Street Harassment and Active Transportation
I have been thinking a lot lately about how women move through our city and what compels people to choose driving over walking, cycling or taking transit.
When I was younger and without a lot of money, I walked, cycled and took transit regularly as these were my only options. I experienced a hefty degree of street harassment that I chalked up to the realities of being a young woman in a world of gendered harassment and violence. As I got older and became more financially stable, I bought a car, moved to the suburbs and used active transportation a lot less.
These changes in my lifestyle corresponded with a decrease in my experience of street harassment. At the time, I attributed this change to ageing and being less of a sexual target, and not to the forms of transportation I was choosing and the amount of time I was spending in public spaces.
Last year we moved to a new neighbourhood – a change that was motivated partially by my family’s desire to be able to walk, cycle and take transit more often. I spend time almost daily now out walking or on my bike and my experience of harassment has correspondingly increased significantly.
I started to make connections (that I am surprised I never made before) about the vulnerability of any woman who spends time in public spaces and the level of harassment she will feel as a result. Being outside and moving in a city means that women will often be subjected to unwanted comments, threats and even assault. A quick read of@everydaysexism on twitter shows just how common place this kind of harassment is.
Harassment in public spaces is also very much tied to race, sexual orientation and gender identification with racialized people and people within LGBTQ communities experiencing higher rates of harassment and assault. Being a woman of colour, a trans person or being identified as lesbian/gay in our community puts one at risk for being followed, cat called and experiencing assault and violence. Taking transit or walking – even in broad daylight – can be a risky endeavour.
Given the option, many women will choose to get into their car, rather than subject themselves to the unsafe atmosphere that can come with transit, walking and cycling.The car becomes a safety box in which a woman can somewhat safely navigate her city. This is often an unconscious decision. You will frequently hear women say that they are going to drive because it is late at night, they are going to an unfamiliar place or it is just easier. From my own experience, “easier” is often a synonym for “safer.”
Because the ability to own a car or afford cab fare is very much tied to class, race and income stability, transportation also becomes a social justice issue. Women who have the means are able to access safer options for transportation over those who don’t. This is inequity.
It also means that cities need to account for women’s safety concerns in their planning efforts for public transportation. If they don’t, not only are they discouraging women from using transit, they are also putting women at risk – particularly low-income women who have no safer options.
A good example in London is our network of trails and paths that politicians and others often cite as part of the cycle/walking network that allows people to move through our city. Many of these paths travel through secluded areas that are unusable at night, dawn or dusk. Even in the light of day, these public spaces are routinely places of harassment for the most vulnerable people in our community. Although it is wonderful to have these paths and connections through our city, they don’t serve as a viable, safe transportation link for many of our city’s residents.
Initiatives likeThe London Plan, our city’s draft plan for the next 25 years puts an emphasis on active transportation and its importance in creating a vibrant city. Transit Villages, increased biking infrastructure and prioritizing walkability in neighbourhoods are all worthy endeavours but unless the planning of these includes the experience of women and the reality of safety concerns, the efforts will fall short.
We will continue to create options that, while unintentional, discourage women and vulnerable people from utilizing these choices and put the safety of our community at risk.
The city is facing an upcoming municipal election in October. Many candidates are speaking positively about the need for active transportation and better transit in our city. As a citizen and on behalf of Women & Politics, I want to know how well candidates understand and acknowledge the role of gender in transportation planning and how they would address the issues of safety that women and many others in our city feel when using public spaces.