As has been widely reported, in the wake of a brutal late-January beating of a teenage girl, both King County Metro and Mayor Mike McGinn have vowed to do more to improve safety in the downtown transit tunnel.
The story makes a new study of women's perceptions of transit safety particularly timely. In many parts of the world, women rely on public transportation more than men do; yet study after study shows that women are far more likely than men to feel unsafe on public transit. (That finding tracks, incidentally, with this post from the BikePortland blog, about the reasons men are far more likely than women to ride bikes). And, it turns out, that fear is well founded (shocker, I know, for any woman who rides Metro transit buses): Harassment, in particular, is a huge problem for women transit riders across the age, race, sexual orientation, and disability spectrum.*
Some of the study's findings:
• Two-thirds of the US transit riders surveyed believed that women have specific needs with regard to transit, but only one third believed that transit agencies should do anything about it. Meanwhile, just three percent of US transit agencies had any programs targeting women or addressing needs such as prevention of sexual harassment and groping. Related: Of the transit managers surveyed, 75 percent were men.
• Although women overwhelmingly said they were more afraid for their safety at transit stops than inside the bus or train itself, most transit safety resources are focused on the vehicles, not the stops. Women also believed that the cameras commonly installed at stops would help them only after an incident, not during the incident itself, and said they'd rather have more security officers than more technology. Yet most transit agencies are moving in the direction of more technology and fewer people. Eighty percent of transit agencies relied on CCTV cameras at buses and bus stops, compared to just 40 percent that used uniformed or nonuniformed security officers.
• Crime was far more common on the routes to bus stops and transit stations than at the stops themselves. Moreover, the study found that transit-related crimes against women are almost certainly underreported, because women are often reluctant to report things like sexual harassment and groping, out of the well-founded belief that not much can be done about it after the fact.
• Among the reasons respondents perceived women as more vulnerable: The fact that women frequently have more objects with them (purses, strollers, etc.), making it more difficult to get away from an assailant; the fact that women tend to be smaller and less physically strong than men; and because women are generally viewed as easier targets (and targeted more frequently) than men.
The report cites three programs targeted specifically at women's safety on transit: RightRides in New York City, a nonprofit that offers free Saturday-night rides to women, transgender, and gender queer people; Atlanta's Metropolitan Action Committee on Violence Against Women and Children (METRAC), which focuses on creating safer public spaces for women; and my favorite, HollaBackNYC, a web site where women post photos of and stories about people who harass them on transit.
A personal aside: A few months ago, as part of the process of consolidating stops on my route to improve reliability, Metro eliminated my stop—a well-lit stop, with a traffic light, at an intersection with several businesses that are open at night. Now, my choices are: Walk an extra four blocks out of my way at the end of every night, or use the stop closest to where I live—an unlit intersection, in front of a vacant parking lot, with no businesses around, no traffic light, and a bus stop across the street where people frequently congregate to buy and sell drugs.
Besides being a pedestrian-safety nightmare (cars whiz by at speeds upward of 50 mph because of the huge distances between lights on the main drag of my neighborhood), the intersection feels unsafe to me. Will it keep me from taking the bus? No. But would it deter someone who isn't reliant on transit from riding again? I'm absolutely convinced it would.
* If you're inclined to think, "Well, groping isn't really sexual assault or anything, so CALM DOWN" I encourage you to read this conversation between blogger Sady Doyle and the Washington City Paper's Amanda Hess on that very subject.
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