Diversity of experience and the influence of personal characteristics

Despite most women sharing fundamental concerns about their safety, the diverse range of women who took part in the research meant that there was some inevitable difference in the specific challenges that they either feared or faced when using public transport. While all were united in their shared concerns linked to being female, age, ethnicity and disability were the other main characteristics that women explained could make them feel unsafe.

Safety and age

Younger women (aged 14-25) invariably felt more vulnerable as a result of their age, not least if travelling alone, and were more likely to encounter comments and unwanted attention from others. Young women and girls often expressed that their age and gender combined to make them feel they may be more at risk:

I think because I’m a 19-year-old girl, I do feel a bit more vulnerable. Obviously, I’m very lucky to be healthy and all that but I do think that being a young girl by yourself travelling is a bit daunting. I think again it’s just from everything that you hear on the media and everything that people say to you, it does make you feel a bit more like on edge.”

There were also comments made across the sample that younger women usually attracted more unwanted attention from men than older women, with suggestions that women in their teens, 20s and 30s were perhaps perceived to be easy targets. Some of the older women who took part (aged over 50) suggested that they perhaps felt more experienced to deal with incidents that might occur compared to when they were younger, or compared to younger family members, friends, colleagues, etc.

One transport worker who reported a man to the police for physical assault explained that her age and experience had played a key role in that decision, including her desire to protect others who may have been less confident:

I have to be honest - I sort of took a breath and thought, “Right, no, but you’re not getting away with this cos I’m a female who will be able to deal with you to a certain point. However, it could be one of my colleagues who would absolutely - you know, wouldn’t know how to deal with you.”

Comments were also made that older women (including family members or acquaintances of the women who took part in interviews) would often make deliberate decisions to travel at quiet times (e.g. one woman described how her elderly female neighbour always went to the supermarket first thing in the morning by bus to avoid feeling unsafe in crowds). For younger people, however, the convenience and low cost of public transport trumped fear in most situations.

Sexist and ageist comments from passengers (and less so colleagues) were again commented on as being part of the job of a transport worker (e.g. male passengers being more inclined to approach male staff for advice, rather than a female staff member), but most women who were transport workers dismissed this as non-problematic. Transport workers also expressed frustration at what they saw as general societal attitudes that working on the trains or buses was not appropriate for women and that it should be only men in the role.

On the whole, female transport workers did not report any concerns about the actions or behaviour of male colleagues, and while some potentially sexist or ageist “banter” was mentioned, all said that this was infrequent, low level and was never perceived by them to be threatening or unduly inappropriate:

…it’s quite a male orientated industry anyway, so you’re working around men, so you don’t let things get to you…I mean, there’s banter but there’s nothing wrong. There’s not any sexual overtures or anything. It’s just you have a laugh, you’re just pals. So, I don’t feel unsafe with any of the colleagues.”

Indeed, female bus and train workers both spoke of feeling well supported by male colleagues and viewed them as offering an important source of help, if needed.

Safety and ethnicity

Respondents from ethnic minority backgrounds spoke of numerous issues they had experienced, generally on-board buses, with both drivers and other passengers (including both males and female passengers) which had made them feel unsafe.

In relation to drivers, three respondents indicated personal experience of difficulties when boarding buses and in buying tickets and, indeed, drivers of buses were cited by women from ethnic minorities has having caused more distress than fellow passengers among three of the women in this cohort that were interviewed. One had been forced to get off the bus as the ticket machine had not accepted their card payment, and two experienced drivers trying to force them to buy tickets for their children, (one aged under 5 and so entitled to free travel, and the other who had a young person’s free bus travel pass). Both felt that they were treated differently to other non-ethnic minority passengers on occasions:

And also some of these drivers have, [although] I have the bus pass on my phone, they still want to ask me, where am I going to stop, despite the pass I have is unlimited. And you see other people who are white, they actually get the bus and they don’t ask them such questions.”

One woman, who had had an altercation with a male bus driver over a ticket explained how his behaviour towards her had encouraged another male passenger to also direct abuse her way and felt that the driver’s behaviour seemed to endorse or reinforce to the passenger that his discriminatory conduct was okay.

Women from ethnic minorities also spoke of having been subjected to racist verbal abuse and comments from other passengers. They noted that these passengers were often under the influence of alcohol or drugs:

I don’t really like travelling maybe at night…maybe Friday, Saturday, because when you enter the bus and maybe there are people who are already drunk or something, they will be saying things to you, about being black or whatever. So, I’ve experienced that more than five times, so I don’t really like to go on the bus when it comes to night time.”

