Q&A: #MeToo and making transit safer for women

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June 6, 2018

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With the rise of the #MeToo movement and a broader national discussion on sexual harassment, the role of transportation in women’s safety is rightfully receiving more attention. In Los Angeles, for example, recent panel discussions have highlighted the ways that transportation is a women’s issue.

Transit operators should be thinking about gender-specific policies and practices to meet women’s safety needs. Quinn Graham Wallace, a graduate student in planning at the USC Price School of Public Policy, explored possible solutions in her paper, “Women-Oriented Transit: Meeting Female Travelers’ Needs in Settings of Fear and Harassment,” which won the American Planning Association’s 2018 award for the best student paper in transportation planning. She answered a few questions for Transfers via email.

Why did you want to research this topic?

I had found dealing with harassment as a cyclist, pedestrian, and transit rider to be occasionally overwhelming in my adjustment to living in a big city. Discussing the topic in one of my classes allowed for me to hear others’ experiences and feel heard myself; however, I was missing an understanding of the broader systemic effects on women and girls’ mobility and perceptions of fear in our environments. Writing and researching this topic was as cathartic and validating as it was insightful and revealing!

Did anything stand out to you as particularly surprising?

The sheer numbers of sexual harassment and assault in transit environments from around the world are shocking, near 100 percent in some major global cities. Additionally, cities that I found in my research had data collected and published on sexual harassment, and I often wondered how little to no accessible data existed for so many cities, particularly in the United States. I surprised myself in realizing and substantiating that, transportation institutions, namely transit authorities, effectively ignore women’s needs and demands through seemingly inclusive “gender-neutral” (rather, women-blind) policies and practices. It puts transportation planners and policymakers — and thus, our transportation system — behind broader socio-cultural discussions that the #MeToo movement, and countless other feminist movements, have inspired.

Does the tendency for agencies to report survey data on sexual harassment and safety without differentiating results between genders distort the framing of the problem?

There is a real need to clearly define gender in surveys and study groups that is lacking at this moment; it can be as simple of a switch from ticking a box to indicate “male” or “female” to allowing respondents to write in their gender. What should be avoided is a hetero-normative wash over data that sweeps gender-queer, gender non-conforming, and transgender people under the rug and assumes the gender of survey respondents, putting transportation planners and policymakers at a disadvantage in creating a safe, inclusive system by not fully understanding the identities of their transit customers. Most importantly, non-binary travelers’ safety is significantly compromised when they go uncounted, unmeasured, and unrecognized.

Don’t many of the improvements you list that support women’s safety — such as increased cell phone service, real-time information, lighting, and thoughtful in-person surveillance — also improve transit service for all riders?

It’s critical to acknowledge that women-oriented transit policies and practices can so easily be used as a means to benefit everyone. So often investments in women and girls are justified as an investment in greater society, reducing the sanctity and validity of women’s needs and demands. This argument is a common one, and I understand its appeal. But transportation professionals should be cognizant of the true implications of this strategy for their systems and how they prop up the gender-neutral status quo, rather than taking a stance.

You wrote about women-only transit vehicles, which have proven to be successful internationally but have never been tried in the United States. Do you think this system could work in Los Angeles?

The most successful women-only carriages (WOCs) that I’ve read about are the ones that are paired with broader feminist policy discussion and are properly enforced. In the United States and certainly in Los Angeles, I would anticipate discussion of non-binary folks’ inclusion (or exclusion) from WOCs and the policing of WOCs. It could easily become a space made and maintained for white women, which I strongly believe should be avoided (especially when considering the demographics of LA transit riders). If done in an inclusive and sustainable manner, I believe WOCs could have very real success in Los Angeles, and LA Metro could set an impressive precedent for other cities in the United States.

Your long-term recommendation for transit agencies is ultimately more of a cultural change. Can you tell us more a little about that?

As #MeToo leaders and millions of other women have told us, sexual harassment is pervasive throughout the world and is so often tolerated as something that all women must endure (and fear), something that girls are taught they somehow invited, something that is an accepted norm for half of our world’s population. As a historically male-dominated field, transportation has too long been behind the cultural conversation of recognizing the role that sexual harassment plays on trains, buses, sidewalks, bikes, skateboards, scooters, and even “private” cars. Transit agencies play a critical role in shaping public space and deal intimately with sexual harassment and assault, regardless of if they are prepared to do so. Now is the time for transit agencies to be a part of the cultural change to end sexual harassment. They can:

  • Hire more women
  • Organize committees to make women-oriented transit recommendations
  • Design transit vehicles with spaces for strollers and shopping bags
  • Collect and publish sound qualitative and quantitative data on sexual harassment

My suggestions are few and there are many more possibilities. In the transportation sector, we must overcome the notion that serving women and girls is a radical approach.

This interview was edited for clarity and length.


Ryan Yowell

Ryan is an alumnus of the UCLA Luskin School of Public Affairs. He was previously the assistant editor of Transfers and the communications fellow at the UCLA Institute of Transportation Studies.