“He just pulled my hand in to his lap”: what it’s really like to be assaulted on the London Underground

A woman on the London Underground, 2012. Image: Getty.

Sexual harassment is rife in public spaces, and as an integral part of daily life, public transport is no exception. As global as it is endemic, women are forced to negotiate the risk and reality of sexual harassment as they get from A to B on a daily basis.

On the London Underground, the extent of the issue became apparent in 2013 after a Transport for London (TfL) survey revealed that 15 per cent of Londoners had experienced some form of unwanted sexual attention on public transport in the city. A large proportion of these incidents happened on the Underground.

In my research, I spoke to women who had experienced sexual harassment on the tube. The unique nature of the space of the underground and the way people interact with each other when they’re using it mean that the abuse manifests itself in particular ways.

As Eliza, who has lived in London and used the tube her whole life said:

On the tube you’re simultaneously in close proximity with so many people and yet you’re completely anonymous. Everyone is in their own world... and I think some people take advantage of that.

Groping or “frotteuring” are the most common offences, and generally happen in the morning and evening rush hours. Masturbation and indecent exposures are more likely on quieter, off-peak trains.

The women I spoke to also described being “upskirted” – having someone take a photo up their skirt – and having indecent images randomly sent to them via the airdrop function on their phone. They said they had been followed, ejaculated on, had to deflect drunken come-ons, and put up with verbal and physical aggression.

The daily crush provides useful cover for perpetrators. Image: Axel Drainville/Flickr/creative commons.

Taylor, a 33-year old project manager in Canary Wharf, east London, called her experience “insidious”. On a late evening tube, she described how a man came and sat next to her:

He just pulled my hand in to his lap and held it there... I just froze... I was looking around trying to make eye contact with someone to say, ‘Get this guy off me’. The longer I left it, the more I felt like I couldn’t move... it lasted 15 minutes. Afterwards... I was so ashamed and confused by my own reaction.

When I asked her if she had reported the incident, she shook her head and said:

I had a hard time even explaining it to my boyfriend. How would I go about talking to the police? There’s no way they’d take that seriously.

The TfL survey showed that only one in ten people made reports after experiencing a sexual offence on the Underground. Due to the nature of the environment and the type of incidents that occur, reporting and policing sexual harassment on the tube comes with its own set of difficulties.

Unlike most acts of sexual violence, offences on the underground are committed by strangers. The police therefore have to rely on CCTV, Oyster card data, and, most importantly, information from victims when looking into a case. In a fast paced, densely packed, transitory environment, that can be extremely challenging.

Anonymity

Ruth, who commuted on the Waterloo and City line, described how she wasn’t even sure who assaulted her:

I felt someone’s hand touch me... between my legs... The carriage was packed full of men in suits, I couldn’t tell where the hand was coming from and no one looked suspicious. So at first I thought maybe I was imagining it, or it was an accident. Then the fingers moved from side to side... What was I going to do? If I’d said who’s touching me, no one would admit it. It would be so embarrassing. The tube arrived, the doors opened and everybody got off.

That kind of uncertainty and ambiguity often affects women’s reactions – both while an incident is happening and afterwards – making them reluctant to come forward. They also report a fear of being victim blamed, and thinking the incident was not serious enough to bother the police with, demonstrating the pervasive normalisation of sexual harassment. Furthermore, some women said they didn’t report simply because they wanted to avoid their day being further disrupted, which, considering the energy that often already goes into avoiding and negotiating sexual assault, is as valid a reason as any.

However as Rach stated, perhaps the onus should not be on women to report in the first place:

Everyone said to me, report it, you should report it. But I didn’t want to, I didn’t want to have to relive it again... It’s not my responsibility and I shouldn’t be made to feel guilty.

Loughborough University.

In an attempt to overcome some of these barriers and to put less pressure on victims, British Transport Police have taken various measures. There is now a number you can text to report incidents and undercover officers who are specially trained to spot this kind of behaviour are patrolling the Underground network.

The ConversationThe recent proliferation in reporting and public story sharing has led to an increased awareness that women are forced to negotiate this behaviour on a regular, often daily, basis in all kinds of places. Perhaps we should use this momentum to transfer the pressure and obligation to combat sexually invasive behaviour away from those who have already been victimised and instead collectively challenge issues of normalisation and bystander apathy that allow these incidents to occur on such a pervasive level.

Sian Lewis, Doctoral Researcher. Feminist Urban Sociologist, Loughborough University.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.


 

 
 
 
 

Self-driving cars may be safe – but they could still prevent walkable, liveable communities

A self-driving car, driving itself. Image: Grendelkhan/Flickr/creative commons.