Two women also discussed the ‘looks’ they would get from other passengers, or that people would refuse to sit in the available seat beside them:

…if you are sitting down and there [are] other people coming in, I don’t know, maybe it’s because of the colour, whatever, some people just like to avoid not sitting beside you, not for any reason, maybe it’s because of the colour.”

One teenager from a minority ethnic group said that she was regularly the victim of racial abuse on board buses in her local area and said that this was from both male and female passengers.

While there was a sense among the whole sample that women often tried to justify, forgive, or at least cope with poor behaviour, for women from ethnic minority backgrounds, this was particularly pronounced. Among all those in this cohort, there was a sense of resignation that they would experience racist comments/abuse, that it was to be expected and the best way to deal with it was to ignore it:

My message would be just for people to try to ignore and not start an argument…like the other day when I had that argument with the passenger, we both get off at the same stop because he was saying he was going to punch me…I was not scared because he was tiny and he was drunk, so I know he was just talking while he was drunk. And then when we got off the bus, when he was crossing the road, then he screamed ‘go home!’…and then a lady was driving past, she came near me and then she stopped [to help] …And I appreciated that so much…That’s why I would say, just ignore, because you meet different kinds of people.”

Overall, several respondents from ethnic minority backgrounds (although not exclusively), indicated a need for transport staff, and particularly bus drivers to be more understanding of ethnic minorities and language barriers, and be pro-active when there are incidents on board. This support was required in general to help get control of situations and to provide support to women, but also for reporting where language barriers may present a barrier to reporting for some women:

Some bus drivers are good at taking full control on the bus they drive. But others, they don’t care… their job is just to drop people at stops and that’s it, which is wrong. If anything happens inside the bus, they should be responsible, they should report or call the police, especially… with women [from] ethnic minorities who have language barrier and… maybe they don’t know how to contact [the police].”

Safety and disability

Most of the women who took part in the research who were living with physical or mental health disabilities were over 40 years old, and only one young woman (under 18) reported having a temporary disability (as she was reliant on crutches).

Two of the older disabled participants explained that they chose not to go out at night - this was mainly because frequency of services at night was reduced and they also had more general fears about being out after dark, although did not specify what those precise fears would be. These older women also spoke of being reluctant to use taxis or Ubers alone, especially at night, as they felt they would be unable to “get out quickly” of a vehicle, if they felt that they needed to. Similarly, the young women who was using crutches felt that she would appear to be an easy target because she was unable to easily flee a dangerous situation:

I’m on crutches, so if I’m on the train on crutches as well, I feel like I appear to be quite an easy target, if that makes sense, because I know that people view me and be like, “She can’t get away!””

The other main concerns of disabled people related to access more generally, e.g. the need for better wheelchair access on public transport vehicles and better embarking/disembarking procedures. More accessible/easy to read timetables and information in different formats was also discussed as a general barrier to greater use of public transport and these general accessibility concerns were as likely to influence this cohort’s travel decisions as concerns around personal safety.

Two disabled women also mentioned that drivers could have more respect for the care and concerns of passengers, not least those with mobility issues.

Give us time to sit down, for a start and not drive off before we’re sitting… If I drive a bus… I would say to the driver, you try my zimmer when somebody moves and see how you like it!”

Similarly, the young woman on crutches explained that fellow passengers could not be relied upon to be considerate and, indeed, she had experienced verbal abuse and intimidation since being temporarily disabled, which had led to her being fearful more generally and to changing her travel patterns.

Other characteristics

Few other respondents felt their personal circumstances or characteristics made them more or less vulnerable, and indeed, one respondent summed up well what appeared to be a general perception that it was not people’s demographic status which meant they were more or less at risk, but rather their attitude to risk and corresponding level of personal awareness:

I think the worst thing you can do is not be aware of your situation. You absolutely have to be aware of your circumstances now, which is quite sad. But I would say absolutely everywhere, if you’re by yourself, be you male or female, you have to be aware of what’s going on round about you.”

Similarly, a small number of women interviewed referred to their own personal backgrounds and experience making them perhaps “tougher” compared to others and so feeling that his helped them to feel safe, e.g. one participant had previously worked in a bar for a number of years which she felt had equipped her to deal with any unwanted male attention in different environments, such as on public transport.