Discussion and recommendations

This research provides Scottish-specific evidence on women’s and girls’ views and experiences of personal safety when using public transport - research which, until now, has been sparse. Such research is especially important given Scotland’s unique geography (i.e. many women and girls live in rural and remote areas, including island communities) and the wide diversity in socio-economic status that exists across the country. Indeed, the research has shown how these unique geographical and demographic features often interact with gender to impact feelings of safety and travel decisions among women and girls.

Main findings

Accessing and using public transport

Alongside private vehicles, women and girls used mainly bus and train to travel, and public transport was seen as an essential and affordable way for many to achieve independent social mobility. Unanimously, women felt safer travelling in the day rather than at night or in the dark. Travel during the week was also seen as being less hazardous than travel at the weekend, largely due to perceptions that public transport attracted large crowds of often intoxicated passengers at weekends.

There were mixed views around how safe different modes may be, with some feeling safer on buses (mainly due to the accessibility of the driver and the potential to alight at regular intervals) and others feeling safer on trains (because of their direct route and the presence of staff other than the driver on board). The subway, although used by fewer in the sample, was seen as unsafe mainly at night. While there were fewer in the sample who regularly used trams, ferries or domestic flights, among those who did, these modes were seen as safe and non-problematic for the most part.

The risk of delays and cancellations, specifically to buses and trains, explicitly put some women off using public transport at night as the risk of waiting alone in the dark was considered too great. Many women and girls reported travelling by taxi, Uber or private car to avoid being in such positions and there was feedback that improved reliability of services would help women feel more confident in using public.

The main concerns at points of interchange were poor lighting (especially at bus stops) and lack of staff, with views that well-lit and staffed stations provided the greatest comfort (although effective lighting and staffing was often not experienced to be the case, especially in more suburban or rural locations).

Familiarity with routes, with drivers and fellow passengers, was a key feature in providing confidence when travelling alone. Unfamiliar routes and being surrounded by strangers caused angst and was often a reason why women chose ideally to travel with others rather than alone. Where women did have to travel alone, use of technology (especially for younger and professional women) such as tracking apps, was something that provided reassurance (and a sense of not being alone).

Recommendation: To raise awareness of the technology that is currently available to assist women and girls and explore means of making this more accessible to all, including raising awareness of the immediate and intermediate support that is available to those who feel vulnerable at any point before, during or after public transport journeys.

Specifically in relation to female transport workers, examples of good practice were mentioned throughout the research of things that made them feel safer travelling to and from work at night, not least being access to parking facilities for private vehicles and provision of designated transport in the form of taxis and staff buses to ensure safe travel. That being said, there was expressed desire to see such practices extended, to reduce the negative impacts that lack of travel choice may be having on some female workers’ employment decisions.

Recommendation: To gather and share best practice in relation to options for ensuring the safe return home of those working in the transport industry at night, with a review of measures and resources in place to support and promote safe travel home options for transport workers.

Main concerns

Although women often found it difficult to pin-point their exact fears, most participants described feeling the need to maintain a constant state of ‘vigilance’, rather than feeling ‘unsafe’ per se. This generalised anticipatory anxiety was usually (but not exclusively) related to concerns about men as potential perpetrators of harassment, assault or anti-social behaviour rather than about other women.

Anti-social behaviour was perhaps the most frequently cited concern that women had (although was not necessarily what they feared most), with potential for both individuals and groups of strangers to act in hostile, aggressive or otherwise unacceptable ways towards others. Women tended to worry that some of the anti-social behaviour could end up being directed at them specifically.

Alcohol and drugs were seen to fuel much of the inappropriate behaviour that women and girls were exposed to and caused anxiety due to how unpredictable others became as a result. Almost all respondents noted a perception of heightened risk to themselves where other passengers were intoxicated because they were seen as being more likely to say or do inappropriate things.

Recommendation: To strengthen existing rules around non-consumption of alcohol on public transport and at points of interchange.  Increased penalties for non-compliance and better enforcement of legislation in this regard may also be required.
Women and girls also expressed explicit concerns and previous experiences of being the targets of inappropriate comments that were sexual in nature and unwanted attention from male passengers, including feeling that their personal space was being violated (which made them uneasy). Being followed by strangers and/or not being able to get away from strangers was something that women feared, again because of underlying concerns about how seemingly innocent interactions might escalate or become unmanageable. Female transport workers were those most likely to report previous incidents of unwanted physical contact or assault from men.

