High Volume Transport

Vital transport research to ensure accessible, affordable and climate friendly transport for all.

Hot weather and travel: how best to meet the needs of women in Delhi

Deepty Jain, Assistant Professor, Transportation Research and Injury Prevention Centre, Indian Institute of Technology Delhi.

Cities around the world are increasingly vulnerable to rising temperatures caused by climate change. At the time of writing, a red alert has been issued in India’s capital, Delhi, as an intense heatwave grips northern parts of the country. Red alerts are issued when extreme weather leads to a ‘very high likelihood of developing heat illness or stroke’, as well as ‘serious health concerns for vulnerable people’, according to officials

In India, fewer green spaces, more densely built up areas and intense levels of motorization have left many cities ill-protected from extreme heat. While heatwave action plans are being prepared for those cities at greater risk of high temperatures, these rarely consider the different needs of various social groups or genders. The exposure of women while commuting, in particular, is rarely taken into account.

The proposed action plans typically provide a set of advisories for inhabitants, such as staying hydrated, using cool shaded areas and avoiding travel, and others for authorities, like changing the timings and frequency of bus operations. However, these strategies are not universally applicable and are dependant on trip purpose and destination.

The HVT project ‘Gendered approaches for addressing adaptation capacity to hot weather conditions’, carried out by the Transportation Research and Injury Prevention (TRIP) Centre at the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) Delhi, explores the exposure of women commuters to hot weather in Delhi and aims to understand their adaptation capacity. Its findings will enable the design of an improved heatwave action plan aimed at reducing exposure and vulnerabilities across all gender and income groups.

Women’s work participation rate is lower than men’s in Indian cities. Therefore, their need for travel is often overlooked in transport planning. Unlike men, women travel for a range of reasons, including providing for household needs and care of family members. Women tend to travel more during the daytime and their trips are often short, frequent and spread throughout the day. Understanding their travel patterns and needs can help determine their exposures and vulnerabilities to hot weather.

Delhi is located in North India, only a few hundred kilometres from the Thar desert. It routinely experiences hot summers with a mean maximum temperature of 39.5°C. The number of days recording more than 44°C has increased from 17 in 2019 to 31 days in 2022. 2024 may prove to be a new record. In order to examine women’s exposure and ability to adapt to this heat, the TRIP Centre team is collecting data from the parents of three sample schools in Delhi, using structured questionnaires. The schools represent different socio-economic groups living in the city.

Initial observations from one of the schools in the lower-income group helps to explain the complex travel patterns of women in this group. 87% of the mothers whose children are enrolled in a government-aided school in Delhi walk regularly. 53% are mobile between 12 pm and 5 pm, travelling for an average of 47 minutes at a time. This includes waiting, travelling, and pursuing activities like shopping. 47% of women in this group walk during the hottest hour of the day.

These trips are usually lengthy, but since they are often made on foot, are seldom recognized as ‘essential’ activity, even by the women themselves. During the survey, respondents were asked to report trips made in the previous 24 hours. One respondent, a mother aged 35 , said: “ I didn’t go anywhere.” Yet asked what she had done the previous day, she reported that during her usual daily activities she’d received a call from her child’s school regarding his health. She spent approximately an hour and a half reaching school, picking up the child, seeing the doctor, buying medicines and getting back home. She pursued all the activities on foot between 11 am and 12:30 pm.

Travel choices are based on income, gender, and occupation. Given the limited resources and opportunities to alter their mode of travel, the adaptation capacity of women from low-income groups tends to be particularly low. But their travel choices depend not only on socio-economic conditions, they are also dictated by trip purpose, destination, availability of resources and who they are travelling with.

In one survey, respondents were asked if they would be willing to change their travel pattern if the temperature increased further. One 25 year-old mother stated she would be.

“I could get to school by e-rickshaw to pick up my child. However, I have to pay 20 rupees for each side of the rickshaw. If it gets hotter, I would prefer to come to school on foot, but on the way back, I would like to use an e-rickshaw as the child will be with me”.

Data is also being collected from two more schools where income differences are significant, corresponding to middle-income and middle-high income groups. In the middle-income group, the survey reveals that 72% of women walk regularly, 45% of them during the day and 23% during the hottest hours. A lower dependency on walking is observed in the middle-high income group, where only 49% of women walk at any time. This illustrates the extent to which exposure and vulnerabilities vary according to socioeconomic conditions.

Since so many women are walking during the hottest part of the day, improving thermal conditions on streets and providing amenities to enable comfortable commutes is essential. Potential strategies may include shaded streets, water misting stations, increased green cover, provision of drinking water kiosks and shaded sitting spaces. This is not yet a complete list. The choice of strategies will vary according to street typology, the existing built environment, travel pattern and acceptance by the community.

The findings of this study are crucial to help explore intersectionality in travel choices and adaptation capacity, particularly of women, whose travel needs are least understood. The new knowledge generated through this project will help design specific strategic recommendations to address vulnerabilities across socioeconomic and demographic groups. Once incorporated into policy, these strategies will help ensure safe and comfortable travel for all, even in harsh weather conditions.