FUTURE CAPE TOWN | How cities could become safer for women and girls using public transport

“gender-based crime cannot be solved through urban planning and urban design alone”


How can we improve safety in cities for women and girls? We chat to young female urbanists about their ideas.

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Research and Words: Christine Dalle-Vedove

In 2014, City of Cape Town announced it would be joining the United Nations Women Safe Cities Global Initiative, making it the first city in Africa to join the programme. The Initiative is designed to assist local authorities in making cities safer for women and girls. One year on we chatted to seven female urbanists on how to improve safety in their respective cities and to gather new ideas on the evolving nature of safety and security.

“The City of Cape Town is aware of the close association between safe public spaces and the economic, social, political and cultural success of women. Crime and fear of crime, violence and sexual harassment can at times inhibit women and girls from fully using public spaces and transport. This has a profound impact on mobility and, in turn, the integration of women into society and the workforce.”  Cape Town Mayor, Patricia de Lille


On the Safe Cities Global Initiative’s measures

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Colette Fransolet, Industrial Design graduate from the Cape Peninsula University of Technology (CPUT), says “the UN Women Safe Cities Global Initiatives have the power of collective knowledge: although there are different dynamics, cultures and ethics at play in each country, the essence of the safety and security of women across the world is the same, and it is important that participating countries share their experiences in improving this. She adds that “from the outset, it is also important that stringent Monitoring and Evaluation processes are in place to ensure that progress is measured, and that the processes put in place are effective.”

This is a point echoed by London-based actuary and writer Pamela Hellig who proposes “to analyse the success of each of these projects objectively. For example, by a decrease in reported assault cases, or by increase in female employment. Let’s take our results and compare them to the success rates of other projects and try and develop a best practice.”

“That the focus of UN Women Safe Cities Global Initiatives is not on one area, like transport, water, or housing is positive,” says Olamide Udoma, filmmaker and manager of Future Lagos. She hopes that the initiative will be implemented “in conjunction with existing institutions so that it becomes ingrained in every part of urban planning and urban design.”

Alexandra Jongens, formerly of crime-reduction research facility The Safety Lab, recently took part in a two-day Safer Cities Initiative held in the town of Atlantis earlier this year. Atlantis, a town of nearly 70,000 within the metropolitan region of Cape Town, has a very young population and is grappling with high levels of crime and unemployment. Jongens notes that the workshop was well attended by a diverse range of community members (mainly women), Non-Government Organisations, crèches, businesses, and officials from the Cape Town Metropolitan Police Department. “Everyone went for a walk around the neighbourhood so that we could see what was talked about in the discussions. There were many great suggestions of inexpensive, low-tech interim solutions to make the neighbourhood, specifically pedestrian routes to MyCiti stops safer for women. It would be wonderful for some of these to be tried and tested with the results flowing back to everyone who attended the 2-day workshop.”

The Safety Lab in Atlantis update

“After the completion of workshops, surveys, safety audits, crime-mapping and interviews, we believe that we now have a deeper understanding of Atlantis and the nature of local crime and violence. We found that most women in Atlantis feel nervous, uneasy or scared in public spaces and that access to public transport is considered less safe than actually using public transport. Areas that are considered to be the most unsafe include bus stops, public streets, parks, unused open spaces, informal settlements and areas around Council flats. We learnt that women and girls employ various methods to keep safe, including avoidance and self-defence.

Some of the interventions that we have and will implement include the following:

1. Developing ‘safe-routes’ for commuters to move around in areas of high visibility

2. Increased maintenance, use and improvement of open spaces.

3. Effective consultation on further infrastructural roll-out of MyCiTi in order to effectively engage the community in the determination of permanent infrastructure

4. Improving the safety of Council flats which contribute to gangsterism and violence in the area” Cape Town Mayor, Patricia de Lille

Zarina Nteta, Project Manager at the Cape Town Partnership, “would like to see the City of Cape Town integrate the minibus taxi systems into their learnings. In my experience of public transport, I’ve found minibus taxis to feel the safest. This feeling is likely linked to the densities in taxis at peak traffic times. And the feeling that the driver is invested in his passenger’s (relative) well-being. Everybody is watching everybody and the driver is on the alert for any irregularities in his taxi.”

Interventions in public transport to create safer spaces for female commuters

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Even though safety is an issue for all genders, and ages, there is still room for interventions that specifically improve matters for women while using public transport.

Jodi Allemeier, with a background in social work, property economics, and development finance, reports on her experience with public transport: “About 18 months ago, I was forced to adapt my own behaviour after being repeatedly harassed in an increasingly threatening manner by two specific individuals, who, by my evening commute, were always drunk. Due to living in Obs and working in town, I have the luxury of choosing between transport modes, and shifted from taxi to train for my evening commute. Not everyone has this luxury.”

She notes that “safety is a common concern that gets expressed when researching barriers amongst middle-income commuters to shifting their mode of transport (for example, from private vehicle to public transport). This includes not just safety on public transport, but also along access routes.”

