Mitigating measures: The strategies women and girls employ to feel safe

In the face of potential threats to their personal safety, women and girls described a wide range of adapted behaviours that they would use to try and stay safe.

Extending or reducing journeys

Several women reported either ‘staying on’ or ‘getting off early’ when making trips via bus and train - this could be either to remove themselves from others who were causing trouble on board, or specifically not wanting to alight at the place as someone else. One woman described this in the context of having concerns that a male passenger may follow them if they alighted at their required destination:

…my actual train wasn’t due in until I think it was much later, so I just went two stops down… and waited there where I knew there was other people.”

One teenage participant explained that she and her friends would change their travel plans if they encountered rowdiness, especially if they felt the situation was likely to escalate and there was no one available to help de-escalate things:

…there are times when me and my friends have perhaps gotten off the subway or the bus or not gotten on to the bus or the train because it’s been quite rowdy and they’re making a commotion and it doesn’t feel safe, it doesn’t feel like someone can step in and make sure that the situation remains calm.”

Another teenager described changing her entire journey as a result of other passengers appearing to present risks:

There have been times where I’ve been supposed to get on a train and I’ve seen how many people are on it or how rowdy people are on it, and I’ve not gotten on. And I’ve ended up going to the bus station instead across the road. Or I’ve gotten off a train at the wrong stop because I don’t feel particularly safe on it.”

Another woman mentioned an incident where she had been waiting at a bus stop with a teenager with additional support needs, who was using a wheelchair. A couple, who appeared to be heavily under the influence of drugs also joined them at the bus stop and boarded the bus with them and she was concerned throughout the journey that the couple would alight at the same time as her and she would be isolated with her client in a quieter location. She made the decision to remain on the bus, beyond her stop, to a busier and less isolated area.

Using private transport

Another frequently mentioned strategy for reducing risk or safety concerns was for women to use private transport instead of public transport (either their own or others’ cars and/or taxis/Ubers). Several women spoke of calling a taxi or Uber if they needed to travel home alone, as they perceived that his would be safer than using public transport. This was not unanimous, however, and some women reported perceptions that Uber cars, in particular, might be unsafe for lone women (i.e. being along with a male driver and needing to trust them once alone in the vehicle).

Women also spoke of using their own or others’ cars to make journeys if it meant they could avoid specific routes/areas that they viewed as unsafe. One older lady spoke of avoiding one specific route to a medical provider because of ‘hearsay’ in her local community regarding buses that served the facility:

There’s this bus… and the stories I have heard apparently it would curl your hair!.. I really do hope I never have to get it because I think I’ll have anxiety even just waiting on the thing coming…It’s been notorious for drunk people, shouting people that just have an absolute riot, folk on the bus not behaving themselves like adults. And knowing that…I’ve always taken my car.”

Finding safe seats and safe spaces

Many women spoke of making very careful seat choices when using public transport, as they saw this as a way of reducing their risk. On buses, women spoke of feeling safer sitting at the front of vehicles, instead of at the back or upstairs on double-deckers. On trains, women spoke of feeling safer sitting close to the drivers cab or in busy carriages. A few respondents also indicated that, when they experienced incidents, they tended to alight from the service as soon as possible. One female rail worker expressed that she witnessed this seat choice behaviour among female passengers while she was at work, and adopted a similar approach herself when using buses to travel to and from work:

…train passengers are more inclined to sit where they know a staff member’s going to be…they’ll maybe sit right at the front of the train because they know the driver’s there or they’ll maybe sit right at the back of the train because they know a conductor’s at the back. I’m finding that kind of behaviour especially with female passengers and I find myself doing that when any time I’ve been on buses going to and from work, I always sit right down at the bottom near the front… just because I know the driver can see me.”

One passenger reported that a helpful ticket examiner had once accompanied her to an unoccupied seat to take her away from a male who was giving her unwanted attention and one transport worker described a scenario in which she had physically removed a female passenger from an uncomfortable situation:

I did actually have a female not that long ago and someone had decided to sit with her and I could tell she was uncomfortable…what I did was I asked her to come with me to pay for the ticket with her card cos I had no [Wi-Fi] signal. I just made something up to take her away from that person without getting into a confrontation with that person myself.”

