What it's like to be a woman on the bus

Photo by  Thomas Hawk

Photo by Thomas Hawk

I am a strong proponent of public transit. I use it several times a week and encourage others to do the same. While transit in my city is not ideal, I make do because it saves me thousands of dollars a year and makes me a happier, healthier person. But riding transit presents a particular challenge for me. No, I’m not talking about waiting at the bus stop in the rain or dealing with the occasional delayed bus; I’m talking about the challenge of being a woman on public transit.

I’ve had my fair share of harassment and unwanted attention on public transit, but luckily nothing that has made me fear for my life. However, I am part of a private Facebook group for women in my community and recently, someone started a thread about her experience being harassed on the bus. Dozens of other women joined in the conversation, sharing their own stories. I was disheartened, though not surprised, by the amount of people who participated in the discussion. Here are some of the comments that were shared:

“I've gotten harassed plenty on the bus, and its always degrading embarrassing and sometimes terrifying.”

“I've had multiple guys follow me off the bus and literally chase after me for my number after politely declining.”

“Waiting for the bus is awful. I’ve had people do full u-turns in their cars and pull over and ask if I wanted to get in while throwing nasty words out and saying very uncomfortable things.”

“I refuse refuse to bus because when I was thirteen, I had a guy that wouldn't leave me and a friend alone…”

“The last time I was assaulted was the final time I rode the bus. I couldn't take it anymore. I'd rather do the alternatives than continue to fear for my safety and sanity riding the bus.”

It’s deeply distressing that women in my city (and countless others, I’m sure) are choosing not to ride the bus because of harassment issues. Of course, I do not fault them for making that choice, but I want to propose some solutions so that women are able to feel safe and continue to use affordable public transit, rather than feeling like buying a car is their only option.

One solution that has been implemented with mixed results is the concept of women-only transit—that is, designating a few cars on a train or subway just for women riders. These exist in major metropolitan areas in Egypt, Japan, India and several other countries. The Telegraph did a nice analysis of women-only train cars a few years ago. They concluded that it has only worked in a few places. Challenges include enforcement and space capacity. Additionally, restricted train cars are also only helpful when you’re actually in the train. On the platform, there’s still a risk for women.

A women only train in Japan. Photo from  Wikimedia .

A women only train in Japan. Photo from Wikimedia.

Finally, many people feel uncomfortable with the idea of segregation and protest that they shouldn’t have to segregate to be safe. I certainly agree with this; I want to live in a world where public harassment is not a daily fear for women. While women-only train cars might be beneficial in some places, most cities do not have the capacity to run a segregated transit system, especially if they only offer busing.

Unfortunately, in cities without extensive public transportation and primarily bus-based transit (like mine), the danger can actually be greater. Instead of waiting for your train in a crowded subway station with other people around to increase safety, you’re often the only person waiting at your bus stop. If it’s an untrafficked area (especially an area lacking foot traffic), there’s no one present to help if someone starts bothering you. On the other hand, in larger cities with expansive public transit systems, the likelihood of being harassed is also high simply because of the sheer volume of people you encounter.

This is what women are up against. Every day. And most days go smoothly, but there are also the days when someone won’t leave you alone and you start to get worried. You have to be constantly on the look out, especially at night.

If you want evidence that harassment happens on public transit, just ask any woman in your life who has used public transit. (And if you're a woman reading this, well, you already know what I'm talking about.) Or read one of the many many many articles on the topic.

For many women, the immediate "solution" to harassment is to avoid eye contact with others, to travel in pairs, and to always operate on high alert. It shouldn't have to be this way.

So what are some realistic solutions to this problem?

One potential solution that is sometimes floated to make public transit safer for women is extra patrols by security officers. But these could add serious expense to transit budgets that are already strained. Additionally, just as enforcement is not a true solution to dangerous, speedy driving, greater security presence is not a solution to harassment. Video cameras in buses are an asset, but again, they can be expensive and in my experience, they don't stop attacks and hassling.

Everyone on public transit has a responsibility to help keep everyone else safe.

The ultimate solution, of course, is for the harassment to stop. That is part of a larger cultural shift that is happening far too slowly. Boys need to be taught at an early age—from their parents, from their grandparents, from their siblings, from their teachers—that harassment is not acceptable. Until men stop taking advantage of women though, harassment will continue to be a concern for women, especially while they’re riding the bus or subway. Everyone on public transit has a responsibility to help keep everyone else safe.           

As a serious solution to harassment, I'd advocate for a zero tolerance policy on inappropriate behavior, like most stores have for someone who shoplifts. You ban the person from riding the bus again and circulate their photo so the bus drivers know not to let them on. Additionally, I’d like to see transit authorities implement anonymous and immediate reporting systems on public transit apps and websites. I'd also like to see more attention paid to the design of bus stops. They should be well lit and visible to passersby.

Natasha Noman a writer for Tech.Mic suggests creating an alarm system that instantly alerts bus or train drivers that there is a problem, as well as increasing education of drivers so that they’re informed about how to handle a situation when it occurs.

What should you do when you’re that woman in an uncomfortable situation? Emily May, co-founder of the international Hollaback organization which fights street harassment suggests first telling the person who is bothering you that what they’re doing is not okay: “Look them in the eyes, speak very firmly, and then exit that situation as soon as possible. Other options: if you’re in a situation where you can take their picture, that can certainly serve as evidence if you want to report it to the police.”

Finally, how would a Strong Citizen handle a harassment situation that he or she witnesses on public transit? By standing up and saying something. Whether you’re a woman or a man, intervene and help someone out if you see them being harassed. Make it clear to the harasser that his actions are not condoned by the people around him. Invite the woman to sit by you instead. Tell the bus driver what’s happening. Call the police.

We need to acknowledge that many women will continue to choose driving over public transportation until they feel safe on the subway or bus. This is one of the many ways cities fail to adequately serve all of their residents and one I hope to see change in the future.

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