Women’s and girls’ main concerns

Women described a range of concerns that might impact their personal safety when travelling on public transport. Most cited a combination of concerns rather than one specific problem, although any form of unwanted attention was the most common theme. Other issues included antisocial behaviour, harassment (sexual and otherwise), verbal abuse, physical assault, and being followed by strangers.

Overall feelings of safety

Almost all women reported that they ‘very often’ or ‘always’ felt unsafe when using public transport, although feeling unsafe was not limited only to being on transport, but was more something that was experienced by women more generally when out socially, especially if alone or out after dark. Some participants described feeling the need to maintain a constant state of ‘vigilance’, rather than feeling ‘unsafe’ per se and many women found it difficult to verbalise what they feared in specific detail:

…antisocial behaviour, harassment, assault. Even just someone talking to me and just being a bit like weird, if you know what I mean. I don’t really like confrontation and I’m not one to shout at someone to go away or whatever. So, I do think that it [going out] is a bit like - it is a bit scary really, it is a bit daunting.”

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 and, again, their fears related to a wide array of possible confrontations.

Anti-social behaviour

Anti-social behaviour was the most frequently reported type of behaviour that made women feel unsafe, especially anti-social behaviour from groups of young people, including school children at the beginning and end of the school day, gangs of young people in the evenings and those who were intoxicated by alcohol or drugs (discussed more below). For the most part, women reported that anti-social behaviour was not directed at them but still made them uncomfortable as there was a chance that it could spill over into their personal space:

…there have been multiple times where there was a lot of shouting and a lot of kind of people having fights and things, even physical fights on the bus and…they weren’t having that fight with me, but it was still affecting my safety cos I felt - I don’t know, “What if they punch me in a second, you know, what’s going to happen?””

Several transport workers reported that there had been an increase in anti-social behaviour from young people in and around stations since the start of the pandemic, and saw this as something that needed to be urgently addressed. Children and young people were frequently observed loitering on platforms, walking on railway lines, and being a nuisance to other passengers, as well as directing verbal abuse at staff:

…we get a lot of feral teenagers - well, kids from about 11, 12 upwards roaming around… up and down the lines and they’re usually in gangs of 10 plus and they’re terrorising the passengers, the station staff, the on train staff and, because they know we can’t do anything, they just want attention… they did have the travel safe team and BTP [British Transport Police] done an initiative a while ago travelling round up and down the stations and the trains. So that stopped them for a while but now they know there’s nobody there as their deterrent, they all come flooding back.”
The lines are overrun with teenagers. They get on the train, they spend all night on them, jumping on and off but there’s no police. So, the police just won’t - we can phone them, we can text them, they either don’t answer or they don’t come out at all. They say they don’t have staff in the area, so we’re just left with it. Like I had it on Sunday night. I had to go into the back cab, that’s the back cab of the train is the place of safety, because we had a group of teenagers outside kicking the door and trying to break in and spitting on it.”

For workers, low level anti-social behaviour and confrontation from passengers was most often just “brushed off” as being part of the job.

The other most common issue reported by transport workers was dealing with “flash points” or confrontations around tickets, delayed trains, etc. and there was seen to be no pattern to the profiles of individuals who initiated such confrontations (people of all ages and genders could potentially “spark a row” it was said). Transport workers described relying on experience and intuition to detect when confrontation was likely to occur and either avoiding or removing themselves from the presence of such people, rather than tackling things “head on”.

A final observation in relation to anti-social behaviour was made by the focus group for young women who shared the view that, as women, there were expectations around how they should or would behave compared to their male peers and that girls would be less likely to “get away with” anti-social behaviour:

…it just feels like there are some things that are acceptable for guys or men to do and people may be more strict to women if they do that. So, I feel it’s less likely for women to be as rowdy as guys in general but obviously it is a generalisation.”

This perception contributed to their shared view that, if they were to be victims of anti-social behaviour from others, it was most likely to be from men or boys.

Harassment, abuse and assault

While many women spoke of sexual harassment, this was often perceived as ‘low level’ or as generally tolerated. Indeed, women tended to speak more of ‘sexual inuendo’ rather than perceiving it as harassment, and this was mentioned frequently among those interviewed. Most seemed to accept that this was ‘typical’ or not unexpected when travelling by public transport, especially if late at night.