When describing places of safety many women often referred to places that were ‘busy’ or where there were other people around:

I know a lot of women, especially if they’re travelling at night, they’ll go and sit in the first cab just behind the driver. So, if there is anything going off, once the driver comes to a stop, they can bang on the door and the driver can help them. So, a lot of women, not only just train staff and station staff, know about this but a lot of female travellers will do that too. Or you just go where there’s going to be an actual ticket examiner. As long as there’s plenty of people that you can actually feel safe amongst. You don’t go into an empty carriage… There’s safety in numbers.”

Despite feeling more comfortable around others, this was a fine balance described my many - areas that were too busy were daunting and areas that were too quiet were the same. A moderate footfall was seen as the ideal scenarios both on-board and at points of interchange.

‘Locking in’

The notion of ‘locking in’ was raised in several contexts. Firstly, among passengers, one woman spoke about the fear of being ‘locked in’ on a bus when this strategy was used by bus drivers awaiting a response from the police:

There’s been people fighting on the bus while I was - not just me but members of the public, really vulnerable people sitting on the bus and having to witness fights on the bus and that’s really unnerving, like really scary because you don’t want to get up and walk off. The driver has probably stopped the bus, which makes your fear more because you’re then stationary and the doors are locked.”

Another woman spoke of being locked on a bus alone with just the driver. She suggested that if she was the only passenger on a bus at night she would prefer to get off and walk rather than remain on the bus alone with the driver - this was a lone view, with most others preferring to use the bus rather than walking alone at night:

Not if there’s not any other passenger and especially if I’m the only female passenger on the bus, I’ll get off it... because then it’s contained and you can’t get off and if the bus driver decides to keep the doors locked, you can’t escape basically.”

Similarly, bus drivers spoke of being advised to lock themselves into their driver’s cab when faced with potential dangers, but it was felt that this was not always possible, and women felt compelled to leave the ‘safe place’ especially if others were in need (discussed more below). One driver, who had intervened to assist a young girl who she perceived was being harassed explained:

You’re supposed to stay in your cab, look after yourself, stop in a safe place, tell the passengers there’s a problem with the vehicle, hoping that the person gets off the bus and then you’re supposed to phone control or phone the police and wait for them to arrive. But we all know - and it’s no disregard to the police at all - but how busy they are and how fast they can actually respond. So, you kind of sometimes take it upon yourself to do what you deem the safest and that was what I deemed the safest at the time.”

A second bus worker also described how the ‘locked cab’ only eased her safety concerns to a certain extent:

…you’ve got a double lock on it [drivers cab], it’s very thick Perspex all the way round, there is no way for them to get in unless they really did a lot of force and break it down… So, it kind of makes you feel that little bit safer but you’re just not sure if they’re going to take out a gun or something so silly that you just - it can happen. Never say never.”

Similarly, at stations, staff were advised to lock themselves into the office (and call headquarters, the BTP or Police Scotland). One transport worker described how they used this physical measure when working alone in stations at night:

…in the smaller stations, you mostly work yourself…I mean, we can lock ourselves in, in the booking office. But obviously if you’ve come to the end of your shift and either you want to go to your car or you want to go and get a train and get home, then sometimes it can be a bit daunting…If you feel unsafe…you just lock yourself in and, if need be, call the police as well or the BTP. But they don’t always - they’re under-resourced now as well, so you don’t always get anybody out.”

Another described how this strategy had limited impact on her feeling of safety:

If anything happens, I can retreat to my booking office and they’re not going to get in the door because it is a solid door. But still, that is also my only way in and out, there’s not another escape for me. So, if there’s somebody battering in that door, I can’t actually go anywhere else, I’m kind of trapped essentially.”

Several of transport workers described the same ‘locking in’ approach on board the train (i.e. being able to use the drivers cab at the rear of the train which had a lockable door and was the designated ‘safe space’). Several said that they had, in the past, been forced to physically lock themselves in and, indeed, explained that this was the advised protocol - ticket examiners or guards were advised to lock themselves away in the ‘back cab’ of the train if they didn’t feel safe and again contact either the driver, the BTP or Police Scotland. While welcomed, the limitations of this approach were not overlooked by women:

We can sit in the back cab but we still have to operate the doors, so I suppose if I did feel unsafe, I would probably contact the driver and then we can contact the BTP police and such like as well. But again, you are kind of on your own in that situation until you would be able to contact them.”

