As a young girl, my mother used to warn me that public transit was a dangerous place for women. Now I'm a city planner who regularly rides Metro, and her admonitions seem a little ironic. Still, my mother was onto something. The other week I had to figure out how I could safely join a dance group because the studio is located at an isolated stop, and it would involve meeting late at night to practice.
If we want people to use Metro, we first need to make sure the service is useful—that means frequent headways, accessible stations, affordable fares, etc. But beyond that, it's important to demonstrate that riders will be safe, both on the train and in the areas around stations.
One local study showed that 30% of sexual harassment participants experienced occured on transit. The confined space and transitory nature of transit, coupled with little social or legal risk for harassers, can make buses and trains (and the stations and areas around them) exhausting and scary for some people. Empty and isolated stations and cars feel risky, but some harassers are emboldened by the anonymity crowds provide as well.
Harassment can have a real negative impact on transit ridership, says Anastasia Loukaitou-Sideris, professor of urban planning at the University of California, Los Angeles, who has studied crime and harassment on transit. Some riders who have the choice permenantly stop taking transit after a bad incident, while others will avoid traveling during certain times or avoid certain stops.
Fortunately, cities around the world are trying a variety of strategies to make transit more safe for more vulnerable users.
Here's what some other countries are doing
A 2016 World Bank report showed that harassment on transit is a huge problem for women worldwide, and recommended "a public awareness campaign to encourage users to join forces against perpetrators," among other things.
Mexico City, where 64% of women reported being groped or otherwise physically harassed on transit, tried a provoking anti-harassment campaign called “Experimento Asiento,” which is basically a train seat with a blended-in penis/genetalia, and “Experimento Pantallas,” which projected video footage of male riders' buttocks on a public screen to show harassers what it is like to be in the victim’s shoes.
In India, the Institute for Transportation and Development Policy and Safety created a brief exploring the current state of public transportation. It points out that public transportation may be available to everyone and still not be equitable. Sexual harassment disrupts women’s mobility and limits our access to basic civic services that most of our male counterparts don’t think twice about.
Accessibility, a right, becomes threatened for women both in space (such as isolated locations) and time (late nights when there are few people around). It recommends looking at the pattern of women’s movement in public spaces, and factoring in the needs of populations that are prone to sexual harassment in both design and operation.
Image from the Women and Transport in Indian Cities brief.
In Dubai, metro cars have a separate ladies’ section while the rest of the train is mixed. (Tokyo and Rio de Janeiro have tried this too, among others.) While this is mostly for cultural reasons, these cars also provide privacy for women who wish to have it.
Alas, harassment is universal, and men are fined every day for trespassing into the ladies’ section. Some research also indicates that this method can have the unwanted effect of shifting the responsibility onto women, and they get blamed for being harassed if they weren't in the women's car when the incident happened.
Chic doors on the women and children's metro car in Dubai, United Arab Emirates. Image by Tim Adams licensed under Creative Commons.
London has underground police officers who patrol train platforms looking for harassers.
Every city is different, and what applies to one might not necessarily apply to another. But one common ground that applies to all is awareness about what is acceptable, and what isn’t.
How can we make our Metro safer?
There's a dearth of positive imagery and storytelling about transit in the US—many ads warn us to be careful of suspicious packages and tell us not to eat on the train. It's important to show the fun and virtue of riding transit, but it's also important to demonstrate that it's safe and incidents that do occur will be taken seriously.
Some reports show there has been less crime on Metro since early 2017, though there’s also been lower ridership because of SafeTrack so it’s difficult to parse out the actual change. Either way, another way to convince more people who have safety concerns to ride is to show that WMATA is serious about safety.
A 2016 Collective Action for Safe Spaces (CASS), WMATA, and Stop Street Harassment survey found that 21% of public transportation users were sexually harassed in the Washington region, which is higher than the national average of 17%. WMATA responded with an ad campaign urging riders to report harassment.
Image from WMATA's anti-harassment campaign. Image by WMATA.
Jessica Raven, Executive Director of CASS, says campaigns fighting the normalization of sexual harassment on public transportation are important, particularly messages that urge riders to help others. The thinking is that if you receive positive feedback for stepping in and helping someone, you’ll also be less likely to harass people yourself — a combination stick and carrot approach.
“It’s more effective to tell people what they can do than tell them what not to do,” Raven says. DC's recently-passed Street Harassment law should also help.
Women worldwide said that more transit personnel and good lighting helped make them feel safe, and this attention to safety should go beyond the vehicle and platform. Designing areas around the stops to be well-lit and safe for people walking is also important.
Even as we move toward building denser neighborhoods with more efficient and equitable transportation infrastructure, we assume that certain negative components of public transit — like harassment — are an intrinsic ‘inconvenience’ of riding. But they do not have to be.
Harassment shouldn't be yet another reason for us to give up on public transportation. Some of us don’t have the luxury of other options. Rather, it should be an incentive for relevant officials and bystanders alike to step up. If there is something inhibiting a group of people from using a service, then it’s neither truly accessible nor equitable and we need to find a way to fix it.