A German rail operator is introducing woman-only carriages. Is this progressive or depressing?

Soon to be segregated. Image: Clic17 at Wikimedia Commons.

Germany just became the first western European country this century to introduce women-only carriages on a part of its public transport network.

There's a lot to unpick here, but let's start with the basics. The Mitteldeutsche Regiobahn, a privately-owned German train line running between Leipzig and Chemnitz, announced this week that it will introduce two women-only carriage on trains running on this line. Boys under the age of 10 will also be allowed in, and the carriage will be located next to the conductor's office. 

Publications were quick to leap on the fact that Cologne – the city where around 1,000 men gathered outside the train station to harass women on New Year's Eve  is also in Germany. Yet the train line has denied that the move has anything to do with the attacks, or the fact that the only man charged was charged just days before the announcement.

In fact, Mitteldeutsche Regiobahn hasn't said much at all about its decision to introduce the carriages, beyond denying that the Cologne attacks affected it. I approached a spokesperson, who said that the move was in response to customer requests: 

The women compartments are train compartments especially for alone travelling women...  We implemented those compartments on customer's request. It is our first priority that our customers feel comfortable and safe at any time during their travel experience with us.

Separate but equal?

Segregated transport is used around the world (in India, Russia, Mexico, and Japan) to reduce the risk of sexual harassment. Transport is, unfortunately, a very common site for harassment around the world, as a recent Reuters report revealed. Researchers found that in Bogota, the city ranked most dangerous, 82 per cent of women did not feel safe on public transport. 

Yet the "solution" of segregated carriages is a pragmatic, not idealistic, one. Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn was slammed when he implied that we could consider something similar in the UK, but his comments were actually based on consultations with groups of women, who admitted that they would feel safer in their own carriage, at times. 

On a practical level, a major objection to segregated carriages on metro systems it that they could actually attract sexual predators, especially at night when trains are emptier. The German scheme has a fix for this in the form of the carriage's positioning near onboard staff. There's a strong argument that staffing trains and tubes better might solve the problem such that separate carriages aren't needed in the first place. 

Yet wherever their location, segregated carriages still fall into the same trap as the advice handed out to women by the mayor of Cologne shortly after the New Year's attacks: it asks women to modify their behaviour, as opposed to tackling harassment at its source. Perhaps it's a necessary step, for now – but it won't make transport safer in any real sense. 

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“Without rent control we can’t hope to solve London’s housing crisis”

You BET! Oh GOD. Image: Getty.

Today, the mayor of London called for new powers to introduce rent controls in London. With ever increasing rents swallowing more of people’s income and driving poverty, the free market has clearly failed to provide affordable homes for Londoners. 

Created in 1988, the modern private rented sector was designed primarily to attract investment, with the balance of power weighted almost entirely in landlords’ favour. As social housing stock has been eroded, with more than 1 million fewer social rented homes today compared to 1980, and as the financialisation of homes has driven up house prices, more and more people are getting trapped private renting. In 1990 just 11 per cent of households in London rented privately, but by 2017 this figure had grown to 27 per cent; it is also home to an increasing number of families and older people. 

When I first moved to London, I spent years spending well over 50 per cent of my income on rent. Even without any dependent to support, after essentials my disposable income was vanishingly small. London has the highest rent to income ratio of any region, and the highest proportion of households spending over a third of their income on rent. High rents limit people’s lives, and in London this has become a major driver of poverty and inequality. In the three years leading up to 2015-16, 960,000 private renters were living in poverty, and over half of children growing up in private rented housing are living in poverty.

So carefully designed rent controls therefore have the potential to reduce poverty and may also contribute over time to the reduction of the housing benefit bill (although any housing bill reductions have to come after an expansion of the system, which has been subject to brutal cuts over the last decade). Rent controls may also support London’s employers, two-thirds of whom are struggling to recruit entry-level staff because of the shortage of affordable homes. 

It’s obvious that London rents are far too high, and now an increasing number of voices are calling for rent controls as part of the solution: 68 per cent of Londoners are in favour, and a growing renters’ movement has emerged. Groups like the London Renters Union have already secured a massive victory in the outlawing of section 21 ‘no fault’ evictions. But without rent control, landlords can still unfairly get rid of tenants by jacking up rents.

At the New Economics Foundation we’ve been working with the Mayor of London and the Greater London Authority to research what kind of rent control would work in London. Rent controls are often polarising in the UK but are commonplace elsewhere. New York controls rents on many properties, and Berlin has just introduced a five year “rental lid”, with the mayor citing a desire to not become “like London” as a motivation for the policy. 

A rent control that helps to solve London’s housing crisis would need to meet several criteria. Since rents have risen three times faster than average wages since 2010, rent control should initially brings rents down. Our research found that a 1 per cent reduction in rents for four years could lead to 20 per cent cheaper rents compared to where they would be otherwise. London also needs a rent control both within and between tenancies because otherwise landlords can just reset rents when tenancies end.

Without rent control we can’t hope to solve London’s housing crisis – but it’s not without risk. Decreases in landlord profits could encourage current landlords to exit the sector and discourage new ones from entering it. And a sharp reduction in the supply of privately rented homes would severely reduce housing options for Londoners, whilst reducing incentives for landlords to maintain and improve their properties.

Rent controls should be introduced in a stepped way to minimise risks for tenants. And we need more information on landlords, rents, and their business models in order to design a rent control which avoids unintended consequences.

Rent controls are also not a silver bullet. They need to be part of a package of solutions to London’s housing affordability crisis, including a large scale increase in social housebuilding and an improvement in housing benefit. However, private renting will be part of London’s housing system for some time to come, and the scale of the affordability crisis in London means that the question of rent controls is no longer “if”, but increasingly “how”. 

Joe Beswick is head of housing & land at the New Economics Foundation.