An Exploration Women’s Safety on Vancouver’s Public Transit System.




On December 1st, 2016 The Metro Vancouver Transit Police and Battered Women’s Support Services announced a collaborative advertising campaign to address sexual offending on metro Vancouver’s transit system. Illustrating the prevalence of the issue, this campaign is the second of its kind in under two years, a similar one taking place in Spring of 2014, to welcome the launch of a text reporting system. For those of you not aware of the service, text reporting allows riders to report inappropriate sexual behavior and harassment and other non-emergent incidents they experience or witness while on transit.

While sexual violence, including harassment of a sexual or gender-based nature, is a significant problem that is not confined to the transit system, nor the city of Vancouver, nor the “public” realm as a whole, limiting the examination of this phenomena to the buses and Skytrains of Vancouver provides an opportunity to study safety and perceptions of safety in and between public spaces through a post-structuralist lens. The author of this paper is choosing to use transit in both the literal sense and as an example of the greater ever shifting spatial relations at work as people (in this example, women-identified people) move about their built environment.

What is sexual violence and how common is it?

Harassment in public space is often referred to as “street harassment” and is defined as “unwanted comments, gestures, and actions forced on a stranger in a public place without their consent and is directed at them because of their actual or perceived sex, gender, gender expression, or sexual orientation.” (Source) Harassment of this kind is rooted in greater power dynamics, and as such can also be (but is not limited to) racist, classist, ablest, xenophobic, or body shaming in nature.  Feminist scholars and anti-violence activists have long understood that sexual and gendered harassment is not an exclusive act, but rather part of a continuum of sexual and gendered violence that is rooted in the greater workings of a patriarchal society.

A recent study by Cornell University and anti-street harassment organization Hollaback!, found that of Canadian women surveyed, 88% had their first experience of harassment before age seventeen. (Source) In the same study, public transit and transit stations were the third and fourth most common site of harassment. The Toronto Transit Commission reported that between 2011 and 2014 there were 557 reports of sexual assault on TTC property or transit vehicles, which is one assault every three days. The Metro Vancouver Transit Police have also acknowledged a dire need for safety interventions, pointing out that offenses of a sexual nature are on the rise,  while recognizing that like in the general population, the actual number is likely much higher as sexual assaults are typically under reported. Since the launch of the text reporting system, Metro Vancouver Transit Police state that reporting of sexual assault and harassment is up 28 percent.


The Skytrain is not a just container- Spatial practices at work

The Fordist suburbs of the later 1940’s and the subsequent marked distance between the masculine-centric sites of production (work) and the feminine realm of reproduction and domesticity (home), again solidified the public private divide that World War Two had begun to bridge. Gill Valentine highlights the implications of this spatial and subsequent social divide:


…the separation of home and work created by the development of the private single family home in the suburbs away from the site of production resulted in an urban built form which physically represented and enforced a particular social organization of people and space…This built form then becomes the norm, and symbolizes through imagery the ” appropriate place” for a particular activity. The suburbs have therefore become associated with women and with domesticity, peace and safety; and the city with men, power and danger.  (Source)

In other words, urban centers and “public” spaces were formed by and for the interests of (white, straight, able-bodied) men, and as a result can, even in present day, pose a challenge for other bodies to navigate.  While there is use in acknowledging the power of the historic spacial divide, this explanation alone is now seen as not enough to unpack the ongoing threats to safety that women face in both their “private” and “public” lives. Post structuralist feminist academics (See the work of: Carolyn Whitzman, Katherine McKittrick, Liz Bondhi) have dismissed the public / private unsafe/ safe as a false dichotomy, recognizing that the home is not safe for all women, nor do all women feel vulnerable in public. Their work also shows that the lived world of women involves intersecting identities and movement between the public and private. It is more useful then, to examine factors that span across the multitude of relations that are mediated through space in order to understand where perceptions of safety in the material world come from. In light of this, using a post structuralist lens to address safety on public transportation calls for more detailed examinations of ever changing spatial practices, as in the relationships and behaviors that take place on buses and Skytrains on a daily basis in order to make these spaces safer for women.

Another factor contributing to the social-spatial dialectic at work on transit is the way that space is produced in the media and other representational means. Much of this is constituted by the way women are socialized to believe they are vulnerable to problematic male behavior while in public space, and as such are taught to modify behavior so as to act in a way to ensure their own safety. This perception of danger then produces a certain type of space that is gendered:

“Our culture has done a very good job of convincing women that we are unsafe in public space and that we should not go to certain places at certain times, where certain people might be present, and that if we follow those rules we’d be safe.” (Source) 

While the research has shown that gendered and sexual violence on transit is a global phenomenon of the lived material world as a result of patriarchy replicating itself, perceptions of safety are also a result of this lifelong conditioning. This understanding of safe / unsafe is furthered by crime prevention strategies that put the onus on women to prevent any untoward attention being directed at them such as not traveling alone, being out after dark or having too much to drink.

The conceived realm of public transit planning often lacks “locally-adapted gender-sensitive transport strategies that combat the bias towards men’s needs in terms of variables such as route trajectories and frequencies.” (Source) The UN also advocates for more women working in all aspects of transit to help mainstream gender-conscious initiatives. The lack of recognition of the often complex transit needs of women or “poorly considered land-use zoning policy [which] separates residential areas from employment locations”on the part the municipal vision of transit, all work to influence perceptions of safety to and therefor impact women’s mobility and transit use. (Ibid.)

