Other comments/observations

Non-gendered safety concerns

Several respondents were keen to stress that fears linked to safety were not exclusive to women. In particular, boys and young men travelling alone were also described by some respondents as being vulnerable (including those from minority groups):

...sometimes I see things and you’re like, you know, that’s a shame for that young man there because he’s on his own and there’s a group of people and they’re all talking over, like round about him and making him feel really uneasy. So male as well as female get this horrible attention.”

Views were expressed that the introduction of better safety features (such as those cited above) would also benefit men and would certainly make things “no worse” for men as fellow public transport users, if introduced.

Female transport workers also explained that many of their male colleagues also feared for their personal safety while at work. Respondents explained that many of the issues presented above affected not only women, but could affect anyone travelling or working alone who may feel vulnerable:

…there’s also a lot of men affected too and younger boys that aren’t in these gangs…I mean, even if some of the [male] staff retaliate, it’s their job on the line, so they’ve got to be so careful. So, it’s not easy.”

Similarly, one respondent commented that they felt there would be no value in having training which isolated women’s and girls’ experiences from those of male colleagues as the two often overlapped:

I don’t know whether there would be anything to be gained from making it [training] gender specific…I think my male colleagues…probably have the same issues from a different angle…I think the fact that they do actually make it non-gender specific is actually quite positive cos you see it from both sides.”

Likewise, some disabled women were more concerned about the attitudes of drivers to disability than about the attitudes of men per se to women. Indeed, many of the fears voiced about public transport transcended gender (for example, mobility issues, racism, uncertainty of route or the timing of buses).

Lack of shared understanding

A feature of several conversations was that the men in women’s lives perhaps did not always understand the fears that they had, or indeed, perceived other things as being higher risk than they were in the minds of women themselves. One young woman explained this in the context of her father’s fears:

My dad…he used to speak to me about [things that] are not the things that I’m particularly scared of…he used to talk to me a lot about robbery…he would say like, “Don’t wear a backpack if you’re going to Glasgow, don’t leave your phone in your back pocket”…things that I’m not really that concerned of…Cos he’d never really experienced any of the stuff that I’m worried about.”

Women often spoke of their male friends not always understanding their concerns and this included male transport workers for whom stories shared by women often came as a surprise. In other words, men possibly did not fully appreciate the nature and scale of incidents that women were exposed to, nor appreciate the measures being taken by women daily to reduce or manage their fears.

Fear of getting involved

Women spoke of an absence of bystander intervention in most cases, and feeling that if an incident occurred (especially something not directly targeting them), they would be reluctant to get involved in case they themselves became the target:

So, if someone’s fighting on the bus next to the bus driver…I think the bus driver is very aware of what’s happening. He has mirrors, he can hear it all and kind of doesn’t care. So, I didn’t feel like I wanted to get in the middle of it and I know that’s terrible cos then, if you don’t report it, then nothing gets done about it. But like if I got up and went to the driver and said something and the driver would be like, “Yeah I know, I can see” - then, you know, I have no protection. They could start fighting me…Like, I always felt it was better to just stay quiet and try to ignore it.”

One respondent noted that her reluctance to help others on public transport (specifically trains) was due to the enclosed nature of the space in which incidents occurred and the feeling, therefore, that she would become trapped in a negative and potentially dangerous environment. Her behaviour may be different, she explained, if she encountered a similar incident on the street:

I would be less inclined to speak up in a situation like that [on a train] where I feel a bit trapped in comparison to being out on a street or somewhere where I could try and make a bit of a run for it if they turned on me instead…I definitely have in the past chosen not to look up, not to say anything, to protect my own personal safety.”

Transport workers also observed that most passengers also ignored anti-social behaviour or any confrontations that occurred on trains and tried not to get involved:

I would say predominantly, yes, there is that ‘stick your head in your book’ or ‘stick your head in your paper or your phone’ and just pretend cos then I don’t have to get involved.”

As above, women using public transport as passengers spoke of averting their gaze, looking out of windows, putting on headphones, making telephone calls, or physically distancing themselves from incidents occurring on board or when waiting for buses and trains in particular:

I’d just sit there in my wee insular bubble and hope that life is drifting on past me…Fingers crossed and hope for the best.”

Women expressed mixed views on this response - some felt that this this was sensible thing to do and was indeed something that they had been taught or trained to do (i.e. “don’t put yourself in dangerous situations”) whilst others said that not helping made them feel somehow complicit in any wrongdoing especially if the victim/target was vulnerable.

Comments from some women also that indicated that other people (both men and women) would be more likely to intervene to help older travellers (especially older women) than they would to intervene with young women, although no explanations were given as to why this may be the case. There was less mention of people stepping in to help women from ethnic minorities. Respondents were also more likely to step in to assist disabled passengers (again especially women) and the willingness to help older and mobility impaired women may be because of perceptions that they are more vulnerable than younger non-disabled women. The assessment of vulnerability in these cases is something which may be interesting to explore in more detail, as a lack of perceived willingness of others to help was born out in what the women themselves reported doing.

In contrast to female passengers feeling wary about stepping in to help others, female transport workers, including on board train staff and bus drivers, often spoke of feeling a need to prioritise the safety concerns of others over themselves:

I’m too busy thinking about my passengers…You’ve got to be really aware of your surroundings and people on the bus. So sometimes I really - I don’t think I actually think about myself.”

