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Transportation Safety- When It Means More Than Crashes

Public transportation is a way of life for many people around the globe. Both men and women use it to get to their destinations; however, the sexes do not face the same challenges on their daily commutes. In this realm of transportation, women lack a sense of safety and right to personal space. Women both in the US and internationally face sexual harassment, stalking, and assaults while riding public transportation. Personal safety on public transportation must be taken seriously and considered as part of the planning phase in order to reach the ridership goals of transportation plans.

I have faced this harsh reality time and time again as I walk the sidewalks or ride public transportation in Washington, DC. For example, while 7 months pregnant and riding a bus a man sitting next to me rattled off threats and insults, tried to show me a picture on his phone, and, at one point, threatened my life. There were people all around me, male and female, all within earshot and no one did anything. I remember thinking, “Am I the only one who hears this? Am I imagining this? Why won’t anyone help me?” For a split second, I wondered what I might have done to provoke such an action, but quickly pushed it out of my mind. I hadn’t done anything wrong. All I did was take a seat on the bus. This incident shook me to my core and made me rethink public transportation. A brave friend of mine loudly called out her harasser on a train full of commuters after she was groped on the New York City Subway. Public transportation is for all and no one should have to deal with harassment when commuting.

Unfortunately, these types of instances play out regularly for women on transit. Millions of women around the world have experienced some form of harassment or sexual assault while riding public transportation or merely existing in public space. This is also not a new problem. In a 2000 study, it was estimated that 87% of women have experienced some sort of street harassment, with over half reporting extreme harassment such as being groped, touched, rubbed, or other unwanted contact including being followed. For women that have experienced harassment, 84% internalized the harassment and reported having changed their actions to avoid these situations in the future. In other western societies like London, 43% of young women (ages 18-34) reported having experienced sexual harassment in public spaces over the past year alone.

Women in large international cities also report experiencing harassment or assaults in their daily commutes. Bogota, the long-heralded model for effective public transit, is reported as one of the most dangerous for women. Beijing, Dehli, and Kathmandu all have high rates of harassment and assaults on public transit. Each have attempted to implement gender-segregated train cars or vehicles as a solution, however, all of these alleged transportation solutions put the burden of safety solely on women.

In the already-crowded transit systems in such large cities, enforcement can be difficult and the limited availability of these modes and cars can extend commutes for women or worse, make them targets in general boarding areas. Furthermore, gender segregation on transit does not address the deep-seated, but painfully apparent societal issues that allow this harassment and assault to persist. Even after implementation of these solutions, many of these cities still experience the highest rates of sexual harassment on public transportation. A continued lack of safety causes some women to reconsider or avoid public transportation altogether seeking other, more protective, options. Solutions to these issues are also nuanced- no intersection redesign or traffic calming principles will solve these issues. It is this very aspect of the problem that makes them challenging but critical for transportation agencies to address.

See part 2 of this blog here discussing the beginning steps to address these issues.

Christine E. Mayeur is an urban planner with a unique set of skills and interests. She has been called a “renaissance woman” by her coworkers and is interested in all things creative and challenging. Christine uses her history of working with communities through grass-roots organizations along with her planning skills to help plan transportation systems that meet the needs of all users. 

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