Previous personal experience, the experiences of others, word of mouth, stories in the media (including social media) and warnings from other people about the dangers of travelling alone/at night all influenced perceptions of safety and associated behaviours. Traditional media and social media were seen to perpetuate and reinforce negative messages about women’s safety on public transport.

Overall, women and girls feeling unsafe when using public transport was described by many as ‘the norm’ with all respondents speaking of making at least some modifications to their travel behaviours as a result of feeling unsafe. For transport workers, all said that they considered their personal safety constantly, and at least once on every journey made while at work/travelling to/from work.

Influence of personal characteristics

Age, ethnicity and disability were the three features of participants’ personal characteristics that intersected with gender to make them feel most vulnerable. Young women were most likely to report being victims of sexual harassment, disabled women were most likely to report general anti-social or intolerant behaviour from fellow passengers and women from ethnic minorities were most likely to report extreme examples of verbal abuse (including both sexist and racist abuse).

Adapting/changing behaviour

Numerous self-protection strategies were reported by women to help them feel safer (e.g. not travelling alone, not travelling at night, avoiding certain routes, using tracking apps, managing their self-presentation and using taxis or private transport, especially late at night.) While women seemed to accept that this was typical behaviour among their peers, most expressed that there was also significant scope for others (including transport providers and policing authorities) to take practical measures which would enhance their feelings of safety further.  Knowing who to report incidents to and knowing what support was available was seen as an important first step.

Recommendation: To develop more credible and accessible information and guidance for women and girls regarding what to do and who to contact if they feel threatened or unsafe or if they are victim to incidents when using public transport. Any information and guidance must be developed in collaboration with women and girls directly (including those from ethnic minority communities) to ensure solutions can address existing low levels of trust in authorities that appear to exist.
The main social impacts of women’s and girls’ personal safety concerns was extending or reducing their journeys, being selective in the type of public transport chosen based on the time of day/situation, using private instead of public transport to complete all or part of their journeys or restricting their travel to only familiar routes or travel at certain times of the day.

Some of the guidance and protocols in place to help women feel safe were seen as lacking in robustness. This included strategies of ‘locking in’, for example, female train workers being advised to lock themselves into station offices or into the ‘back cabs’ on trains, and female bus drivers being advised to lock themselves into the driver’s cab on buses. Such strategies provided only temporary respite but could also make some women feel even more vulnerable especially if they were unable to communicate their plight to others, leaving them feeling ‘trapped’.

Mixed views were also expressed about the usefulness of CCTV in relation to perceptions and experiences of safety for women. Some felt this was helpful, acted as a deterrent against bad behaviour and provided evidence should something happen. Others however, noted that CCTV had limitations, including: whether it was connected/working; doubts around whether anyone was watching in real time and therefore able to react; that it did not stop incidents from happening, merely recorded them; and that recording quality was questionable. Similarly, facilities such as help lines/buttons did not provide the level of comfort or immediacy of safety that was desired by the women and girls who were interviewed.

Recommendation: To introduce systems for the regular monitoring, reporting and upgrading of lighting and communications systems for all transport services (including on board and at stops/stations) with strategies in place for the immediate repair and redress of any reported failings or absence of communications and surveillance equipment at interchanges and on-board services.

Interventions from organisations/other individuals

Increased staffing at points of boarding and interchange, as well as on board vehicles was seen as something that would add significantly to women’s sense of safety and may also lead to an uptake of public transport use at night. Many women spoke of feeling safe in well-staffed areas/stations, and of feeling less safe in unstaffed areas (such as unstaffed stations, at bus stops, etc). They also commonly agreed that having a visible staff presence would help to reduce the likelihood of situations escalating, and that there would be someone there to step-in and help if and when situations did arise.

Recommendation: To explore the feasibility of increasing staff presence at both points of boarding, alighting and interchange, as well as the possibility of increasing on board staff presence at the times that women and girls feel most vulnerable (including evenings and weekends, in particular).

Increased police presence and improved incident reporting systems in particular was something that women and girls would welcome. Women spoke of being unsure who incidents should be reported to and when it would be appropriate to do so. Scope exists for normalising reporting of even minor incidents to mitigate the unease that women reported in deciding whether or not their own experience constituted a significant enough infringement to proactively take things forward. This was seen as necessary, alongside more visible and stringent enforcement of penalties for inappropriate behaviour, to act as a deterrent to perpetrators. At present, many viewed that there were no repercussions, especially for anti-social behaviour and low-level harassment, especially that committed by younger perpetrators.