In two cases where female workers had stepped in to intervene, this had resulted in extreme responses from the perpetrator - in one case, an on-board train worker had been physically threatened by a man with a weapon and in the other, a female bus driver had been threatened with serious sexual assault:

I think the worst [incident] was a gentleman who was sexually harassing a young lady at the back of the vehicle. I finally stopped the bus and told him that he needed to get off. He came down, started banging on my screen saying that he was going to wait for me to come back [along the same route] because he was going to rape me when I came back…It’s a kind of strange one because if I didn’t step in, how far would he have went with her? Would he have got off the same stop as her and then maybe sexually assaulted her or something later on? I wouldn’t have liked to live with the idea knowing that that person I could have helped. So, you kind of take the limelight off of her and I obviously got the brunt of that but nothing came of it, thankfully.”

Again, female transport workers spoke of training and routine policies regarding protecting themselves versus others were only helpful to a certain extent, and felt compelled to assist others (especially young women) where appropriate:

…the company policy, ‘Stay in your cab, you keep safe’… you can only do that for so long. I mean, it’s OK if there’s a fight breaks out, you stay in your cab. But if there’s something happening with a child or something like that, then I’m afraid I’m not staying in my cab.”

For these, and other women, their role in keeping others safe was something they viewed as a key part of their role, possibly to the detriment of their own safety, and was illustrative of a perceived need by them to make difficult choices regarding safety on a day-to-day basis.

Presence of victim blaming behaviour

While very few respondents spoke about the notion of ‘victim blaming’, for the small number who did, there was agreement that women and girls were never at fault for incidents perpetrated against them. Nonetheless, there was still an undertone that self-awareness and proactive adoption of risk avoidance strategies was something that women should equip themselves with as a matter of course:

I would say that the personal responsibility thing absolutely lands with anybody who is the perpetrator rather than those that anything happens to. But I would absolutely say that it benefits you no end to be aware of what’s going on round about you, be it walking home or even in the town on a Saturday afternoon, just to know what’s going round about you.”

One respondent also reflected that the training and advice given to transport workers to “not put themselves in a position of harm” perhaps also placed the onus incorrectly on them and could in some cases make them feel responsible or at blame if anything happened. Another observation from female workers was that they sometimes felt that they had decisions to make as to whether to prioritise their own or others’ safety (and that if they prioritised their own safety, they may feel at blame for anything that happened to passengers):

I mean, you’ve kind of got a line where you’ve to go out and move them on [people causing trouble] and, if they’re annoying anybody or upsetting anyone, then you’ve got to think, “Well, is it my safety or their safety?” So, if there was any real safety issues for somebody else…I’d just probably phone the police and get the help for them.”

Female public transport users were keen to stress that any public campaign developed to try and improve safety should also not have any hint of victim blaming:

As long as it’s not kind of victim blaming…Because that’s dangerous territory, I think, you know, kind of suddenly saying, “Well you’re a girl, you shouldn’t be doing that to keep safe.” As long as it’s an actual message of like how to deal with it but not in a way that’s, you know, you’re a girl, you should be careful and not speak to men.”

Overall, women accepted that they should shoulder some responsibility for their safety, but felt that the balance of self-protection versus wider systemic protection was not correct:

…you always have stories on how to make yourself not be seen as vulnerable and ways to look out for yourself and it always feels like women especially have to put extra precautions into making sure that you keep yourself safe when perhaps it shouldn’t be that way?”

Safety and independence

Importantly, women generally felt that they were not missing out entirely on any opportunities, particularly in relation to work or study and day-time leisure or social activities as a result of personal safety fears. All women showed a resilience and determination not to let their fears constrain their social movements to the extent that they would entirely miss out. That being said, there was some evidence that the need to use public transport alone at night was limiting some women’s social and leisure activities. Some noted that they would be reluctant to travel at night, some would opt for a taxi/Uber rather than mass transit options (thereby having to spend more money for their travel), young women would get a lift from family to avoid using public transport to get home after a night out, and others would opt to stay with friends rather than travelling home alone.

While they were not missing out, there was considerable evidence that women were paying more to enjoy the ‘safe’ freedoms that they wanted:

…we get free bus travel, which is great. But then if I’m getting the train or an Uber or a taxi, that’s - like the train’s a couple of quid and the Uber or the taxi can be like £30, £40 rather than getting the bus for free. So, definitely, you do end up spending a lot more money.”
I don’t get out very often anyway but if I was out, I would get a taxi rather than get a bus or a train home myself. I feel like that would be safer, a safer option… I feel that’s probably a good price to pay [i.e. the higher fares]. It costs a bit more but you’re safe.”

Contrary to seeing public transport as an ecologically sound means of travel for the future, safety concerns regarding public transport were also reported to encourage women to drive, or to want to learn to drive/get a car. One woman noted that she drove more often herself due to safety concerns and reported that others had expressed similar desires to her. Another respondent (from an ethnic minority) also indicated that they wanted to learn to drive in order to avoid having to have contact with bus drivers and other passengers.

In contrast, one disabled respondent also described ‘independence’ as being able to use public transport, as opposed to being ‘dependent’ on a car and driver to give them mobility. This was an interesting take on what is traditionally seen as public transport negatively equals dependence and private car ownership positively equals independence. This is not necessarily the case, not just for disabled people but also, arguably, people without recourse to a car, driving licence or driver. Such attitudes should be capitalised on in attempting to increase the use and safety of public transport.