Transit Agencies Aren’t Doing Enough to Prevent Sexual Harassment

Sexual harassment on transit is a well-known problem. But few agencies are doing much to reduce it. PSA via Boston MBTA
Sexual harassment on transit is a well-known problem. But few agencies are doing much to reduce it. PSA via Boston MBTA

As the #MeToo campaign draws attention to the pervasiveness of aggression and assault targeting women, Portland State University Planning Professor Jennifer Dill has been giving some thought to how sexual harassment affects the way women travel.

A recent piece by Martine Powers in the Washington Post reviewed the ample evidence that sexual harassment remains alarmingly common on transit. Riffing off that story, Portland State University professor Jennifer Dill writes at her blog about how women are harassed when traveling in public in any way — be it walking, biking, riding transit, or even flying.

Despite widespread recognition of the problem, transit agencies have done surprisingly little to address women’s safety, Dill writes:

The Post story highlighted the work of Anastasia Loukaitou-Sideris from UCLA. She has done several studies on transit crime and harassment, including How to Ease Women’s Fear of Transportation Environments: Case Studies and Best Practices. She and her research team surveyed transit operators throughout the U.S., with 131 agencies responding.  This finding was particularly disappointing: “While two-thirds of the respondents (67%) indicated that female passengers have distinct safety and security needs, only about one-third (35%) believed that transit agencies should put into place specific safety and security programs for them” (p. 30). The reasons given for not putting specific programs in place fell into two categories. The first was that the agencies were treating everyone equally, regardless of gender. “The second argument was that women are no more vulnerable than men and do not have special safety and security needs.” Really? I don’t have data on this, but I suspect that more women than men have been exposed to sex organs while on transit.

Moreover, at the time of the survey (2006), only three of the 131 agencies had programs in place that distinctly addressed women’s safety and security needs. The report concludes that they found “a serious mismatch between the existing safety and security practices of transit operators and the needs and desires of women passengers” (p. 50). In the Post article, Loukaitou-Sideris encouraged systems for women to report harassment or assault on transit. Some seem to be following that advice. A story linked by the Post described DC Metro’s education efforts, including ads on where to call or text with a complaint. That’s a good start, because the same story stated that that 21% of people surveyed had experienced sexual harassment on public transit in Washington DC. Los Angeles’ Metro launched a campaign called “It’s Off Limits” that includes a 24/7 hotline. A 2015 survey of LA Metro riders found that 21% of train riders and 18% of bus riders had experienced any form of sexual harassment in the past six months, including 10% that had experienced indecent exposure on trains and 7% unwanted touching, groping or fondling. Mexico City’s transit system experimented with an anatomically correct subway seat to highlight the problem of sexual harassment on transit. The photo I used for this post is from an ad on BC Transit in Vancouver Canada. Unfortunately, while some agencies are being proactive, there are still examples, like this, of women reporting about other riders and transit drivers being unhelpful. In her story, the driver replied “You’re a pretty girl, what do you expect?” and several men on Twitter replied with equally or more vile responses.

More recommended reading today: Systemic Failure reports that taxpayers in Anaheim paid $108 million for a parking garage, but Disneyland gets to keep all the profits. And Human Transit considers signs that a building boom in Portland might be lowering housing prices.

12 thoughts on Transit Agencies Aren’t Doing Enough to Prevent Sexual Harassment

  1. Unfortunately there’s no talk about threading the needle between increased support for women, and increased harassment of minorities on transit.

    I guess you could have phone numbers to receive complaints, but they would just collect information since making lewd comments is generally not a crime, and while you might capture an overt creeper, will the authorities prosecute?

  2. In NYC, Nicole Malliotakis likes to emphasize the increase in reported assaults as evidence that crime is increasing on the subway, while of course it may simply reflect the effectiveness of campaigns to report such behavior. Do you know where the truth lies here?

  3. I think the “truth” is that stuff like this has been happening for decades and most people just tacitly accept it as part of traveling on crowded trains or buses. As a guy, I’ve had my fair share of incidents and I’ve seen it done to others. It’s generally accepted that it’s not necessary to involve police unless it crosses a line. Public masturbation, crotch grabbing, breast squeezing, ass squeezing are good examples of going over that line. Anything else could just be a result of crowding where people are forced into intimate contact. That’s really my concern here. Let’s say you lose your balance or get pushed in one direction by fellow passengers and maybe your hand inadvertent ends up on someone’s breast. Then this turns into “sexual harassment” and you end up with a police record. I’m all for more awareness reporting the things that cross the line, but when riding crowded trains things happen. I’ve had women’s hands land inadvertently on my private parts a few times, for example. I’m not about to scream bloody murder.

    Even more concerning is when some do-gooder reports what he/she thinks is sexual harassment when it’s not. A fair number of complete strangers get off on each other on public transit. Not my business so long as it stops short of exposing their private parts. However, to a casual observer this could be mistaken for sexual harassment. Bottom line, if someone crosses the line with you, by all means report it as this behavior is unacceptable. The rest of the time mind your own business unless it’s really obvious someone is forcing themselves on another person (i.e. attempted rape).

  4. LOL! Yeah, my mom had her own stories. One time she said a guy was rubbing on her, so she kicked him right in the balls. My feeling is that was the last time he ever did that to anyone.

  5. You’re probably onto something, but I don’t really know how you even measure that. I don’t think we can see the depth of the problem because under-reporting is such a drastic problem with anything involving sex or sexuality, let alone sexual power plays. (For male victims, the number who report is smaller still.)

    I guess the thing to do would be to watch these campaigns and see what happens whenever they taper off?

  6. One of the upsides to social media seems to have been that a lot of people who act like that can now be recorded and publicly shamed. It’s similar to how cheap video recording has made the problem of police brutality a lot more apparent to people.

  7. I think shaming is way more effective than conventional methods like law enforcement. Who wants to see a picture of themselves on Gothamist with their hand down their pants, complete with an article titled “Serial Subway Masturbator Caught In the Act”?

  8. Why not just gender segregate public transport again? Zero harassment in that case. It is still common in most parts of the world, including here in north america in Mexico City.

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