Personal Safety

Public transit is a women’s issue

Across Canada, transit authorities and governments need to do more for women's safety
Photo: John St John

“Have you ever gone into a Montreal bus stop and taken shelter in the inner corner while it was cold, and then exited as soon as someone — more specifically, a man — came into the shelter?” asks Olivia Collette, a Montreal freelance writer who specializes in urban planning and design.

“I have. And I've spoken to many women who have as well. The reason we do is because that corner, while it protects us from the cold, also creates a cul-de-sac that we can't get out of if some guy decides to assault us. So before he can, we get out.”

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Run-of-the-mill conversations on public transit usually revolve around cleanliness, dubious efficiency and service, crowded conditions, and constantly rising fares. But female passengers face specific harassment and safety issues, making public transit very much a women’s issue.

Reports of assault and harassment

Widespread sexual harassment has led transit agencies in many places around the world to implement sex-segregated buses and trains. Countries with women-only bus services include Bangladesh, Guatemala, India, Indonesia, Mexico, Pakistan, Thailand, and the United Arab Emirates. Women-only subway cars or train sections are found in Brazil, Egypt, Iran, Japan, Malaysia, Mexico, Nepal, and Russia, according to author and Stop Street Harassment founder Holly Kearl.

While sex-segregated public transit hasn’t been implemented in the Western world, that doesn’t mean harassment isn’t a concern there.

A recent investigative report by Quebec’s French-language daily newspaper Journal de Montréal revealed that in 2015 police received a considerable number of reports of sexual assault on the metro, making it the worst such year since 2008, whereas overall crime in the city’s metros has decreased by 42 per cent since then.

In Greater Vancouver, gender-based harassment has become such a problem for many Translink customers that it actually inspired a website where passengers can report their stories.

“Our hope is to compile stories of these experiences to demonstrate the reality and severity of this particular issue to Translink and the City of Vancouver,”the site’s administrators explain on the website. “Once this has been accomplished, we hope to have their support in forming a response strategy to make transit usage safer and more inclusive for all riders.”

Sexual aggression is neither rare nor localized, yet transit authorities and law enforcement tend to treat it as more of a nuisance than a crime.

Authorities slow to respond

Most transit agencies seem slow to acknowledge and remedy a situation that affects their female passengers.

Toronto operates the Request Stop Program, allowing any customer travelling alone at night to be dropped off between regular stops.

Danny Nicholson, spokesperson for the Toronto Transit Corporation, told Ricochet by email that CCTV security cameras are located on all buses and streetcars as well as the newest model of subway trains. There are also cameras in subway stations.

“On each subway platform, we have a Designated Waiting Area,” explained Nicholson. “Customers can wait for the train in this area. There is a speaker phone at this location, allowing a customer to speak with the person in the collector booth. This area is also monitored by a camera.”

Finally, all vehicles are equipped with an emergency alarm. Customers who feel threatened can push a yellow strip, alerting the vehicle operator so police and transit enforcement officers can be sent.

In Montreal, the Between Stops program allows women travelling alone by bus at night to be dropped off between assigned bus stops, and metro cops have had an increased presence in the past few years. . Marie Plourde is a Montreal city councillor and board member of the Société de transport de Montréal (STM), the city’s public transport agency. When contacted by Ricochet about what is being done to increase female riders’ sense of security after the Journal de Montréal report, her email reply was generic.

Public transit is more than just another space where women face harassment and violence.

“Our passengers’ safety is always at the heart of STM preoccupations. It’s why, with the SPVM [Montreal police department], we have increased the visibility of police officers and security agents in the metro system.”

That’s it. No recognition of sexual violence as a serious issue, no social awareness campaigns.

Yet public transit is more than just another space where women face harassment and violence.

Considering the statistics, it’s not unreasonable to expect that more foresight and money be put into tackling the issues, and not just to enlarge the brigade of metro cops, who too often spend more time checking for ticket fraud than they do looking out passenger safety.

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