Disconnected Mobility Infrastructures: Female Domestic Workers & the Perils of Bus Transport in Karachi

Nausheen Anwar and Eisha Shakeel

In urban Pakistan, limited access to, and the safety of, public transport is estimated to reduce female labor force participation (Malik et al., 2016). Minibuses are the most popular and affordable type of transport for female domestic workers in Karachi.

From 2020 to 2021, a collaborative project titled “Tell Me How You See It: Dialogues for Gender-Inclusive Mobility” was funded by the United Kingdom’s Royal Academy of Engineering; conducted across Karachi, London, and Cape Town to investigate how the design and provision of mobility infrastructure affect female domestic workers in public spaces, particularly at Bus Stops.

We developed a survey instrument for data collection and a methodology that can be replicated in other cities in Pakistan.

The surveys, conducted primarily during the day between April to December 2021, focused on women’s perceptions of their safety while walking to a bus stop, waiting at a bus stop, and traveling on a bus. Safety was understood as a woman’s perception of threat from an act of aggression or an intentional attack. The ethnically diverse respondents (aged 20-80) were asked about their traveling hours, mobility challenges during the pandemic, and safety concerns related to public transport, such as speeding buses or robberies. We found that 48% of domestic workers take more than an hour to reach their daily work destination, 46% leave their homes after dark, and 76% always travel entirely alone.

There is limited research on bus stops in Karachi, thus making this project vital for urban policy-making on walkability, transport, and gendered inequality. The Safety Audits designed by SafetiPin enabled us to map out 23 bus stops in the wealthiest district of Karachi, namely Clifton and DHA in District South. The SafetiPin audit also enabled us to identify important features related to access (walkability, ramps, last-mile connectivity), safety (gender mix, security cameras, type of neighborhood), and infrastructural amenities (public toilets, benches, bus schedules). The survey instrument includes a section for auditors to provide their own observations, thus enabling qualitative feedback, which is an important feature that is often overlooked in survey-based data collection in Pakistan.

Disproportionately affected workers

Female domestic workers are one of the most marginalized and vulnerable groups in urban Pakistan. In the absence of legal social protections, female domestic workers’ salaries and work hours are set by their employers, rendering many vulnerable to the likelihood of abuse and exploitation. In Karachi, thousands of female domestic workers travel daily to work and spend 10% to 50% of their monthly incomes on transport alone. They live in dense, low-income neighborhoods; for instance, Shah Rasool Colony provides a steady stream of workers for upper-income households in Clifton and DHA. These are low-income neighborhoods with limited access to adequate physical infrastructure.

In 1971, the ‘free transport policy’ was launched in Karachi and this meant that anyone could purchase a bus, and apply for a route permit. Drivers opted to purchase on loans the (then) more affordable minibuses. Since they bear the risks of the loan and maintenance expenses, many bus owners seek to maximize profits by overloading passengers, charging higher fares, and switching to crowded routes.

In essence, there is limited regulation and accountability for bus routes, timings, and behaviors of bus drivers and conductors. The lack of regulation is reflected in the bus stop’s architecture that never features any information about schedules, routes, maps, or fares about the buses at the stop. Bus stops are entirely disconnected from bus organizations, drivers, conductors, and official regulations. Domestic workers, therefore, learn about bus routes purely from experience; for instance, when traveling with their family members at a young age.

Infrastructures are gendered and relational, which means disconnected access to them can be felt as a form of ‘infrastructural violence’ by women through social exclusion from both their homes and their city spaces (Ahmed & Datta 2019). This is relevant to transportation, given that women from low-income households rely more on unsafe minibuses that typically arrive at/disembark from bus stops distant to their workplaces.

Mobility is often framed through the lens of agency, independence, and empowerment. It is assumed that movement is necessary for “full economic and social citizenship” (Whitzman, 2013, p.36).  But ‘forced mobility’, as in the case of domestic workers who are compelled to walk, wait, and utilize unsafe transport services, can be stressful, involuntary, and coerced.

When asked about the safety and reliance of the bus transit system, our respondents often said:

Bus walon par bharosa nahin hai’ (We have no faith in the bus system) and

Koi chaara hi nai hai hum ghareebon ka.’ (We, the impoverished, have no other options.)