Recommendation: Joint working between stakeholders to map and improve existing reporting protocols and develop more consistent and transparent systems for reporting and recording incidents that affect women on public transport. Improved evidence gathering will help to crystalise the nature and scale of negative personal safety experiences that passengers endure, and help to target resources and refine responses.

Where women had reported incidents (or thought about doing so) there were perceptions across the sample that improved follow-up communications from policing authorities and others was necessary to give women confidence in reporting again in the future. Under-reporting may result not only from lack of confidence in the reporting platforms themselves, but also from lack of confidence that any meaningful action would be taken in response. Although all women in the sample described at least one (and often several) experiences of unwanted attention or other more serious incidents, none described any short- or long-term satisfactory outcomes, and instead just lived with their experiences as part of their personal histories. Having more robust follow-up procedures would also help address women’s perceptions that ‘feeling unsafe’ was a socially tolerated and accepted norm, i.e. tackling wider systemic issues around gender inequality that permeate beyond public transport.

Recommendation: For stakeholders to implement more robust procedures and standard practice for following-up with transport staff and public transport users who do report negative incidents to the authorities. Women and girls need to know that their complaints are taken seriously, and that they are being heard, to give them, and others, the confidence to share their experiences in the future.

Training around personal safety for transport workers appears to be irregular and inadequate, including guidance and training on how to respond to the needs of vulnerable colleagues and passengers. There was also cynicism about the potential effectiveness of public campaigns to help make women feel safer, with some indications that such campaigns can often do more harm than good. It was also stressed that campaigns needed to give the right balance of information without victim blaming and resting all responsibility on women and girls.

Recommendation: To carry out a comprehensive review of the training that is currently offered to those working in the transport industry on the topic of personal safety (both their own safety and the safety of others) to identify any gaps in content, frequency of provision and reach as well as to explore how these can best be filled.

A lack of bystander intervention was also noted by many women, who themselves also reported not wanting to get involved in situations that didn’t involve them, despite feeling ‘guilty’ about not doing so. Overall, a lack of people to offer immediate help to women was also noted and this lack of certainty over such support made the women feel more vulnerable and more anxious about travelling on public transport.

Recommendation: Further targeted research, consultation and training specifically with drivers of public transport, to explore their own fears in relation to protecting those on-board services and to better understand what could be done to assist them in communicating more effectively with passengers and responding to incidents, while not jeopardising their own or others safety.

Cross-cutting themes

A number of issues emerged as cross-cutting themes in the feedback given, rather than being limited to discussions about any specific aspect of public transport use. Firstly, many women and girls appeared to express feelings of ‘responsibility’ - this was in the context of both feeling that they were responsible for keeping themselves safe (rather than the threat of danger being removed by others) and also keeping other females safe (by not leaving them to travel alone). This feeling of responsibility was often expressed as a sense of duty and women expressed guilt and unease if they did not step in to help others due to fears around their own safety. There was a sense from interviews that women often juggled decisions around how best to look after themselves whilst not compromising the safety of others, and that responsibility for their own safety ultimately rested with them. Nevertheless, there was consensus that women and girls should never be blamed for finding themselves in an unsafe situation and that cultural change was needed to bring about better understanding of this stance.

A second observation was that women often spoke of feeling guided or restricted by others’ thresholds of what was perceived as ‘safe’ and ‘unsafe’, or as ‘acceptable’ or ’unacceptable’ behaviour and, therefore, not always using their own judgement about how or when it would or would not be appropriate to act. For example, female transport workers felt unsure about the reactions of male colleagues and bosses if they initiated emergency safety procedures in response to incidents in case others felt it did not warrant such a response. Other women spoke of feeling unsafe and yet travelling anyway, partly because of strongly held views that they should not be constrained by fear, but also because they worried that restricting their movements too much may appear to be ‘paranoid’. Women clearly took some degree of measured risk but the input to their risk assessments were often from sources that might not be considered as reliable (including sensationalist media accounts).

Familiarity with both people and places also emerged as something that made women and girls feel safer in various contexts, and this overlapped with discussions of unpredictability (often linked to those under the influence of alcohol and drugs). Discussions revealed that being able to predict who they may encounter and how they may behave was something that made women feel safer and that the notion of the ‘unknown’ was what caused underlying fear (both unknown strangers and unknown situations). Familiarity breeds confidence for women, it seems, and also gives a greater sense of being in control - where the likely risks can be predicted, planned for and managed, feelings of vulnerability are reduced.