She suggests that there are a range of interventions that can improve the safety of female commuters: “Some are structural interventions in public spaces, such as lighting. There are also interventions which rely on the coordinated efforts of people. Different communities will need different types and levels of structural and people-centric interventions to ensure safer spaces. For example, there needs to be sufficient planning upfront in order to understand what the most appropriate routes are. The frequency of bus stops should ensure people, especially women and children, don’t need to walk too far to reach transport interchanges. In addition, appropriate design of bus and taxi stops, pedestrian crossings, and responsive traffic lights ensures pedestrian and commuter safety. Lastly, commuting routes should be along active streets and public spaces, areas that are busy with people day and night. With more ‘eyes-on-the-street’ a public space is automatically safer than one which is inactive and lonely.”

What women want from a city

“One would have to review the entirety of the travel chain,” suggests Fransolet. “This includes access to information about what transport services are available and when, access to the point of departure, safety and security during transit, disembarking and arrival at their destination and finally the ability to give and receive feedback.”

Jongens points out that there are also socially-organised safety initiatives: “Individuals commute to public transport interchanges in groups, coordinating meeting times so that no one is by themselves for too long.” Social media can play an important role too: she notes how a group of women in Atlantis use a WhatsApp group to coordinate a ‘walking bus,’ ensuring safety in numbers in their daily walk.

Once on board transportation, Fransolet suggests that “safety and security during transit should be enhanced through vigilance of the public transport staff, including drivers, as well as good internal lighting. On-board real-time feedback systems throughout vehicles could also assist in curbing on-board security risks and problems.” For example, Nteta explains her experience taking the train: “One thing that would bug me towards the last stretch as the train emptied out, was that the train carts had no ‘panic button’ or means to alert anyone if I encountered trouble while alone.”

Olivia Labonté, program director of Young Diplomats of Canada, suggests “that women should have the option of being dropped off anywhere between public transport stops – this policy already exists in Montreal and has proven to ensure that female commuters get home safely.”

Fransolet and Labonté both put forward for consideration the key role information plays in providing safety for female commuters, for example, through improved real-time communication between service providers and passengers. “Inform passengers if the service is on time, running late or not arriving at all.”


Making communal spaces safer for women

While these interventions into the physical infrastructure of the city will improve the safety of women, Allemeier notes that the problem may require far deeper interventions than these: “urban interventions have limited potential in our context. Issues of gender-based crime, specifically sexual harassment in public spaces, and violent crimes against girls and women, cannot be solved through urban planning and urban design alone. These are complex issues that require a mix of interventions at all levels of society.” Udoma agrees: “the most important thing is social change: education and knowledge. Both women and men need to understand that harassment and sexual abuse is not acceptable.”

Hellig suggests loudspeaker announcements at stations could conscientise men to be vigilant on behalf of fellow passengers, and step in where they feel a woman is at risk. Fransolet concurs: “public awareness via the media should be positive, and not focus on crimes against women and girls, but rather focus on their safety and security. Positive affirmations (like “keep our women and girls safe”) make more impact, and would influence surrounding communities with positive words, rather than simply reiterating the existence of crime and fear.”

Nteta notes the critical role society and culture play in public safety: “I recently travelled to Iran and the penny dropped, hard. Public space is more than just what infrastructure you create, and very much about that neighbourhood, city or country’s relation to ‘public’, and ‘community.’ How people relate to their urban environment and each other is really important – the ownership they take, the responsibility they feel.”

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“Designing for the vulnerable members of our community, specifically women and girls, one needs to consider their means of communication, their access to information, the accessibility of spaces (including lighting, physical access, visibility and unrestricted movement) and the perceptions of people in the area or the surroundings,” says Fransolet.

Labonté adds that interventions should run the gamut from infrastructural changes like adequate lighting, to social changes like creating after-hours economic activity in urban spaces to ensure that community surveillance is continual throughout the day.

Hellig raises the issues of passive citizen surveillance: “What makes me feel safe in any public space is the presence of other people. We should ask questions like “How can we attract pedestrians along the entire length of Long Street (and surrounding side streets) at all hours of the day and night? How can we eliminate the scary corners of urban gardens and parks?” I think Green Point in Cape Town is a good example of an area where safe pedestrian spaces have been created (such as the Fan Walk and Green Point Park). Could the city find a way to encourage businesses, vendors and restaurants in less busy streets in the CBD to keep their doors open a little later and so build late night –safe – hives of activity?”

Jongens believes that ultimately, however, while there are many commendable efforts and practices in place, “people are responsible for their own safety. Wherever possible we should be conscious of the particular environment we’re in and adapt accordingly. Get to know your neighbours, don’t flash your valuables. Wear clothing that won’t lit your ability to move easily (like heels). Especially when in a new area, take the time to orientate yourself beforehand. Understand the spaces you’re in and where you can go if you’re in trouble, and share your knowledge with others.”

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  1. Cover: Thomson Reuters Foundation. Source

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