Transit Systems Must Address Women’s Safety Concerns

Photo:  John St. John via Flickr
Photo: John St. John via Flickr

American transit agencies may be grossly underestimating how much safety issues hold back ridership among women, according to new research presented in Washington this week.

A study based in Los Angeles found women were significantly less likely — about half as likely as men — to take advantage of a new rail line near their house. Women are also more likely than men to report fears about crime associated with transit and say they expected it to influence their travel behavior.

The study [PDF], presented at the Transportation Research Board’s annual conference, was based on survey research of households in Los Angeles. About 200 households were surveyed before and after the new Expo light rail project opened.

Those who lived within a half-mile of an Expo station increased their total volume of rail transit trips by 4.3 percent per week. But there was a large gender gap. For women respondents, it was just 2.7 percent.

Those who participated were also surveyed about their attitudes toward the environment and crime. Environmentalism was a much weaker predictor of transit ridership than safety concerns, said lead author Hsin-Ping Hsu and her team. And concern about crime was a statistically significant predicator of decreased transit use among women.

“Fear of crime is a crucial restrictor on women’s use of transit,” Hsu wrote.

The research team concluded that it may be more effective for transit agencies to emphasize safety messages rather than stress the environmental benefits if they want to encourage ridership.

Other countries have tried a variety of things to address the safety issues facing women on transit, including experiments with women-only traincars in China. But as Hsu notes in the study, “in the U.S. … transit agencies typically do not think specific programs should be implemented despite recognizing this issue.”

Last year, Oregon Rep. Peter Defazio, the new chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, introduced legislation to require transit agencies to protect riders and employees from sexual assault. But the bill didn’t go anywhere. The Mineta Institute did a study on best practices addressing women’s safety on transit. One measure they found was helpful was allowing “night stops” like they do in Canada and Sweden. These policies allow women to ask the bus driver to stop at any location — including locations that are not posted bus stops — during nighttime hours. The driver is supposed to allow only the woman to exit at those stops.

  • Serious issue ignored because most transit planners are male

  • Clee00

    Maybe if we had more POC and women in planning, there wouldn’t be so many issues around safety.

  • thielges

    This highlights one of the advantages that automobiles have over transit: personal physical security. As Gary Numan sang “Here in my car / I feel safest of all / I can lock all my doors …”

    The shared space of public transit conflicts with the ability to provide physical security. Mumbai regional railways has partially addressed the problem of male on female harassment by designating women-only carriages. There are even entire trains that are for women only.

    The Night Stop program seems like a no-brainer incremental improvement. It would cost nearly nothing to implement. Usually night buses have low ridership so adding extra stops doesn’t significantly impact service.

    Still more needs to be done. Riders need to feel safe or they will prefer the security that a car provides.

  • Scott Voolker

    What would be wrong with allowing night stops for everyone, male or female, tall or short?

  • George Joseph Lane

    I think it’s actually an error in the article. Any passenger can request the night stop, but only that passenger can get off the bus at that location.

  • George Joseph Lane

    +1 Working as a transport planner I wrote a report about car park use in a town centre. The off street car park was free with no time limit but had very low use. Another male contributing author and I had identified a few factors that contributed to this, a female reviewer immediately identified safety issues with the car park (poor lighting, no passive surveillance, narrow alleyway for access). Whenever people ask why it matters that we don’t have female engineers/planners, I bring this story up now.

  • Sarah

    In L.A. we never saw a security person on a train—they were hanging out at the stations and ticket machines, an apparent indication of priorities. The ticket honor system, where agents are riding trains, certainly makes me feel safer and seems to improve passenger behavior.

  • Jonathan Krall

    Thanks for your perspective. This an important feature of the ticket honor system that I haven’t noticed or heard about before.

  • Jonathan Krall

    In terms of crashes or other dangerous incidents, cars are 10 times more dangerous than transit. I expect that date rape happens more often in cars. I’d love to see a comprehensive comparison.

  • johnaustingreenfield
  • aarond

    There is literally nothing wrong with forcing counties to be shall-issue carry permits, because when things get bad (in particular on BART) people are going to take matters into their own hands. It’s better that this process be controlled rather than spawning a huge mess that sprawls into a SCOTUS fight over gun control.

  • Cole the Happy

    As a woman who rides transit, I would love to read a version of this report that includes a discussion about real and perceived safety risks, and strategies for dealing with them as two related but separate phenomena. I was alarmed and distressed by the murder of Nia Wilson, but I was also alarmed by the call for more police and more face-recognition surveillance.

  • Marla Bennet

    At a “night stop”, how is a driver supposed to enforce only women exiting the bus? If a man decides to get off, what can the driver do?

  • AndreL

    Swedish cities don’t have women-only alternate stops. Anyone can ask for stops out of designated stops in certain lines.

    Most of my female friends would roll their eyes at this idea of segregating women on certain train cars to prevent harassment. This also doesn’t work with open gangway trains, which are the future. And the whole idea that women and men cannot share the same public spaces is something that indirectly validates the despicable “she was asking for it” argument – if there is a cordoned off section for women in a train, all other women not in that space become more susceptible to harassment.

    They have done experiences with this on sports stadia in Europe, and they rejected it exactly because women suddenly fell that unless they stayed on “family” pens or stands, they would be even more abused verbally or even physically. So men just have to behave and women should t have a target on their backs because they ventured off their designated segregated space “for your own protection”.

    Furthermore, women would still have to interact with men on stations, ticket halls, etc. Trains are the easiest to put under camera surveillance, much more than the streets and egress points of stations.

  • CeeTee55

    I’m fairly certain that women-only cars would be considered discriminatory in the US.

  • Eavan Moore

    Safety risks aren’t less real because they’re not as significant to you. How about addressing the full variety of safety risks and the most effective/equitable solutions?

  • Cole the Happy

    It’s not that the safety concerns of women are not significant to me – again, I am a woman who uses public transit, and I have been harassed, hit, and kissed by strangers along the way – it’s that not every safety _concern_ is a safety _risk_. Some safety concerns are more a matter of perception than actual risk and some safety measures are more a matter of perceived safety than abating actual risk. Thus the popularity of “security theater”. But security theater isn’t just a net positive to feelings of safety, it has real effects. Every day, people of color are needlessly hassled by security personnel with racial bias. I think some women (especially white women, like myself) feel less safe on public transit because it puts them in close proximity to men of color whom they don’t know and have been taught to fear. Pursuing more safety features such as police patrols might make women feel safe at the expense of others. So, yes, address the full variety of safety risks in an equitable and effective fashion. I think we would need a study that sussed out the real risks from the perceived ones in order to do that, and that’s why I asked for it in my previous comment.

  • AJ

    Safety and fear of safety are two different issues that need to be addressed in different ways. Both are legitimate concerns which need to be addressed.

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