Many women spoke of sexual comments or inuendo as being normalised among their peer groups, but recognised that this did not make it right:

I think most of my female friends have had some sexual comments directed towards them on public transport…it’s such a kind of terrible norm that sometimes it’s even like a joke. You know, like sometimes someone - some of my friends will share a little story and be like, “OK, who got the worst comment out of everyone?” And it definitely shouldn’t be like that.”

Female transport workers also reported frequently being on the receiving end of inappropriate comments and explained that they had come to expect this from men of all ages:

They [men] think it’s banter and when you show them that you’re not willing to accept it, they can sort of go, “Oh I’m really sorry”…but then, in other cases, some men can push that line a wee bit further and further. And I have experienced obviously some horrible verbal abuse from men and things like that and it’s been from men who were old enough to be like my father!”

There was nothing to suggest that this was more or less likely depending on whether women were travelling or working alone or with other females, but was reported as being less likely if travelling or working with male friends/partners/older relatives/colleagues.

Non-sexual verbal abuse also featured in several discussions, and this had been received from both men and women. Young women were again more likely to report verbal abuse, as well as women from minority ethnic backgrounds and disabled women. Verbal assault and harassment was something that some again had come to live with, and many described that even interventions from others were not enough to deter this kind of behaviour:

I was dropping my boyfriend off at the train station…and there was a man there…My boyfriend went into the building to go and pay for his ticket and, while my boyfriend was away, he started harassing me. He started saying really explicit things and when I ignored him, he was calling me names, calling me ugly and fat. So, then my boyfriend came back…he started harassing my boyfriend, saying that he was going to beat him in and stuff like that.”

There were few explicit concerns about physical assault, except among transport workers. Indeed, transport workers reported a number of incidents which would and/or had caused concern in the past. This included:

  • being physically threatened with a weapon;
  • passengers/strangers indicating that they may be carrying a weapon, or weapons being seen on their person;
  • having been chased between carriages by a man and his dog, where the man was clearly under the influence of drugs; and
  • being threatened with being ‘injected’ by an intoxicated couple when working alone on a train late at night.

Sexual assault featured mainly as an underlying feature of discussions, rather than being something that women discussed explicitly as a concern. That is, many respondents spoke of feeling uneasy in and around the company of male strangers when traveling, or of feeling unsafe if alone in the company of male strangers, and taking measures to avoid being in such scenarios, yet they did not verbalise that this was explicitly because of a fear of sexual assault and linked it more to the threat of uneasy confrontations per se:

My mind automatically goes to thinking of a worst-case scenario situation… in relation to men and their not very nice tendencies sometimes. So, there is probably, on the sort of more serious end of the scale, when I’m alone and say there’s a man who I’m looking at and thinking, “You look drunk and I don’t like the idea of being anywhere near you right now”. Maybe I’m worried about physical assaults. But more so, I’m just worried about getting into altercations with people.”

Only one woman in the sample reported sexual assault that had been perceived as being bad enough that she felt compelled to report it to the police, and this same woman reported that it had had a long-lasting effect on her feelings of ease/comfort when left alone with male strangers in public settings.

Physical contact and invasion of space

One of the most frequently reported types of unwanted behaviour was unknown men (and sometimes other women) sitting very close to women on public transport instead of choosing seats that were free and further away. Women spoke of feeling particularly uncomfortable if other passengers (especially men) came and sat either directly next to them on a two-person seat, or sat directly behind them, when there were alternative spaces available in front or several rows away:

I’ve definitely had experiences before of men coming and I’ve been in an empty carriage on the train and they would come and sit right next to me and it felt like there was no way out of that situation. They would kind of box you in and try and intimidate you.”

Young women also gave examples of virtual invasion of space and privacy, with reports of male passengers taking photographs or videos of them or their friends when using public transport (and in situations where they were unable to get away):

…my friend put this [Tweet] up the other day, which is a video of a man on a train filming her. He sat one row directly in front of her filming her and then occasionally taking pictures cos the phone was flashing and whatever. And that made her really worried…I’ve seen so many photos like that from friends…like an everyday occurrence.”