To illustrate this socio-spatial dialectic at work, think of a time you felt unsafe on a bus or a Skytrain. If you have never felt unsafe on transit, ask someone in your life, preferably someone who is not a white cis male identified heterosexual. The answer probably relates to a specific encounter that happened on a specific ride, or an encounter on a previous ride, or personal experiences with violence unrelated to transit. Perhaps there wasn’t an incident per say, but there was something about another rider’s comments or gestures or groupings that resulted in an altered perception of safety. Alternatively, perhaps you or the person you talked to, identifies in a way (gender, gender expression, sexual orientation, race, body shape, class, physical mobility) that lends to feeling vulnerable in a particular neighborhood.

Perhaps the story is a combination of these factors, or maybe the threat to safety was that there was no one else on the bus or train, or something practical like a night bus only coming once every 40 minutes or there not being a stop close to your house. The point the writer is trying to make here is that if you Google “Women’s safety on public transit” none of the sites and stories that come up are related to the safety logistics of riding in a steel tube at high speeds, but rather born from the interactions taking place within the containers of transit.

 So, the Skytrain isn’t Neutral, or “What’s the big deal?”

Whether ones fears regarding their safety on transit come from lived experience as a transit rider in the material world, as a result of social conditioning through media or other representational sources, or the logistics of transit in their city, the dialectic at work has very real social manifestations. As stated on the blog, Harassment on TransLink: “Harassment (and, consequently, the ever-present threat of it) has a significant, demonstrably negative impact on the way women and people of other marginalized gender and sexual identities plan and utilize transportation in Metro Vancouver. This is reflected in the findings of the Cornell study, which reported that over half the women surveyed altered their route, mode of transportation, or timing of a trip to avoid harassment.

Due to the ever shifting spatial relations at work, the likelihood of experiencing harassment or assault is a moving target and hard to predict. As a result, “victims contextualize their experience by connecting them with the spaces, or types of spaces in which they occur.”  (Source) This means that the lived experiences and social conditioning around where / what is safe and what is not safe,  result in the rider making mental maps which may include alterations of transit use, and can result in an overall spatial constraint as a means to exercise some control over their safety.

The resulting spatial constraint and fear of sexual harassment or violence has also been shown to have emotional and physical effects, in addition to limiting ones full participation in urban life. As acknowledged by UN Women:

Safe public transportation systems are a precondition for women’s and girls’ ability to exercise their right to freedom of movement and their right to use and enjoy the city and its public spaces. If women cannot travel through the city safely every day, free from all forms of violence, then the city is not safe for women and girls. All people, whether living in cities or rural areas, need mobility as part of their daily life; this includes the ability to move between home, work, services, and leisure.

Examining the Campaign   

Next, the writer use a post-structuralist lens to examine the Metro Vancouver Transit Police and Battered Women’s Support Services’ recent campaign and press release related to sexual offending on transit. Carolyn Wizeman’s statement about what she sees as flaws in much of the policy and literature surrounding women’s fear and safety provides a useful tool with which to examine this current campaign: “There are a number of methodological problems associated with the focus on perceptions of fear rather than behavior, on structures rather than individual agencies and constraints, and on public space rather than the totality of settings inhabited by women and men.”

As previously explored, the socio-spacial dialectic at work in relation to women’s experience of safety on transit means looking at more than just the physical space of the train or bus. This is to say that women’s sense of safety is not influenced solely by the nature of the space itself (over crowded or empty trains, lack of security staff, dark stations, transit coming less frequency at night) but rather a combination of variables unfolding within and between the riders within a space of both the train and the space being produced when we talk about women’s safety. This campaign recognizes that the offenses are related to behaviors and relationships, as opposed to some unnamed aspect of a train or bus causing women to feel unsafe, and as such references specific behaviors in the campaign wording as well as in the press release. The wording on both reflects an understanding that it is not up to women to not become a target of these behaviors, but rather for individual offenders to not offend. The totality of settings is reflected in the Metro Vancouver Transit Police’s choice to involve two feminist anti-violence agencies in their creation of this campaign, as these are organizations who recognize the continuum of sexual and gendered violence and that it transcends any one incident on transit, as well as the false public private divide.

This campaign also harnesses the socio-spatial dialectic in it’s involvement of the greater community. The press release states: “Sexual harassment and assault public awareness campaigns are necessary actions against silence and ignorance.  Helping to create an environment where those that would perpetrate could no longer be guaranteed they could assault women and girls with impunity.” The greater community sharing the space are encouraged to recognize sexual offending and speak out about it by reporting it using the text line. This step towards safety in public space invokes the work of Jane Jacobs, calling for a community that watches out for other residents and is prepared to intervene as needed. Engaged communities who influence the human interactions of the lived world in a positive way are understood by post structuralist feminist scholars as well as anti-violence activists, to be a critical component in addressing safety in public space:


It is not environmental alterations per se which it is hoped will reduce fear; rather it is the increased sense of ownership and informal surveillance of space, and the likelihood of greater social interaction, which may result from environmental change…fear of crime is so closely embedded in broader aspects of social life that, while improvements to built environments may benefit some aspects of quality of life, they are unlikely to have significant effects on fear of crime.  (Source)


Transit systems by nature are not static, nor are they neutral. Transit represents a literal embodiment of space in the post structural sense that it mediates relationships between people and places.Transit systems highlight the particular challenges in making places safe in that they are always in motion and filled with people negotiating both space and relationships. Interventions aimed at creating safe public spaces including transit therefore will benefit from targeting all three realms in which space is produced, much like the example of Battered Women’s Support Services transit campaign. Interventions should place particular emphasis one engaging the community as the constant in the production of safe space, recognizing that the “fear of violence is a cultural construct which is continually modified by the practices of individuals.” (Source)


Stacey Marie is a nurse who is taking some time away from building healthy people, to learn about building healthy cities. She is the site leader for Hollaback! Vancouver, and co-founder of Good Night Out Vancouver.











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