Does Canada need a women-only ride-share service?

Toronto Uber driver Monica Mobhani sometimes fears for her safety driving male passengers at night. But she’s more worried about her daughter’s safety when the 15-year-old takes the taxi alternative alone.

Her daughter worries, too: she often will request and cancel over a dozen rides before finding a female driver, said Mobhani (who didn’t want to use her real name).

They can be hard to come by: Mobhani, 52, is one of 3,200 female Uber drivers in Toronto, out of a total 15,000.

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    Could a female-only transport service be the solution?

    Chariot for Women styles itself as an “Uber for women,” selling rides that are exclusively “by women, for women.” This includes children under 13 and anyone who identifies as female.

    UCLA urban planning professor Anastasia Loukaitou-Sideris has studied female-only transit options around the world, such as buses in Mexico and separate pink subway wagons in Japan. They’re meant to provide women with a space where they won’t get groped or harassed.

    She believes Chariot (which has pushed back its April 19 launch date in Boston) is “covering a really nice niche” in the U.S.

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    “I do know that women oftentimes feel quite afraid of being completely on their own in a car with a stranger.

    “It doesn’t mean that every woman is afraid or everyone is going to need this service but it gives an option to women customers and also to women drivers.”

    She believes it’s a big issue because, according to her research, women tend to be more dependent on public transportation than men. And as more women start to use ride-share programs, it’s important that their mobility isn’t restricted out of fear.

    “They may stay home and not take advantage of opportunities” if they feel intimidated or afraid to get in a car with a man, Loukaitou-Sideris says.

    Uber vs. Chariot safety

    Chariot promises to conduct stringent security checks (the same ones done in daycares and schools) on prospective drivers. Its biggest competitor hasn’t always delivered in this department.

    Last week Uber agreed to pay up to $25 million to settle a December 2014 lawsuit in California after being accused of “misleading consumers around the safety of its service,” specifically around background checks of drivers.

    The civil suit focused on Los Angeles and San Francisco, where “investigations uncovered at least 25 instances in which an approved Uber driver had serious criminal convictions, including identify theft, burglary, child sex offenses and even one murder charge,” TechCrunch reported.

    Uber spokesperson Susie Heath maintains the company has “an extensive driver screening process.” That process does not currently include fingerprinting, unlike Chariot’s screening.

    Heath points out the app shows riders who will pick them up, and the company tracks all trips using GPS, and incorporates feedback from riders and drivers.

    Global News asked if Uber will be introducing any other measures to make women feel safer. We have not yet received a response.

    WATCH: In Toronto, three Uber drivers were charged with sexual assault within three months last year

    But passengers can pose problems, as well as drivers.

    Former Uber driver Michael Pelletz was driving a drunk passenger who kept squirming violently and reaching repeatedly into his pocket, causing him to run out of his car in fear towards a police officer.

    The incident made him wonder, “What if I was a woman? How would a woman handle that situation?”

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Pelletz says Chariot’s safety measures will include a “safe word” that will pop up on the cellphone of both the passenger and driver when a ride is ordered. Customers will be encouraged not to get into a car until the driver says the word. (There have been instances, as recently as last month in Toronto, in which men have tried to lure women into their vehicles by posing as Uber drivers.)

The problem with female-only transportation

Critics argue that services like Chariot don’t address the real issue of violence against women. And they suggest women are responsible for keeping themselves away from men who may attack them, rather than men being responsible for making sure they don’t rape anyone.

“By segregating women away from men we’re not holding men accountable,” says Julie Lalonde.

“Why are we OK with that?”

The 30-year-old director of Hollaback! Ottawa recently led a successful campaign to address violence against women on the transit system of Canada’s capital.

She supports options like Chariot, but wants to see systemic change. She likes the idea of Uber hiring a million female drivers by 2020, as the company has promised to do, and considers it a crucial first step in the right direction.

WATCH: Female taxi and Uber drivers are breaking gender norms

There’s also the question of whether Chariot’s business model is even legal — some see it as discriminating against men, especially when it comes to the hiring process.

It’s been tried unsuccessfully before: a New York City service called SheRides had to put the brakes on its planned launch in 2014 “after spending ‘tens of thousands on legal fees’ as activists and male drivers threatened to sue,” according to Salon.

When the company re-launches as SheHails [this summer], men will be permitted as drivers and passengers. It will be left to female drivers to accept male passengers, and for female passengers to accept rides from male drivers, Salon wrote.

Pelletz isn’t worried.

“We look forward to legal challenges. We want to show there’s inequality in safety in our industry,” he told TechCrunch.

“We hope to go to the U.S. Supreme Court to say that if there’s safety involved, there’s nothing wrong with providing a service for women.”

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