How Can We Make Public Transportation Less of a Minefield For Women?

This would be the ideal scenario.

It’s no big secret that being a woman on public transportation—just like being a woman in public at all—is generally a fraught situation. (Both Jezebel and Emily Gould have recently run excellent posts about the fundamental discomfort of being a woman trapped in a public space). Last week, the Atlantic Cities ran an interesting look at the numbers involved in public transportation ridership—surprise surprise, low-income women who can’t just “call a cab, it’s late” take trains and buses more than anyone else—and crucially, what, if anything, can be done to make them feel safer.

Though women more often tend to cede family cars to their male partner (or not have the money for cars at all), those who can do so prefer to drive, deeming it the safer option:

“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.”

Barring a full-blown overthrow of both the patriarchy and American car culture, it would seem that there are smaller policy fixes that could do a lot to ease some of the tension here. Several cities have had success with anti-harassment PSAs (Boston had a “Rub against me and I’ll expose you” campaign), and one can only imagine what the team behind New York’s brutally explicit “Two drinks ago….” binge drinking PSAs might be able to come up with. Even just studying ridership patterns more closely would help, and as an editor at the American Planning Association pointed out, “Census data doesn’t tell us how women are experiencing those spaces.”

Another interesting detail: systems that post specific wait times (a la the signs on the L train or the newly launched MTA Bus Time app) are thought to be a big help: “Women very much would like to have real-time info for buses,” said one Urban Planning professor at UCLA. “The city of Portland has that, where you go to the bus stop and you can see when the next bus is arriving.” Time spent waiting alone at a bus stop or in a subway station understandably seems to be even more of a safety concern than actual time spent on the bus or the train.

And yet, somehow, sweeping arrests of all subway break dancers didn’t make the cut of potential fixes. But, um, surely the NYPD has been focusing on the right issue here.

Follow Virginia K. Smith on Twitter @vksmith.

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