cycling” (Mujeres y Ciclismo Urbano), which studied different patterns of mobility and the barriers resulting in fewer women cycling. The paper identified key elements to take into account in the formulation of a public policy for urban cycling aimed at women, including promoting a pattern of compact urban development; prioritizing the implementation of separated bicycle lane networks, complemented with shared-use streets and the adoption of measures aimed at lowering the speed of motor vehicles; promoting intermodality, offering a greater variety of transport options to women; and including those who travel with women, particularly children, in policies to promote cycling.

The following year, we participated in the study “She Moves Safely” (Ella se mueve segura), launched by the Development Bank of Latin America (CAF), which investigated women’s personal safety on public transportation in three Latin American cities: Quito, Ecuador; Santiago, Chile; and here in Buenos Aires, Argentina. From these studies, we realized how much more there was to investigate. Modern transportation systems were designed and built based on the needs and social roles that have been assigned to men who occupied what was considered the main economic and productive activities. Transportation, as a constitutive and central system for the development of our society, was to facilitate the movement of middle-aged men who commuted linearly to their full-time workplaces. Most transport drivers and workers were men, and it became a very masculine space.

People biking, including a woman with a seat for a child, down a bike path on a major road at night.

This system fails when it comes up against reality: in Buenos Aires City, women are more than half of the population and have different needs and experiences than men. They are often in charge of care tasks (raising children, shopping, running errands, caring for the elderly, etc.) and mainly travel by foot and public transport. They also are more likely to use several modes within a single trip. Largely because of the transportation options available, women also spend more time and money on their daily mobility.

Furthermore, women are more exposed to street harassment. In our findings, 100% of surveyed women have been harassed at least once, either verbally or physically, while moving around Buenos Aires. To minimize harassment, many women avoid traveling at night, travel only accompanied, take indirect routes to avoid certain areas, and carefully consider what clothes they are going to wear before leaving their houses.

When we analyze our transport system, not only are we thinking of women as users but also as workers. In the City of Buenos Aires, 21% of subway drivers and 2.4% of taxi drivers are women. At the federal level, only 0.2% of professional driver’s licenses issued are female and 1.4% of Argentina’s airplane workers are women.

Women walking, biking, and scootering across a street with a wide crosswalk and a painted-green bike lane.

Taking this reality into account, we set out to comprehensively address inequities in mobility and launched the first Gender and Mobility Plan in 2019 (Plan de Género y Movilidad). In this work, we presented the diagnosis and four lines of action:

a) Planning, design, and management with a gender perspective;

b) Labor insertion of women in the transport sector;

c) Data and studies on daily mobility and safety with a gender perspective; and

d) Training and awareness in gender perspective.

One of the first measures we took was related to this last topic. In order to make harassment visible and denaturalize it as a way of gender violence, we launched the campaign “Not crazy, not persecuted, not hysterical” (“Ni loca, ni perseguida, ni histérica”). This campaign was visible in different mass media and on train, bus, and subway billboards, with a reach of more than three million people. Simultaneously, we created a telephone line for women to report situations of harassment so that, in those cases, they could receive help and support.

The COVID-19 pandemic brought a huge pause in social dynamics and caused countless losses, but it also gave us the opportunity to rethink the city we wanted to come back to. The restrictions inflicted by the virus made it possible to implement mobility schemes that were previously unthinkable and deepen transformations in the public space to make it more democratic, inclusive, and safe. During the pandemic, we built 17 km of one-way protected bike lanes on two of the most important avenues in Buenos Aires, Av. Córdoba and Av. Corrientes. We knew from previous studies that women preferred to cycle on avenues because they are busier and more illuminated than interior/small streets. In less than a month, the number of female cyclists on both corridors had tripled. Thanks to a safer infrastructure that provides physical protection, more lighting, and by prioritizing central and well-connected streets, we were able to create the conditions necessary by which thousands of women are encouraged to move around the city by bicycle.

During the pandemic, we also took advantage of systematizing a series of analyses and field studies. As a result, we created the “Daily Mobility Guide with a Gender Perspective” (“Guía de movilidad cotidiana con perspectiva de género”) alongisde CAF and a feminist urbanism cooperative named Colectivo Punto 6. It is a methodological guide for people who work in the planning and implementation of transportation projects which promotes a series of practical tools for intervention in urban mobility and takes into account the different daily mobility needs of women, men, and children, like having more and better signs indicating the bus route, or better lighting and urban equipment such as benches.

We have already implemented some of these tools in transportation works, such as the extension of the Metrobus del Bajo (a bus rapid transit system that will have stops with more accessible and safe spaces for people with reduced mobility and for people traveling with children in strollers) and the shared Street Libertador (which involves the redesign of an emblematic avenue, incorporating bike lanes, larger and brighter public transport stops, and more space on the sidewalks for pedestrian traffic).

There is still so much work left to do. Transforming the city from a gender perspective means that we all have the right to enjoy it freely and that we all can access the variety of possibilities it provides us. To this effect, transportation is central to achieving gender equity because it defines our access to education, work, health, and culture. We want women to feel like they can safely use the streets without having to plan their movements around any symbolic or physical barrier, think about what to wear to go out, or spend more money. The future of Buenos Aires needs to provide more opportunities for everyone, and that is why we are making efforts so that gender gaps in mobility disappear.

Manuela López Menéndez is an economist who graduated from the Universidad Católica Argentina. She studied Urban Planning and Regional Development in the United States and has worked in the public sector since 1998.

Between 2009 and 2015, she coordinated the Metrobus works of the Government of the City of Buenos Aires within the framework of the Sustainable Mobility Plan. Between 2015 and 2019, she was Secretary of Works of the Ministry of Transportation of the Nation. Between 2020 and 2021, she was president of Buenos Aires Subways, where she was in charge of managing the city’s subway network. Since 2022 she has been the Secretary of Transportation and Public Works for the city of Buenos Aires

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