This week’s Sexual Assault, Safety and Public Transit cafe, co-sponsored by Women Transforming Cities and UBC’s AMS Sexual Assault Support Centre, generated some great media attention to the issues that many women and vulnerable populations (e.g., poor people, elderly, people with limited mobility, people for whom English is a new language) face as they try to move through the city and the Lower Mainland region.
The discussion highlights that safety means a variety of things. It means, most obviously, that transit riders deserve a commute free of groping, leering, and unwanted sexual attention. (Let’s be clear that statistically the primary group of offenders here is men and the primary group of targets here is women.) It means that lessons about transit behaviour – how to treat others with courtesy and respect – need to be taught and talked about in multiple venues, so that other dominant social messages – that women’s bodies are objects, and that some people are less deserving of respect than others – can be confronted and changed. And it also means holding perpetrators accountable for predatory action, and holding Translink and government accountable for ensuring that the transit system is safe for all users. Angela Marie MacDougall of Battered Women Support Services identified this point in an interview with Rick Cluff on CBC’s The Early Edition on January 13. She said:
So, what do we do? Taking seriously the stories of those who have been targets of such behaviour is a start, and the Translink Police have demonstrated that they are taking these stories seriously. While they may need to gain some public trust (incidents in which Translink Police have questioned the attire of the target rather than pursuing the perpetrator have made some in my circle cautious), their current media campaign, “See Something? Say Something!”, and their responsiveness to the Harassment on Translink blog illustrate that they are making efforts to address transit culture.
Another entry point is to extend the “thank you, driver” culture to general transit behaviour. The frequency with which I hear people say “Thank you!” as they exit the bus is one of the things that I love about Vancouver. And it’s easy to see how that norm sustains itself: people continue to do it and it becomes an unspoken expectation that this courtesy will be shared by passengers. (I would love to hear Vancouverites’ theories on why this culture might exist here, given that “bus chatting” seems less welcome.) It’s equally important to create an expectation that creating a safe transit environment is something that we can all participate in, by respecting others’ boundaries and intervening when our neighbours’ boundaries are being violated. Our willingness to ask basic questions like “Are you ok?” can help to make safety the norm on transit.
And a key entry point is to expand transit service. This means more money for safety initiatives and more bus and train service (fewer sardine-can-rides on the 99 B-line, the 135, and the Canada line!) in the city. It means thinking regionally about transit safety: traversing the Lower Mainland – moving between Richmond and Surrey, for instance, or getting from UBC to North Vancouver – can be tricky and unsafe when transit is less infrequent or simply isn’t available. For people coming into downtown to do third shift work like office cleaning, or people leaving downtown after the downtown bars close, accessing low-cost transportation is a major concern. It also means thinking regionally about transit in a way that is sensitive to both efficiency and safety. After all, the conversation about transportation and sustainable regional planning needs to get beyond growth modelling and “travel choice”, as these are insufficient methods for capturing the diverse needs of transit users.
Here is the transcript of my interview with Scott McLean for BC1:
Scott McLean: Well, last night members of the UBC community got together to talk about how to make their campus safer amid a recent string of sexual assaults and a spike in assaults on Translink. So, what now? Tiffany Muller Myrdahl teaches women & gender studies (my addition: in the Gender, Women & Sexuality Studies Department) at Simon Fraser University and spoke at last night’s forum and joins us now from our downtown Vancouver studio. Tiffany, this is a big issue, an important issue. It’s also pretty complex. Did last night’s meeting leave you with any more clarity at all about how exactly we move forward?
TMM: Thanks for having me, Scott. Women Transforming Cities, which was one of the co-sponsors of the event last night, one of our goals is to put a gender and equity lens on city services and city budgets and city planning, and bringing voices into the conversation that don’t typically get involved and aren’t necessarily heard. So, women and girls, people from marginalized communities. And that was really the goal of last night, to try to bring those voices to the table and talk about recommendations. And those recommendations will be on the www.womentransformingcities.org website, they will be put forward to municipal officials and to Translink, and they will be put into the report that’s going to the UBC president, which is I think going to be submitted at the end of January.
SL: It’s all well and good. My concern for your group and probably a lot of people’s concerns is how do you actually get these groups, whether it be the University, whether it be Translink, the cities involved here, how do you get them to actually listen and turn your great recommendations into some actual meaningful action?
TMM: It’s a great question. We’re in a moment when the transit referendum is going to come down in 2014 and budget issues are a pressing concern, but we have to be persistent and creative. The Translink police have been really responsive. They rolled out a video that they showed last night called “See Something? Say Something!” and that encourages both targets and witnesses to come forward to hold people accountable, including holding Translink and government accountable for keeping transit safe.
SL: You and I talked on the phone earlier today and you said such a big part of this is education and awareness. Why do you think that is and who are the people who need to be educated and aware, and how do you get that message to them? You mentioned that campaign there. Is it something like that or is it a different audience that we need to be reaching?
TMM: I think it’s both/and. It needs to be that kind of media campaign, it needs to be conversations like the one we had last night, it needs to be folks turning to their family and friends and boyfriends, and bring a variety of different voices into the conversation about what it means to feel unsafe on transit and not being able to say no when someone is giving you attention that you don’t want.
SL: One more question: you pointed out that last night’s event was co-sponsored by the group Women Transforming Cities. Is there a challenge now in getting those guys, some of the other community stakeholders all on the same page and speaking in one voice, or is that not necessary? Is it ok to have a bunch of different community stakeholders making the point rather than just one?
TMM: I think that’s a great question and I guess I would say that the more we can work together, but pressing from different angles perhaps. But yes, we all need to be at the table with representatives from different women’s communities, different marginalized groups’ communities to make sure that transit is safe for everyone.