Wings of Paper

OMI Foundation
5 min readSep 15, 2023

By Jagriti Arora

An India woman looking out of the window in a moving bus and smiling
Image credit: The Hindustan Times

What are the first things that come to mind when you think about challenges faced by women in India, and many other parts of the world, while navigating the urban mobility systems in their cities? Safety? Yes. Accessibility? Absolutely. Last mile connectivity? Without a doubt. But what about affordability? As urban dwellers with reasonable economic privilege and financial independence, how often do we count women’s ability, or the lack thereof — to pay for mobility services as a deterrent to their moving freely in a city?

Based on the unpublished data from OMI Foundation’s Ease of Moving Index, 67.35% women find buses unaffordable. Keeping this in mind, several Indian states, including Delhi, Tamil Nadu, Punjab, have introduced free bus travel for women over the past few years — with Karnataka being the latest to do so a few months ago under the Shakti Scheme. While the programme contours vary with states, all of them aim at empowering and mobilising women. This move comes in response to the low female labor force participation in India, caused by factors like patriarchal norms, labor market asymmetry, safety concerns, and limited mobility options. Free bus travel for women reduces at least one hurdle, and is therefore a welcome move. However, the implementation of such programmes has not been without controversies and criticism. This issue has socio-cultural, economic, and political dimensions, and thus requires thorough deliberation.

Before delving into the issue, it is imperative to understand two key terms: mobility privilege, and mobility poverty. Mobility privilege refers to the advantages or benefits that certain individuals or groups have in terms of accessing and using public transportation services. Transport poverty, also known as mobility poverty, is a multidimensional phenomenon that affects millions of people worldwide. It refers to the inability of individuals or households to access affordable and reliable transportation services, which can limit their ability to participate in social and economic activities. This can lead to social exclusion, reduced job opportunities, and limited access to essential services, such as healthcare, jobs, and education.

Critics (of free bus travel) argue that buses are already heavily subsidised, and the State Road Transport Undertakings (SRTUs) are already struggling to survive. They question whether affordability is a genuine concern. Experts add that women’s lives are primarily confined to a small geographical area, typically spanning three to four kilometers, due to financial constraints limiting their transportation options to affordable 10 rupee bus tickets. This financial barrier acts as an unseen boundary, shaped by mobility poverty, within which they lead their lives. Besides, women exhibit a unique travel behaviour called trip chaining, where Instead of making separate, individual trips for each activity, they combine various errands, tasks, or activities into one cohesive travel plan. This creates the need for several small trips, making women’s travel per trip costlier than men’s. Mobility for women is restricted further by patriarchal norms. Some beneficiaries of Shakti Scheme in Karnataka stated that they previously had to seek permission and bus fare from their families to step out, but with the free bus travel, they no longer face this constraint.

The mobility poverty is exacerbated by a disparate distribution of journey cost, which includes private journey cost, social cost imposed on other road users in the form of delays, loss of productivity, loss of opportunity, and healthcare costs due to pollution. Some critics are opposed to the idea of “burdening” tax payers for free travel for women. But aren’t women and other vulnerable road users already burdened by the costs imposed by, say, a gas-guzzling car, driven by a single driver, occupying more space compared to cyclists, on roads built by public funds? While the cars pay more by way of one-time registration charges, high operating costs, high maintenance and depreciation, it remains to be seen whether their one-time upfront payment covers the cost they impose on other road users everyday. Isn’t government intervention warranted to ensure equitable distribution of costs and benefits of mobility? Besides, government intervention in public transit is pretty commonplace. If bus systems were solely governed by market forces, they would likely serve only profitable areas, leaving other areas underserved. To address this, the government intervenes, even if it incurs financial pressure, to ensure accessibility for all citizens. Would the critics call this an unnecessary burden on taxpayers too?

A policy is said to be equitable when it meets normative standards of fairness. A truly equitable policy ensures both horizontal and vertical equity. Horizontal equity involves treating individuals or groups in similar circumstances equally, such as providing the same level of healthcare services to all citizens regardless of their income. In contrast, vertical equity entails treating individuals or groups with differing circumstances unequally to account for their varying needs or abilities, like implementing progressive income tax rates where higher-income earners pay a higher percentage of their income in taxes compared to lower-income earners. The case of free bus travel for women embodies vertical equity because women face higher degrees of mobility poverty. By taking into account the specific needs of women as a historically disadvantaged group, the policy fosters a more equitable society and works towards leveling the playing field, enhancing the normative standard of fairness.

That being said, for the benefits of such schemes to reflect in the socio-economic condition of women, the scheme needs to be coupled with ancillary transport improvements. Needless to say, the financial health of State Road Transport Corporations (SRTC) is instrumental. However, with its current capacity, RTCs are unable to meet the demand and stay financially viable. They lack both fleet and human resources. The scheme has increased the daily ridership of the four RTCs from 82.51 lakh to 1.03 crore. But the four RTCs currently have a total of 23,978 buses; however, only 21,574 of them are operational, primarily due to shortage of staff. Despite the steep costs associated, the transport minister stated that RTC’s can shoulder the scheme if the government ensures timely monthly reimbursements; otherwise, potential issues could arise.

While timely reimbursements by the government is essential, additional funds from the mobility privileged individuals can further support SRTUs to shoulder this gargantuan task. For instance, the government can introduce cross-subsidisation programs, where mobility-privileged can pay for the mobility-poor. It can range from certain classes of women giving up subsidies, like in the case of LPG cylinders, to introducing a range of premium buses that can pay for free buses. Careful planning and execution are vital for the sustainable success of free bus travel for women.

Truth be told, when it comes to urban mobility, women are still quite far from getting wings. However, if they can, then they should at least get a free bus ticket.



OMI Foundation

OMI Foundation is a new-age policy research and social innovation think tank operating at the intersection of mobility innovation, governance and public good.