Another underlying theme was one of unconscious or rote action on behalf of women in modifying their travel behaviours and making their travel choices. From the youngest (aged 14) to the oldest participant in the research (aged 86) there were reports of behaviour modifications that were discussed as being an accepted part of daily social life, not only in relation to travel, but more generally. Women often described detailed strategies for keeping themselves safe and complex pre-planning of journeys (including what they would wear and where they would sit or stand to make themselves less conspicuous). The considerable energy that women expend in such planning was evidenced across the sample, in various contexts.

Women and girls also spoke of needing to constantly make difficult choices as part of their travel planning, and often feeling forced to choose between two unappealing options. For example, even though they may feel unsafe, the convenience and low cost of public transport meant that they chose to travel that way and accept any associated risks. Choosing to travel by taxi with an unknown male driver was also seen as preferable to walking home where the chances of encountering strangers might be even higher. Such cognitive dissonance, and the need to choose between two negative options, rather than feeling that a safe alternative was in place was something that women seemed to reluctantly accept albeit they still experienced discomfort, tension and anxiety as a result.

Finally, a subtle but important theme to emerge from interviews was that women and girls acted to try and make themselves ‘feel’ safer but recognised that often there was little they could do to actually ‘be’ safer as the risks could never be fully controlled. This was consistent with observations that women often found it difficult to verbalise very specific fears or concerns, with most seeming to reference invisible (yet still tangibly felt) threats to their safety. This perhaps indicates a need for wider action beyond that in the transport arena to further understand women and girls’ fear of crime and to understand what, if anything, can be done to tackle such fears.

Limitations and scope of the research

While the research provides evidence of the issues that exist and that need to be addressed in meeting women’s and girls’ personal safety concerns and has filled a gap in the existing evidence base, it is recognised that it is not without its limitations.

Crucially, the research was relatively broad in scope with no restrictions on the women and girls who were eligible to take part. While this led to a diverse sample of participants being recruited, the time constraints for the work meant that it was not possible to adopt a more theoretical sampling approach to fill any gaps in perspectives that emerged from particular demographic groups. In many cases, the views of women from some minority groups are represented by just a single voice and it is recognised that that this cannot be considered as representative of their communities as a whole. The research invitation was not exclusive of non-binary or transgender individuals or others who identified as being a woman or a girl, however, no volunteers came forward who were able to speak from these personal vantage points. Similarly, no one in the sample reported being from the LGBT+ community. These are recognised gaps in the work and separate onward research is encouraged to ensure that an even broader range of voices are heard.

Similarly, the research attempted to seek feedback from both women and girls as public transport users, as well as from women working in frontline roles in the transport industry. While almost a third of the sample were transport workers, there is arguably grounds for carrying out more focussed research with this population to allow more nuanced views and experiences of women working in different roles to be captured. There was no input from female ferry, aviation, subway or tram workers, for example and their views and experiences will likely be very different from those of the female bus and rail workers who did take part.

Finally, it is recognised that some of the negative experiences reported may not be exclusive to women and girls and that more could be done to make all those travelling or working alone on public transport (particularly at night) feel safer. This wider exploration was, however, beyond the scope of the current research.


Consistent with existing literature and evidence from other jurisdictions, the research shows that much needs to be done to improve the experience of women’s and girls’ personal safety when using public transport in Scotland. It shows that women and girls are already shouldering significant responsibility for adapting their behaviours to try to ‘be’ and to ‘feel’ safe when travelling on public transport, but that wider systemic change, supported by more practical interventions is required to enhance safety further and give women and girls a greater sense of freedom to maximise the opportunities afforded by public transport travel. The transport specific recommendations presented above must be accompanied by broader partnership action among those working in policing, education, equalities and aligned fields to help challenge wider stereotypes and systemic issues which lead to and compound women’s normalisation of the need for self-protection. A joined-up approach is required that involves operators, community safety stakeholders and the travelling public to increase their awareness of the challenges faced by women and girls, so that concerns can be proactively addressed, and gender inequalities removed.

Further Information and Advice

If you have been affected by any of the issues discussed in this report, or need to report an incident, further information and advice can be found online via Victim Support Scotland, the British Transport Police or via the free Railway Guardian app.