A woman rides an escalator.
Kim Kyung Hoon/Reuters

There wasn’t anything unusual about the subway car, at first. It was quieter than most, maybe; and less sardined. Across from me, a woman in a blazer held a phone to her ear. Next to her, a woman’s eyes drooped after what could have been a long day. In the seat near me, a woman nursed a baby, her shirt pushed up.

When we reached the next stop, the doors opened and only women walked in. I realized then that I was in one of Rio de Janeiro’s women-only subway cars, which occupy the first car of every train during weekday rush hours. A couple of male-presenting stragglers hung on straps alongside us and no one batted an eyelash, but most honored this gender line.

This scene is becoming more common as cities around the world work to make transit safer for women. Women-priority cars have been adopted in cities including Guangzhou, China; Cairo, Egypt; Mexico City; and several in India—all places where sexual harassment is severe. Rio’s cars were introduced in 2006 to reduce sexual violence and create “a more just and generous society.” Last month, in an effort to increase transit use among Delhi women and promote safety in numbers, the city’s chief minister also proposed making women’s transit completely free.

As I reported in April, some view these initiatives as tools for empowerment; an invitation for female riders to take up space safely in a world that too often takes it away. Others see them as bandaids that allow abusers to go unpunished while institutionalizing women’s status as a vulnerable “other.”

Often, these bans just aren’t very effective: Because men aren’t physically barred from entering women’s cars, they do—intentionally or accidentally. (In Rio and Mexico City particularly, the Guardian reports, the rules are often ignored.) And there’s a broader critique that in establishing male/female cars at all, cities are reinforcing an imagined gender binary.

In the U.S., separating cars would likely prove unconstitutional. Instead, New York City is weighing other prevention policies as reports of harassment and abuse rise on the MTA.

But as I, previously a women’s-car skeptic, jostled along with my fellow Rio passengers, it didn’t feel like we were escaping something. It felt more like we were creating something new. How cool, I thought, to see a mother unabashedly breastfeeding next to me on her commute home. I was reminded of this line by Rhitu Chatterjee, an NPR reporter, on her experience riding in Delhi’s women-only fleet: “The body language of women in this car feels different. They look carefree.”

I want to live in a world where everyone can get around care-free, though—regardless of identity, and without having to hide away. I guess the question is, how do we make that a reality in more places: whether it’s on trains, scooters, bikes, buses, or planes? If you have thoughts, or know of especially good examples being put into practice, please let me know.

Sarah Holder

Mailbag:

The last time I wrote Navigator, I asked you about your favorite pockets of green. Thanks, Curtis and Christi, for writing in!

The Hoh Rain Forest is part of Olympic National Park in Washington State. In my job I travel to a lot of beautiful places around the West, but the Hoh is by far my favorite. When I die, make me into compost and leave me there.”

Curtis LaPierre

Finca Tres Robles in Houston, Texas, is my favorite green space in the city! A private farm/small business, they have a ton of free programs that welcome the community in for coffee/tea, some yoga, or picking your own vegetables. Most compelling thing about Finca? They’re on only a little over an acre and completely surrounded by factories and industrial warehouses. They truly greened a space that has made all the difference in how I feel about my neighborhood.

Christi Vasquez

What we’re writing:

Shanghai Streets © Cody Ellingham

Under purple shadows, Shanghai’s historic shikumen houses wait to be torn down. ¤ Some city tourism advocates are too good at their jobs. ¤ Frank Lloyd Wright finally gets his due. ¤ There’s an Airbnb for stuff, now. ¤ Nineteen days of scooter-rental bliss. ¤ Is the quest for silence futile in an open-plan world? ¤ Chilly or charred? Here’s how Americans use air conditioning. ¤ Ban the Bradford pear tree!

What we’re taking in:

In Minnesota, Somali refugees find—and create—home in America. (NYRB) ¤ Wanna hop aboard L.A.’s 1950s “funliner”? (It’s just a bus.) (Curbed L.A.) ¤ “When I’m driving,” says one Sikh truck driver, “I see God through his creation.” (L.A. Times) ¤ The magic of Onewheel. (Washington City Paper) ¤ How Baltimore criminalized its squeegee kids. (The Baffler) ¤ New York City’s graffiti scene is back, but it’s gentrified. (New Republic) ¤ In Japan, rental cars aren’t only for driving. (The Verge)

View from the ground:

@ethan.k56 rode this vintage streetcar in New Orleans. @msarchitect highlighted the bike parking in Denmark. @kimzimm985 looked down on the streets of Tokyo. @nuyork_gallery captured the buses of Jakarta.

How do you get around your city? Show us with the hashtag #citylabontheground and we'll feature it on CityLab’s Instagram page or pull them together for the next edition of Navigator.

About the Author

Most Popular

  1. A cyclist rides on the bike lane in the Mid Market neighborhood during Bike to Work Day in San Francisco,
    Perspective

    Why We Need to Dream Bigger Than Bike Lanes

    In the 1930s big auto dreamed up freeways and demanded massive car infrastructure. Micromobility needs its own Futurama—one where cars are marginalized.

  2. Life

    Why U.S. Tech Inventors Are So Highly Clustered

    New research finds that high-tech inventors are significantly more productive when they work in large clusters—but there are drawbacks.

  3. a photo of the Maryland Renaissance Festival
    Life

    The Utopian Vision That Explains Renaissance Fairs

    What’s behind the enduring popularity of all these medieval-themed living-history festivals?

  4. Maps

    A Comprehensive Map of American Lynchings

    The practice wasn’t limited to the South, as this new visualization of racial violence in the Jim Crow era proves.

  5. A photo of a police officer in El Paso, Texas.
    Equity

    What New Research Says About Race and Police Shootings

    Two new studies have revived the long-running debate over how police respond to white criminal suspects versus African Americans.

×