Gendered perspectives are key to creating safe transit environments for women

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By Kayla Zhu

Naomi Litwack was waiting for her boyfriend at Victoria Park station one late spring afternoon, when she smiled at a stranger that she had made eye contact with. 

She said that the stranger stared back at her and then, suddenly, threw a wadded ball of paper at her face. 

Litwack said he had a “scowl” on his face and just walked away afterwards like nothing had happened. She said it seemed like he acted on impulse.

While she wasn’t hurt, Litwack remembers being so shocked that she didn’t do anything to block it or move out of the way. 

“It was pretty upsetting…I didn’t know what he would have been throwing until after the moment passed,” said Litwack, a recent graduate of the University of Toronto’s architecture program. 

Litwack’s experience as a woman on transit is not uncommon. According to a 2019 The Globe and Mail investigation, there were almost 4,000 incidents of sexual assault or harassment recorded on Canada’s 22 largest transit systems between 2013 and 2017. But because of the lack of data collection when it comes to situations of harassment, the number is likely to be higher.

After the perpetrator left, Litwack went over to the ticket collector and told them that she had just been assaulted. When the employee asked if she wanted to press charges, she said she didn’t want to, but did ask if they could check the security cameras and take down the man’s face.

She emphasized to the ticket collector that the man was a safety risk and it would be helpful if they could start a paper trail documenting similar incidents in case someone else was more seriously hurt or pressed charges in the future. Litwack said the TTC employee didn’t really agree with her suggestion at first but after she pushed a couple of more times, he ended up noting down the assault.

She said that the incident didn’t “paint a good picture” for her of how the TTC dealt with safety concerns.

“Based on the experience, I did not have a ton of faith [in the TTC]. The guy was pretty apathetic and seemed much more interested in not having to deal with it, and having me talk to the police [instead],” said Litwack.

Litwack said since she wasn’t seriously hurt and was in a rush at the time, she didn’t feel the need to go to the police. 

Public trust in police and law enforcement officers also differs by identity, which may deter a victim from reporting a crime. According to a 2017 Globe investigation, one in five sexual assault cases that end up being reported are closed by Canadian police as “unfounded,” meaning they determined that no sexual assault occurred. Additionally, a 2019 Toronto Star survey shows that only 26 per cent of Black Torontonians trust police to treat them fairly.

Whether or not an incident makes it onto paper, it’s clear that safety on transit is a major concern for female riders.

A 2014 study on women’s safety concerns in transit environments by the University of California Los Angeles (UCLA) department of urban planning suggested that mobility—or how people move—is “demonstrably gendered.” According to the study, this means there are significant inequalities that impede women’s mobility, including lower economic status and fear of safety in public transportation.

How do women make up transit demographics?

Anna Kramer, an assistant professor of urban planning at McGill University, says that due to the gender pay gap, “there are more women in transit than there are men proportionate to their size of the population.” Wage inequality can mean women are driving less frequently than men, which could mean “[they] are more likely to rely on transit to get around, even though their patterns are less likely to be served as well.” 

According to the 2016 census, 44.3 per cent of employed women over the age of 15 in Toronto take public transit as their primary mode of commuting, compared to 30.1 per cent of men. For car commuters, 37.1 per cent of women drive as their main mode of transportation compared to 54.5 per cent of men.

With transit ridership dropping significantly in light of the pandemic, it’s become clear that there are gender disparities among the people who primarily rely on transit. Kramer said that essential workers who still have to take transit to go to work are the people who usually don’t have access to cars.

Women make up the majority of frontline workers, including health care workers and caregivers. They also are more likely to use public transit as their main mode of transportation for their commute.

“I really think congestion can be most uncomfortable for women on transit in a way that, I suspect, men just don’t experience”

According to an article from Stanford University’s Clayman Institute for Gendered Research, 52 per cent of frontline workers are women, which includes nine out of 10 nurses or nursing assistants and two-thirds of checkout workers at grocery stores and pharmacies.

“Health care workers, nurses, caring professionals, people working in the long term care facilities and old age homes, they’re much more likely to be women,” said Kramer.

The UCLA study highlighted a need for a clear, gendered-perspective when planning infrastructure like transportation, as “women’s reluctance to take public transit out of safety concerns counteracts cities’ promotion of greener travel modes.” Further, aging populations mean more elderly women will rely on public transit as they become unable to drive.

Women’s usage of public transit differs from men both in their trip routes and their experience in transit systems, said Kramer. Taking a gender-neutral approach to transit planning neglects women’s distinct safety needs on transit and how they travel on it.

Kramer says that women tend to have different kinds of trip patterns—or “trip-chaining” where they have multiple destinations in one trip or loop.

A major factor behind trip-chaining, according to Kramer, is women often taking more responsibility for household tasks. 

“Transit systems are generally designed around serving peak demand, which is usually the nine to five workday—going from other places in the city towards downtown, in the morning and then back out from the central business district in the afternoon,” said Kramer.

“This may not benefit women as much as men if women are making smaller, shorter and local trips in sequences that aren’t just the nine to five pattern.”

Gaps in data lead to gaps in support and safety

Before the pandemic, Ellysa Ysmael, a first-year Humber College nursing student, used to take the subway and bus Monday to Friday for classes, getting on the subway as early as 6 a.m. on most days and heading home late at night. 

