Will Women Ever Feel Completely Safe on Mass Transit?

Cities trying to boost ridership have a few options, but lots of room for improvement.

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Somewhere in a major American city, every Saturday night, a woman tells her friends that she's about to leave a party. Alone. Whether she's going to take the subway, or head to the bus stop, or simply walk, if it's after midnight a fellow partygoer will almost always pull out a phone and say, "No, no. Let me call you a cab."

Her friends are genuinely concerned for her safety, and often that concern is warranted. But it's also a sign that certain classes of city dwellers — the ones who can afford iPhones and the occasional cab ride — simply accept that public spaces, especially at night, are places where women can't expect to feel safe.

I've watched this "call a cab" interaction dozens of times, and never thought of it in terms of broader trends in public transit ridership. Ridership on U.S. public transportation has reached its highest levels (in raw numbers, at least) since the mid-1950s. There's a complex set of explanations for this resurgence, but a big part of it boils down to money. When the cost of driving gets too high, or when gas prices get too unpredictable, more people take the train or the bus.

And so most American transit riders tend to be lower-income. They also tend to be women, who of course work in lower-paid jobs. American women of all ethnicities accounted for a greater share of transit trips than men in 1997 (below); far more recent commuting figures show a similar breakdown, with 114 women taking transit to work for every 100 men. In many cases, these are the women who take public transit because it's the only financially viable option.

"Women overall are more dependent on transit than men, for low-income households in particular," says Anastasia Loukaitou-Sideris, an urban planning professor at UCLA. "If there is one car, it's most often the man who drives the car."

Women who aren't bound to the bus by economic necessity cite reliability and convenience as reasons they choose to stick with their cars. That's more or less what men say. But women, regardless of income, tend to have an additional factor: safety. In a 2007 survey, 63 percent of New York City subway riders said they'd been harassed on a train, and 10 percent reported having been assaulted. It seems safe to assume that most of those riders were women. Among those who merely witnessed harassment or assault on public transit, 93 percent reported that the victim was female.

It's no wonder there's a gender gap when it comes to transit riders' concerns. But there's also a gender-class gap, between the women who can simply refuse to ride because of those concerns and those who have to get on the bus anyway. "Women tend to be more fearful in public environments like the bus stop than when they're on the bus or on the train," says Loukaitou-Sideris. This makes sense: on the bus there are often other travelers, but at the bus stop you might be alone. Even then there are exceptions; late at night, a woman might find herself on the train with only one other passenger she doesn't trust, just the two of them in an enclosed space.

This is all too familiar. I can picture the many uncomfortable subway rides I've had in my life. I'm just as nervous being stuck in a subway car with only one or two other people than I am in a packed subway car where there's the threat of being anonymously groped. The city I call home, Los Angeles, has ample buses and trains. I take them at peak times, when they're likely to be more crowded. But late at night, they tend to be pretty empty. If I know I'm going to be out late, I almost always opt to drive myself or take a cab.

These concerns often don't show up in surveys of transit riders. The bus or the subway is "this unique public space," says Camille Fink, a senior editor at the American Planning Association who compiled a visual ethnographic report on L.A. buses. "Census data doesn't tell us how women are experiencing those spaces. For women there are issues of safety and personal space. It's hard then to make a connection between how it affects the travel decisions they're making."

But there is definitely a connection, says Loukaitou-Sideris. "A number of [women] perceive the private automobile as the safest mode of transportation, so they will save money to try to buy an automobile," she says, "or restrict their activity to certain times of day to not have to take public transit at night."

As cities try to figure out how to boost transit ridership, and unpredictable gas prices force people to reconsider their commute, the threat of harassment and assault has been granted surprisingly little airtime. But short of solving the widespread societal problems of harassment and sexism — a tall order for even the most committed activist — there are piecemeal solutions cities can undertake to convey to women that they care about their safety on public transportation.

Several cities have actively discouraged harassment on buses and trains with campaigns that send the message such behavior isn't tolerated. In 2008, transit authorities in Boston created a series of PSAs targeting would-be subway gropers. "Rub against me and I'll expose you," the ads read. They were later adopted by transit officials in Chicago, New York, and Washington, D.C. In all of these cities, the PSAs were rolled out along with easier ways for women to report harassment and assault. Many of the ads encouraged women to take a photo of the perpetrator with their cellphone camera and submit it to authorities. In the first year, there was a huge spike in harassment reporting in Boston. The number of groping complaints increased by nearly 74 percent and the number of arrests for indecent assault and battery went up 85 percent. 

In a boon to transit riders of all genders, cities could also commit to providing reliable information on when the next train or bus is arriving. No one likes to wait around for the bus in the cold, or sweat it out on a subway platform in the heat of summer. But for women, such waits are uncomfortable for other reasons, too. "Women very much would like to have real-time info for buses," Loukaitou-Sideris says. "The city of Portland has that, where you go to the bus stop and you can see when the next bus is arriving." She sees apps like Next Bus as a good start, but notes that city transit authorities have to cooperate fully in order for them to really work.

An anti-harassment ad in the Washington, D.C. Metro system. (Courtesy WMATA)

One of the most publicized solutions to women's concerns about public transit has been the creation of gender-segregated subway cars in countries like Japan, Mexico, and India. But there isn't much evidence to suggest these women-only cars have addressed the big-picture concerns women have with public transit. After all, buses and train cars are confined public spaces that reflect the problems women have elsewhere in society. "Overall, I did not find public transit as a more dangerous setting than walking on the street or in other parts of the city," says Loukaitou-Sideris.

While that may be good news to transit officials, it probably won't provide much comfort to women, who are going to continue to either call a cab or muster their courage and head to the bus stop.

This article is part of 'The Future of Transportation,' a CityLab series made possible with support from The Rockefeller Foundation.

Top image: Aron Brand/Shutterstock.com

About the Author

  • Ann Friedman writes a weekly column for New York magazine's website and lives in Los Angeles.