Female transport workers were more likely than passengers to report incidents of unwanted physical contact. Incidents reported by female transport workers included:

  • men putting their arms around their shoulders/waist while doing their job;
  • men physically manoeuvring women out of the way to get past them, i.e. grabbing their hips and moving them to one side or “squeezing past”; and
  • being placed in a ‘headlock’ by a young man who was part of a group of young men travelling on a train, which made the worker feel incredibly vulnerable as she was unable to escape:
…there’s a lot of subtle sexism in my job…I had a man on the train that was trying to get past me as I was selling someone a ticket…Instead of verbally saying, “Please move”, he put his hands…on my waist… That in itself - nobody should physically touch me in the workplace. He wouldn’t have done it if I was a man.”

In two cases of unwanted physical contact from male passengers, the women reported that it had been the other male passengers travelling with the perpetrator who had stepped in to resolve the situation, i.e. by encouraging or forcing the perpetrator to stop and making them aware that their behaviour was not appropriate. In the absence of this, both women felt there would have been no intervention, as they were working alone and other passengers seemed reluctant to get involved.

Again, it is important to note that all but one of the women interviewed as part of this research who worked in the transport sector felt that there were no problems linked to inappropriate behaviours from male colleagues, and all but one felt confident that any such issues would be dealt with appropriately by managers, if needed.

Being followed

Although mentioned by fewer women, a fear of being followed from bus stops or stations to their home was something that caused real alarm, i.e. “someone kind of spots you on public transport and then follows you when you get off it.”

One middle aged woman described her concerns about how to handle men who made an approach if she was alone, and her concerns about how she would remove herself from such a situation so that the fellow passenger did not ‘latch on’:

I think one of the big issues there is, if you’re at a bus stop, you’re not quite sure when the bus is going to come, you’re in the dark, there’s no nearby lamp post and there’s a random guy who’s smoking up on weed or whatever you want and he doesn’t have anyone to tell him not to bother you and he starts to strike up a conversation. You want to get out of the conversation but you can’t say, “Leave me alone” because he might attack you for that and there’s no one in the vicinity and you can’t leave because, well, if he follows you… it’s just like a downward spiral.”

Another young woman reported that she was asked outright by a male passenger where she would be getting off and feeling that she had to “think on her feet” to lie, or that she would have to change her alighting stop:

There were people asking me as I was kind of getting up to get off the bus - they were asking me like, “Oh is your boyfriend waiting for you at home?” Or, “Can I get off with you?” Things like that. It’s just unsettling because you hear about the stories of, you know, women being followed and everything like that and then even being killed. So, then you’re just like, “OK, should I be getting off at the stop where I live, or should I like go further and then walk?” But then walking is not safe either. So, it’s like, it just causes this stress, I would say.”

Two women in the sample reported being directly followed home by a man but one of these women explained how the man diverted his journey once she reached a busy social area (a pub) outside of her home and stopped to wait for him to pass before finding her keys and entering her building. The other young woman had to phone her mother to come and pick her up.

Intoxication and the influence of alcohol and drugs

Several respondents said that the incidents they had been involved in or had witnessed often involved people being under the influence of alcohol or drugs. While several said that this type of behaviour often did not spill over onto anything that impacted them directly, it still made them feel unsettled or unsafe in general:

…people who are drinking or doing drugs on the bus or on any sort of public transport, it’s just a bit unsettling…people who pee on the floor in public transport, things like that…it’s a very uncomfortable feeling to be around it.”

The main concern in relation to alcohol was that it made people’s behaviour unpredictable:

If you know someone’s drunk…it kind of throws in a wild card cos you don’t know what they’re going to do. And if they’re drunk and they attack you…how are you going to manage the situation...the option there is just to get as far away from them as possible.”

The level of unpredictability was also seen to be worse with drugs, as their effects were often variable and unknown and less familiar to other passengers or workers:

Yeah, you can sort of know how to handle people when they’ve been drinking cos I’ve obviously got loads of experience in that. But I do remember having someone on the train that I could tell was just - was definitely - had taken I don’t know what drugs but… he was really unpredictable… he was really unpredictable and he went into his pocket and we didn’t know what he was going to pull out.”

