In this interview of the campaign #womenonthemove2019, ERTICO spoke to Karla Gonzales Carvajal, the World Bank’s Practice Manager for Transport in Europe and leading figure of the Gender Task Force for the World Bank’s Transport Global Practice. With her extensive experience in this field, Karla focuses on key policy aspects related to women and transport discussing topics such as safety, the importance of effective infrastructure and the impact that transport has on peoples’ lives, and in particular women.

Karla, you have a wealth of experience in transport: as Member of FIA’s Road HLP, Costa Rica’s Minister of Public Works & Transportation and currently the World Bank’s Practice Manager for Transport in Europe. Did you choose transport, or did transport choose you?

“I started working in transport after 15 years spent working as a lawyer. The Minister of Public Works of my country, Costa Rica, appointed me to join his team as Under Secretary of Transportation. As well as my experience as a lawyer, I was trained in negotiation and mediation, skills very much needed to address the challenges in the Transportation sector.  As Under Secretary I was responsible for dialogue and decision making processes related to policies, concessions related to the National Airports, the public transport sector, and road safety. Transport is multi-sectorial, which implies focus on a variety of different areas, which however have in common the impact on the individuals, the environment and communities. It’s impossible to make everyone happy, so while following the law, one needs to negotiate, and most importantly, to give voice to the most vulnerable in order to balance everyone’s needs. I resigned in 2004. Then in 2006 a new government was elected, and I was appointed as the Minister of Civil Works and Transportation. Ever since then my work has been related to this sector.”

You are leading the Gender Task Force for the World Bank’s Transport Global Practice. Why do we speak today about gender inequality in transport?

“Transport and mobility have traditionally been perceived as gender neutral – that is, that the specific differences from men and women related to mobility patterns have not been taken into account. I hope to contribute to changing that.

When speaking about women in transport, gender differences are related to four things:

First, there is the issue of security and safety.  Women face harassment in much bigger numbers than men. It can take place on public transportation or in a public space (areas that take you from one platform to another, a terminal, or simply in the areas surrounding public transport). It is estimated that 80% of women around the world have experienced harassment, so it’s not about developing or developed countries, it’s about culture.  Moreover, it is about the attention that has not been given to this issue.

The second aspect is about designs and accessibility of the Infrastructure. The way public transport terminals and access to buses and sidewalks are designed. Running to catch a bus, metro or tram can be dangerous given unequal platform heights. Women (sometimes carrying a heavy load) and the elderly can have problems using steep stairs leading to and from public transport. In some cultures, where women have to wear long skirts, running to catch a bus or train can lead to injury. But mobility challenges at design are everywhere:  last year, in New York, a woman died after falling from an escalator. She was rushing to the platform, with a stroller and a lot of bags. Her child survived the fall, but she died. Such episodes make us question the safety and accessibility for different segments of the population, including women.

The third aspect is related to design of the systems: The travel patterns of men and women are different and yet we have not taken those differences into account when designing bus routes or schedules.  As a result, particularly poor women are stuck with public transport that becomes a deterrent for them to go places and jobs. Some also turn down night shifts for this reason, or simply face very long commutes to their workplace at night, due to less frequent transportation options. Imagine having to struggle with hours of commuting every day and then arriving home to take care of the family chores. The world has data to show the importance of mobility to job creation and yet there is not enough attention paid to the “decision making” nor technical intervention levels. A 2017 report from the International Labour Organization (ILO) showed that transport is one of the main obstacles that prevent women from going to work—ranking much higher than a lack of education or health.

The last aspect is the cost of transportation services. A kind of “pink tax” for transportation is showing that women are paying at times double than men based on their mobility patterns.  On one hand women around the globe travel on public transportation more than men, on the other hand the services are taxing them by not having the type of assistance that the majority of the users need. For example, costs can vary a lot depending on the travel timetable and availability of services, even in developed countries. Imagine having to take your children with you, either on your way to work, to the supermarket or doing other daily activities. In some of these cases, based on the design of the tariff, a mother with her kids needs to spend twice than men while taking kids to and from school, plus the short distances chores that we women do, to the pharmacy or the market. There are systems that charge the same tariff (regardless of the distance) every time you hop on and off the bus.”

What are the current and future transport solutions, technologies and policy measures that today are helping or will help overcome these gender issues? 

“We need Governments and Ministries to understand these differences and we need the policy makers of every single country comprehend the impact on the economy out of engendering transportation.   At the same time, more funding from developed countries, where services are already more inclusive. ILO and the G20 stablished an interesting challenge out of women participation in the work force. If the world closes by 25% the employment gap between men and women, we might add trillions to the world’s GDP by 2025. Education and health are not the only aspects on which we should focus: if people do not have the chance to move in a way that is affordable and safe, they will not be able to access these services and opportunities that are there for them. To pay close attention to mobility is the only way to ensure the GDP growth by 2025.

When designing transport projects, we want to make sure that everyone benefits from them. The traditional approach has not taken into account the differences among the users. Despite the complexity of this task, we want to challenge that approach. There is not enough data available and the cost to collect it is usually very expensive. There are authorities that don’t know what is the composition of their demand for services, who the users are and what are their needs, therefore taking decisions without knowing the real impact. This is true for rural and urban areas. For example, in many of the developing countries (in particular the poorest) road users are more pedestrians than vehicles. Yet, the roads lack of sidewalks and proper/basic facilities for them. In both urban and rural areas pedestrians are the silenced users, with voices that are not heard at the tables where the decisions are made. Among these silenced users, a majority of them are female, children and disabled who are particularly vulnerable due to the four reasons that I explained before.

Technology is showing real opportunities to engender transportation, to fine-tune projects and deliver results that cover a wider range of needs. What the ride hailing services are bringing shows the potential from tailor made services offer. However, if we don’t use technology as part of a system we might end up creating a bigger problem instead of a real solution. What will it happen if more women shift from public transport to Uber type of solutions? There will be a huge impact in the budget of metros and buses companies, let alone the increase in traffic congestion and pollution; what would be the right decisions to avoid this shift from women?  To me it sounds like a no brainer and yet few authorities are keen to bring the gender agenda into their offer when designing public transportation systems. Surveys and apps are among the main examples of how technology can help us make transport more inclusive. The users experience of the system can’t be understood from behind our desks, today’s applications help to collect feedback from a wider range of users to better understand how to design and adjust our projects. A word of caution, USE the data once collected. There are several authorities that don’t use nor know what they are collecting, this is true to developed and developing countries. Technology helps us push the transport agenda forward but only if it is used within the bigger design of a system instead of an app that supports individual decisions that are disconnected from a proper planning of any given service.”

What do you like about your job in transport?

“I am convinced that there is no other sector that influences the life of each and every individual around the globe as transport. Our operations are about connecting and mobilizing two key aspects for the social contract around the world.  By providing Infrastructure along with good transport services we can enhance people’s quality of life immensely.”

What is your greatest professional achievement?

“In 2006, when I was appointed as a Minister, with one of our major challenges being the finance for infrastructure. Through long negotiations we brought key concessions agreements to the two country’s international airports (out of a long crisis and back to operational).  The airports have won prizes for their efficiency and contribution to the tourism industry of Costa Rica. Both concessions and one in the road sector have shown how important it is to get the right conditions, for both private and public sector, out of PPPs agendas.

More recently in my work as Manager for Transport Infrastructure in the World Bank, the sector is giving me the opportunity to work with people that are in great need, and to make their voices heard. So our work at the World Bank is giving me that opportunity to speak for the vulnerable and to try to make the best out of our operations for them.”