Another transport worker described how, while the ‘safe space’ approach did offer some comfort, there was an expectation that it would only ever be used in extreme circumstances, alongside asking the driver to stop the train, as the disruption caused to passengers and the network as a whole would be significant. As a result, women perhaps felt reluctant to use the ‘back cab’ safety measure, i.e. “You do need a very, very good reason for feeling that unsafe to be in there.”

Indeed, a different transport worker suggested that briefings to reassure both male and female workers that it was okay to use this measure would be welcomed:

[Briefings could be used to say] it’s okay to go to the cab or it’s okay to stop the train or refuse to take the train…cos if you stop a train in order to phone the police, it does hold up all the other trains in the network [and] control will want us to move that train. So, just to reinforce that it’s perfectly reasonable for you to wait for the police and stuff.”

While transport workers spoke of a range of mitigating measures available to them to help, e.g. contacting the driver, locking in, calling the police, etc. there was also evidence across most interviews with transport workers that women felt reluctant to use these options at times in case their colleagues did not perceive they were merited (and stopping the train was, they commented, ultimately at the driver’s discretion). Women spoke of worrying that drivers or the police may not feel that the incident was serious enough, and as a result women often made judgements based not only on how safe or unsafe they felt, but also based on how they would be judged by others.

Managing escalation

A fear of escalation existed for several of the public transport users and female bus and rail workers who took part.

Rail workers spoke of feeling a need to carefully manage confrontational situations and did so by trying to minimise or downplay argumentative or aggressive comments/acts made towards them:

I’ve never come across a situation that hasn’t been sort of - you know, you’ve been able to sort of jovial your way out of.”

Similarly, bus workers spoke of having to change and adapt their behaviour in response to potentially threatening or hostile passengers:

I think sometimes when a crowd of guys come on and they’re maybe just thinking, “Oh, here’s just a female driver, we can say anything”, sometimes you think, “Oh no!” My stomach will rumble and then I’ll be right…be nice to them. Cos I always feel if you’re nice to somebody, their thought or their tune can change and they can be nice back to you. That type of thing.”

One woman explained that her personal characteristics perhaps both helped and hindered her in this regard, describing herself as “quite bubbly and friendly” which sometimes attracted unwanted attention, but was also sometimes useful as her personality helped her to calm down potential aggravations. Similarly, another transport worker explained that she felt women’s approach to passengers also helped to make them less vulnerable to confrontation:

I think females in this industry [bus drivers] don’t get as much grief because we’re female…We kind of, we smile, we would be polite. If they’ve got something to say, we normally answer them or give them the best explanation that we can and it kind of just calms them down a bit…smile, be polite and try and calm the situation down as much as you can.”

In contrast, however, another transport worker explained how sometimes ‘not’ saying anything could actually result in escalation, and so careful judgement was required on how to handle each situation:

Men will say things of a sexual nature or just making me feel uncomfortable, maybe comments like, “Are you single? “You’re so gorgeous”, blah, blah, blah. Then when you either walk away and ignore them or just say to them, “That’s out of order”, then that kicks off because men do not like being rejected, men hate rejection. That in itself - sometimes I just think, “Is it even worth saying anything?” So, a lot of the time, I just walk away and I don’t say anything at all but they still kick off because they don’t like that they didn’t get the reaction that they wanted.”

Several transport users also indicated that they tried to ignore or play down comments made to them in order to avoid escalation, including responding to unwanted attention with smiles or laughter to “play along” or alighting buses and trains early to simply get away and avoid continued engagement with strangers.

Physical appearance and self-presentation

A common feature of interviews with women (especially women taking advantage of the night-time economy) was that they felt conscious of what they were wearing when travelling, and that efforts to adapt or change their physical appearance or self- presentation were often made as a result:

[I’m always aware] how we carry ourselves as women. I’m always more aware if I am maybe in more the going out clubbing outfits than if I’m dressed in jeans and a t-shirt…I don’t want to change how I feel about what I’m wearing because I’m worried about some asshole [sic] that could be potentially on the transport or on the bus or something like that…I don’t think a man should dictate what I’m wearing or anything like that…but it’s still in the back of your head, you look at yourself in the mirror and you’re like, this dress is very short and I know I’m going to sit down on the bus and my legs are going to be exposed and things like that. So, I do think about those things but maybe I’d bring a jacket with me if I’m wearing a low-cut top or something while I’m on the bus.”