Late night and weekend travel and was seen as much more likely to be affected by alcohol/drug related problems:

…if you’re bringing the last one [train] out of Edinburgh on a Saturday night, you’re aware of the fact that alcohol is a very, very strong factor in the behaviour patterns that can present a problem, definitely…And 9 times out of 10, as I say, alcohol can be an exceptionally large factor in any event.”

Several respondents (both members of the public and transport workers) commented on the fact that, although laws were in place to ban drinking on public transport, these were rarely enforced and were therefore not taken seriously by the travelling public:

…the ‘no drinking’ rule on public transport needs to be enforced because I know ‘no drinking’ is a rule, for example, on buses, so for First Bus, it’s not allowed. For Scot Rail now, it’s not allowed either. But it’s not enforced in any way and I think it would change a lot in terms of personal safety for people."

The only context in which alcohol was mentioned as being non-problematic was when consumed on ferries. One respondent observed that alcohol sales and consumption on ferries was permitted and not unusual, especially since many people using ferries were on holidays or recreational trips. They perceived that alcohol in this context was usually consumed responsibly and with good policing by ferry staff and did not lead to rowdy, drunken or threatening behaviour (although the same respondent noted that groups of male golfers drinking on board ferries could sometimes become quite rowdy and “annoying” rather than presenting a risk).

Overall, alcohol and drugs featured in a lot of the descriptions of incidents that had or would make women feel unsafe, although one young woman was also keen to point out that: “It’s not always men that are drunk that do it, I would like to say as well. Sometimes it’s men that appear to be sober.”

More general concerns

Some women found it difficult to name anything specific that they ‘feared’ or that made them feel unsafe and instead just described needing and wanting to feel in control and to not be vulnerable, isolated or alone such that they could not handle or manage any unwanted attention that came their way:

I think it’s more maybe to do with just trying to ensure that you’re not in a situation rather than it being anything specific. I wouldn’t say I’m conscious of anything specifically…that I would need to find a deterrent for. I think it’s more just the fact of not putting yourself in any positions whereby it could become something.”

One woman, who always used taxis or a private car when travelling at night explained that this was largely driven by the negative personal stories she had heard from other females who had used public transport at night, and her feeling that she herself would be unable to control or manage similar incidents.

Most women who gave examples of things that would or had made them feel unsafe referenced men as being those who they felt were more likely to present a risk, albeit they were less explicit about what they feared men may do:

…if I see some taller, older guy, man and either - if you’re on kind of like empty bus and they sit really close to you, it’s really weird. So, I already feel on edge and you don’t know, like there’s loads of times when you have a guy that’s drunk that’s on the bus and everyone’s really wary around them and no one wants to sit close to them in case there’s something that they will do.”

In the same way that women spoke of feeling safer if they themselves were in a group/with others, there were indications that men travelling together, especially in large groups, was equally as concerning as lone men who might approach women on their journeys. Large groups were described by some as again being harder to predict and therefore harder to respond to or manage.

Most women also confirmed that the majority (but not all) of the anti-social behaviour, unwanted attention or confrontation that they had experienced had been from men:

It has always been men. People who were like behaving badly, so you know, drinking, peeing or fighting, they could have been women but this kind of unwanted attention, it was always men.”

While unknown men or boys were mainly seen as those likely to make women feel unsafe, one young woman was keen to point out that other female passengers could also pose threats in terms of anti-social behaviour, but that these threats were different from those posed by men:

There have been a couple of times where women have been drunk and they’ve gotten a wee bit too close and they try and be friendly with you and you’re just not 100% comfortable with it. But I don’t think that’s out of malice. Whereas I know this sounds like a wee bit of a generalisation but when I’ve been greeted from drunk men in the past, it has been quite aggressive and cat calling. It’s not like, “Do you want to be my friend?” It’s more like, you know?”

Only one female transport worker mentioned that the only time she had previously been assaulted was by another woman:

I have been physically assaulted before. It was by another female though. It went to court and stuff and they said that she punched me because she didn’t like the look of me.”

Overall, women seemed to describe feelings of general anticipatory angst and, although they perceived that serious incidents were unlikely to occur, the threat was still an ever-present risk that they needed to be mindful of. Encountering anti-social behaviour and inappropriate comments was seen as much more likely to occur, however, women felt that they could generally cope with this, although many also expressed that it would be preferable to not have to.