Almost exactly a decade ago, I was cycling in a bike lane when a car hit me from behind. Luckily, I suffered only a couple bruised ribs and some road rash. But ever since, I have felt my pulse rise when I hear a car coming up behind my bike.

As self-driving cars roll out, they’re already being billed as making me – and millions of American cyclists, pedestrians and vehicle passengers – safer.

As a driver and a cyclist, I initially welcomed the idea of self-driving cars that could detect nearby people and be programmed not to hit them, making the streets safer for everyone. Autonomous vehicles also seemed to provide attractive ways to use roads more efficiently and reduce the need for parking in our communities. People are certainly talking about how self-driving cars could help build more sustainable, livable, walkable and bikable communities.

But as an urban planner and transportation scholar who, like most people in my field, has paid close attention to the discussion around driverless cars, I have come to understand that autonomous vehicles will not complement modern urban planning goals of building people-centered communities. In fact, I think they’re mutually exclusive: we can have a world of safe, efficient, driverless cars, or we can have a world where people can walk, bike and take transit in high-quality, human-scaled communities.

Changing humans’ behavior

These days, with human-driven cars all over the place, I choose my riding routes and behavior carefully: I much prefer to ride on low-speed traffic, low-traffic roads, buffered bike lanes or off-street bike paths whenever possible, even if it means going substantially out of my way. That’s because I’m scared of what a human driver – through error, ignorance, inattention or even malice – might do to me on tougher roads.

But in a hypothetical future in which all cars are autonomous, maybe I’ll make different choices? So long as I’m confident self-driving cars will at least try to avoid killing me on my bike, I’ll take the most direct route to my destination, on roads that I consider much too dangerous to ride on today. I won’t need to worry about drivers because the technology will protect me.

Driverless cars will level the playing field: I’ll finally be able to ride where I am comfortable in a lane, rather than in the gutter – and pedal at a comfortable speed for myself rather than racing to keep up with, or get out of the way of, other riders or vehicles. I can even see riding with my kids on roads, instead of driving somewhere safe to ride like a park. (Of course, this is all still assuming driverless cars will eventually figure out how to avoid killing cyclists.)

To bikers and people interested in vibrant communities, this sounds great. I’m sure I won’t be the only cyclist who makes these choices. But that actually becomes a problem.

The tragedy of the commons

In the midsize midwestern college town I call home, estimates suggest about 4,000 people commute by bike. That might not sound like many, but consider the traffic backups that would result if even just a few hundred cyclists went out at rush hour and rode at leisurely speeds on the half-dozen arterial roads in my city.

Technology optimists might suggest that driverless cars will be able to pass cyclists more safely and efficiently. They might also be directed to use other roads that are less clogged, though that carries its own risks.

But what happens if it’s a lovely spring afternoon and all those 4,000 bike commuters are riding, in addition to a few thousand kids and teenagers running, riding or skating down my local roads? Some might even try to disrupt the flow of traffic by walking back and forth in the road or even just standing and texting, confident the cars will not hit them. It’s easy to see how good driverless cars will enable people to enjoy those previously terrifying streets, but it also demonstrates that safety for people and efficiency for cars can’t happen at the same time.


People versus cars

It’s not hard to imagine a situation where driverless cars can’t get anywhere efficiently – except late at night or early in the morning. That’s the sort of problem policy scholars enjoy working on, trying to engineer ways for people and technology to get along better.


One proposed solution would put cars and bicycles on different areas of the streets, or transform certain streets into “autonomous only” thoroughfares. But I question the logic of undertaking massive road-building projects when many cities today struggle to afford basic maintenance of their existing streets.

An alternative could be to simply make new rules governing how people should behave around autonomous vehicles. Similar rules exist already: Bikes aren’t allowed on most freeways, and jaywalking is illegal across most of the U.S.

Regulating people instead of cars would be cheaper than designing and building new streets. It would also help work around some of the technical problems of teaching driverless cars to avoid every possible danger – or even just learning to recognize bicycles in the first place.

However, telling people what they can and can’t do in the streets raises a key problem. In vibrant communities, roads are public property, which everyone can use for transportation, of course – but also for commerce, civil discourse and even civil disobedience. Most of the U.S., however, appears to have implicitly decided that streets are primarily for moving cars quickly from one place to another.

There might be an argument for driverless cars in rural areas, or for intercity travel, but in cities, if driverless cars merely replace human-driven vehicles, then communities won’t change much, or they may become even more car-dependent. If people choose to prioritise road safety over all other factors, that will shift how people use roads, sidewalks and other public ways. But then autonomous vehicles will never be particularly efficient or convenient.

The Conversation

Daniel Piatkowski, Assistant Professor of Community and Regional Planning, University of Nebraska-Lincoln

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.