Likewise, other interviewees, notably young women, described taking a jacket or coat with them on a night out, to ‘hide’ or ‘soften’ the fact that they were wearing short skirts, sleeveless tops or make up:

… if I’m walking home somewhere on my own or I know I’m going to be coming home from somewhere on my own in the bus, then I’d want to have a jacket or something with me. But it wouldn’t stop me from wearing whatever I wanted, I’d wear whatever underneath.”
I would be less likely to get a bus into town on a night out if I was wearing a short dress…it is uncomfortable being in a public setting… and guys will shout stuff at you.”

One woman described making a deliberate decision to wear “sensible shoes” if going on a night out and using public transport and described this as a ‘sacrifice’ that she felt was worthwhile, i.e. “I sacrifice good looks for making sure that if I need to stand my ground and protect myself, I can do that.”

Several transport workers described feeling like “visible targets” when wearing their work uniforms, both at work and out of work. They explained that wearing their uniforms, even when not working, made them a target for unwanted attention and made them feel vulnerable. When travelling out with working hours, staff reported strategies such as wearing a jacket zipped up to the top, avoiding eye contact with anyone, and wearing headphones as a deterrent to unwanted approaches. One respondent explained that making themselves ‘anonymous’ in this way made meant that they would not get drawn into challenging situations with confrontational passengers/other members of the public.

One female bus worker described receiving negative comments from male passengers about her decision to wear a skirt to work, and feeling that comments about her clothing possibly reflected gendered stereotypes that men held towards women working in the industry, as well as reflecting attitudes that it was acceptable to comment on women’s clothing in general:

I wear a skirt to work because it’s more comfortable cos you’re sitting in the bus for maybe 5 hours at a time. And I feel more dressy cos I feel, I’m a bus driver and I feel good about myself. And a couple of times that a guy’s like, “Oh you’ve got a skirt on!” and they’ll say something…I think they forget that - wait a minute, you shouldn’t be speaking to women like that.”

Transport workers also described that there were not always suitable places to get fully changed, or said that this was not practical, and so disguising or hiding uniforms was the best strategy available.

Precautions and normalised day-to-day behaviour

Several women spoke of their precautionary behaviour on public transport simply being an extension to their wider behaviours when out and about, and felt that there were many strategies employed day-to-day and as an accepted part of their daily routines to keep themselves safe, for example:

  • always keeping their keys in their hands as they approached home, especially at night, to be able to open the door quickly (or use as a weapon if needed);
  • never cutting across parks or walking through wooded areas away from streets/roads late at night, so that they were always visible to others;
  • not using headphones or only using one earphone when walking alone, so as to be able to hear people approaching/be more aware of surroundings;
  • sitting downstairs, and/or at the front of the bus near the driver;
  • sitting close to other women on board public transport or sitting next to families who might be considered ‘safer’;
  • choosing to sit in busier train carriages rather than quiet/empty ones;
  • completely avoiding public transport at night and opting for a taxi instead;
  • avoiding getting off at unlit or poorly lit bus stops and diverting accordingly;
  • making telephone calls to friends/family while making journeys so that someone could independently track their journey’s progress;
  • asking male relatives or friends to meet them from alighting bus stops/stations to accompany them on the last part of the journey home;
  • wearing flat shoes or trainers to be able to ‘run away’ or escape if necessary;
  • using tracking apps, such as that available for Uber and sharing these with friends/family to track journeys; and
  • travelling in twos when using taxis or staying with friends overnight so as never to leave a female alone in the taxi as the last one to be dropped off.

Women spoke of such habits as ‘normalised behaviour’ or something that they had grown up with and had been taught to do. Interestingly, participants also spoke to interviewers (who were all female) using such terms as “You know what it’s like”, or “We’ve all been there” or “I’m sure you’re the same”, demonstrating the shared nature of the views being given with an assumed understanding that all women would grasp the sentiments being expressed or would have similar experiences to share.

It is also important to note that a small handful of women said that they did not usually feel unsafe on public transport, however, on closer examination, such women’s justifications for feeling safe were because they had put in place strategies to mitigate against risks (suggesting that personal safety concerns had instigated them to do so).