She would take Line 1 to Wilson Station before hopping on the express bus to Humber, opting to sit at the front near the bus driver because she felt safer there compared to the back of the bus.

One night, when Ysmael was waiting for her bus at Pioneer Village Station, a man approached her and asked her to use her phone even though she was already on a call with her boyfriend. 

“I felt really, really uncomfortable because he was also asking other ladies, not men, on the bus platform to use their phones,” said Ysmael. “I said no, and then my bus came and I ran straight into the bus.”

Earlier this year, Amy Hanser, a University of British Columbia sociology professor was working on her ethnographic study of bus rider behaviour “The Public Bus as Urban Space” but had to stop her observations due to COVID-19. Her study involved observing interactions on the bus and conducting interviews with riders. 

Hanser’s study seeks to explore how people navigate the “unwritten rules” and social difference on buses, what she describes as a public space where people regularly come into close contact with people very different from them. 

Hanser said that public spaces, such as the sidewalk, can be “gendered” in terms of how women navigate them differently than men. She said that how women navigate safety on the sidewalk, such as how they behave when they walk alone, often looks different from men. However, the sidewalk is different from the bus because people can avoid contact with people much more easily.

“The bus is interesting in the sense that we’re really close together, and we’re not alone,” said Hanser. “You’re not walking down the street by yourself; there’s an audience. There’s a driver, as an authority figure, for example.”

On the bus, she said that people can take advantage of crowded situations to harass women because it’s difficult to observe the social norms of maintaining a certain distance from strangers.

“I really think congestion can be most uncomfortable for women on transit in a way that, I suspect, men just don’t experience,” said Hanser. “It’s interesting to think about empty buses, on the other hand. Is that more uncomfortable for women?”

Hanser said she hopes to observe women’s behaviours and habits, such as where they usually choose to sit on the bus, with her study.

“I think what’s missing is a priority to say, ‘Look we actually have the scope to improve transit services for women…We have the resources and the political will to do that'”

Priya Datta, a third-year Ryerson law and business student, commuted from Brampton to Ryerson every day for class, taking the GO train and TTC. She said that taking transit late at night alone was scary because certain bus and subway stations, like College Station, aren’t very well-lit.

On the GO train, she said she prefers to sit on the bottom level, near the door or the accessibility coach where GO employees are located, so she can have an “exit strategy.”

On the TTC, she said she was always in “defensive mode,” and never talked to anybody, never looked at anybody and always tried to be on her phone.

“I felt like if I occupied myself, nobody would come to try to talk to me or bother me,” said Datta. “But every now and again, I just look up and you get people staring at you, and you can’t really control that.”

The commission launched their SafeTTC app in 2017, where riders “can do their part to help make transit safer for all” by reporting incidents that happen on the TTC with text, photos or videos of incidents. There is also an option to call 911.

According to its website, the TTC responds to each report depending “on the severity of the situation.”

The TTC website also recommends riders to “walk with confidence,” “not become distracted,” “keep your head up and be alert to your surroundings,” and “avoid taking short cuts or walking in unlit areas” to ensure their personal safety.

Datta recalled once when she was on the subway, a man entered the subway last-minute and started yelling at all the people within the coach. She said she doesn’t remember what he was yelling about, but he was “clearly targeting” the women on the train.

“It was definitely scary to just hear someone very vehemently yelling at people in the morning on the subway,” said Datta. “I remember getting off at the next stop and being kind of confused because there were some women left in the coach and I was like, ‘Oh man, I hope they’re okay.’”

While the TTC has ramped up efforts to combat fare evasion, safety and equity initiatives don’t seem to be getting the same resources. In the past year, the TTC has addressed fare evasion by hiring more fare inspectors and transit enforcement officers and launching an awareness campaign. Ranging from $235 to $425, penalties for fare evasion in Toronto are among the highest fines in all of Canada.

After a motion to “overlay a gender-specific lens for their upcoming annual safety review and include a broader equity lens as part of existing accessibility initiatives” was passed at the July 2016 TTC board meeting, the commission has yet to tangibly launch any gender-specific initiatives besides the SafeTTC app.

Kramer said that interviews with focus groups of representative samples of women and travel surveys are ways that could provide a clearer understanding of what priorities could help in terms of design and safety.

“I think what’s missing is a priority to say, ‘Look we actually have the scope to improve transit services for women,’” said Kramer. “We have the resources and the political will to do that.”

She said she thinks the data analysis would be “easy enough” to do, but these types of initiatives are difficult when the TTC is “constantly underfunded.” 

While the provincial and federal government will sometimes fund capital projects such as a new rail line, they don’t fund transit operations on an ongoing basis, said Kramer.

“It’s left to the city, which is very cash-strapped and relies on property taxes, to make up the difference between what fare covers and the gap between the operating budget for transit,” said Kramer.

Prioritizing women’s safety initiatives, said Datta, should start with women on the board. She said she believes women who have experienced similar situations as herself and her friends would be able to raise questions around how to make the TTC safer.

“I think they should do whatever they can to try and bring more women to the table because if only half of the people in the city are able to feel safe while taking transit, you’re really missing out on a big demographic,” said Datta. “I feel like they really should try to get more women involved in leadership positions to really make transit travel safer for everyone.”

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