A term that frequently came up was ‘majboori’ (helplessness) with respect to their reliance on public transport. Many respondents blamed political parties, inflation, moral policing, and inaction by local police for their perspectives on the security of public (bus) transportation. Yet respondents seemed inextricably dependent on the same public transportation system, citing distressful experiences during Covid-19 lockdowns to emphasize the point. A 30-year-old, for instance, reported that during the pandemic, she walked nearly two hours every day along the SeaView (beach front in Karachi) road to get to work and back.

Dis/connected bus/stops

There are two types of bus stops in Karachi: the built type with a standard bench and shade below a massive advertisement board, and the type with no structure and only a social understanding that a bus is likely to briefly stop there. Most respondents reported standing on the side of the roads, waving the buses down, often choosing these known spots by the roadside that count as ‘bus stops’.

Built bus stops are usually located near main roads, at a distance from the low-income neighborhoods where domestic workers reside. To reach a built bus stop, she must walk a long distance from her home before finding the closest stop with buses on her route. Domestic workers typically walk up to 30 minutes and can wait up to 45 minutes at the stop. There is no guarantee that a bus will arrive on time, or that there will be space for her to find a seat or even to stand. A respondent, aged 45, reported that as she was getting ready to alight from a bus, the driver braked so hard that she fell onto the main road, sustaining a knee injury that never fully healed. The driver had stopped some distance from the bus stop, so she had to endure an even longer walk before she could rest her knee.

Women’s reliance on buses is also inextricably connected to the state of sidewalks. Walkability – a measure of how walking-friendly an area is in terms of access to shade, clear and clean sidewalks, public toilets, and pedestrian bridges – is very low in Karachi. With urban planning catering mostly to the needs of private cars, sidewalks, and pedestrian bridges are nearly impossible to find, rendering many women vulnerable to fast-moving cars in a bid to save time and cross busy roads. Rising heatwaves also expose domestic workers to heat stress, which can develop into serious medical problems, and causes tensions with their employers due to the resulting sweat.

Public spaces are not static; they are animated by factors such as time, location, environment, and people. When bus stops are designed as brightly lit, accessible, and secure spaces, women can use them with a sense of safety. These are well-known factors that play a role in improving security and reducing crime rates (Horwill and Thomas, 2019), but our data reveals 60% of respondents in the study were concerned about theft/robbery and an alarming 89% were scared of being sexually harassed.

Why should we care about bus stops?

Pakistan currently ranks at 125/162 on the SDG index. SDG 5, 8, and 11 (gender equality; decent work & economic growth; sustainable cities & communities) each have major challenges remaining. Moreover, the sheer pace of urbanization complicates the issue of representation in addressing gender issues in the context of cities like Karachi, where more than half of urban dwellers live in informal settlements and work in precarious conditions.

Since 2015, Pakistan’s SDG 11 indicator of satisfaction with transport has improved slightly, but SDG 5 (gender equality) remains woefully low. Given the kinds of transport and safety challenges working-class women face daily, our findings shed light on the need for data collection exercises that contribute to the design and development of safe and holistic – especially women-friendly and disability-friendly – transport infrastructures.

Bus stops fit into a larger geometric puzzle of transit operations. Bus stops are more than a place to wait; they facilitate movement and mobility. Karachi is a car-dependent city and ordinary citizens who have limited or no access to personal vehicles, suffer the most from unsafe and unpredictable public transport. In the grand scheme of public transport challenges in Karachi, broken bus stops may seem like a minor issue, but for a female domestic worker, walking for hours in a city where access to public spaces and shaded areas has become constrained, a bus stop can offer respite.

Ultimately, there is an extensive knowledge gap regarding the transport needs of ordinary citizens, and this is reflected in the shabby state of existing transport infrastructure – a disconnect in what should be a connected holistic transit system to best serve the public. This disconnect starts at the bus stop in the absence of transport information, and feedback by users to transport planners so they can tackle issues related to regulations, walkability access, and safety. A holistic approach to transport is necessary, especially one that encourages people to not only use buses but also to locate and access them with ease.

Dr. Nausheen H. Anwar, Professor City & Regional Planning, IBA 

Eisha Shakeel, Research Associate, Karachi Urban Lab, IBA