Sunday, 6 June 2010

Segregated cars for all (women): Why "women-only passenger cars" aren't as good as they sound.

Some time ago, I had promised a post on things that had come out of the green streets workshop. This conflicted with completing the assignments necessary to pass my final year of University, and passing the year won out. It's coming, be assured. But yesterday, having been recently researching women's security, I was linked to this youtube video, in which the narrator expresses surprise that, unlike in Japan, American subways (I'll use this as the generic term, into which other rapid transit can be included) do not have women-only cars, and was moved to write on the matter.

When making such provisions, you essentially have two options. Either providing one or two carriages, as in Japan (where provision is normally one); or providing carriages matching the gender split of patronage, and providing full gender segregation.  hope no reader wants forced segregation; where it does happen, it does so in line with cultural norms. I won't even start on all the practical issues. 

As for the former, I find about as many problems. To begin with, it implicitly suggests that women ought to be less mobile than men, by giving women a small provision. As, in fact, more than 1-2 cars' worth of women use the trains, most women will have to travel in other carriages. These carriages will become more dominated by men, which has the potential of reducing real or perceived safety of the more diluted number of women. 

Two thoughts arise on the effect on women's security. It was noted in a study discussing women-only areas near the attendant in multi-storey car parks that anyone wanting to target women would know exactly where to find them.2 This is a similar view to that concerning New Jersey stipulating that 17 year-old drivers have special stickers of their license plates. And where American and European subways make lightly-used local stops in the suburbs, you'll know exactly where to find women traveling alone. As a transport planner, one immediately jumps to the fact that the chaotic arrangement of people to the correct carriages of trains can cause problems, at least before everyone is used to the arrangement (and tourists will always come and disrupt it even then). But this is also another cause for concern, as namely that chaotic cross-movement of people on platforms is reportedly most conducive to transit crime.3

But overarching all of these specific concerns is whether you should provide exclusively for women in general. Such provision can only go so far. The women's only subway cars provision ends at the platform, and long before the walk home on the street. Similar problems crop up for women's only buses and such,2 and I will summarise three issues. 

Firstly, the impression is given that it's an ordinary and acceptable fundamental condition of society that women aren't safe around men (as Saudi Arabia legislates on the basis of). This suggests that groping and such crime, while frowned upon, is somewhat alright in the natural order of things, and therefore is alright when the special provision for women isn't there.

Secondly, by reducing the number of women in mixed environments (on subway cars and in streets, for example), the more those in the mixed environments are frowned upon, and the less they benefit from the reassuring presence of other women.4 This is what the reclaim the night movement is trying to create; not for us to take that way from subway cars.

Lastly, politicians like to undertake token efforts to show they care about a group of the electorate. Boris Johnson rides a bike to some meetings and paints some cycle lanes blue, in hope that everyone forgets that London's roads are still designed primarily for the fluidity of motorised traffic. If the politicians feel they have the women commuters' vote by putting a few special carriages on a few trains, we can perhaps forget what is really necessary to ensure women enjoy actual mobility.

What is really necessary is to work as hard as possible to allow women to be mobile without feeling unsafe or being subject to groping or such assaults. That means good campaigns that put the message across that groping isn't a "technically illegal" thing like pirating media, keeping VCRs more than 28 days or jaywalking, but is frowned upon both by the law and society - including those women sharing the mixed car with you and your desired victim. It requires encouraging reporting and pressing for conviction. And it involves fostering a generally safe environment for women, including well-designed transit facilities for visibility, vital streets on which casual law enforcement can take place, and whatever other measures you can establish a need for through participatory study with local women. Wrapping some fraction of women passengers in a cotton wool ball from when the doors shut at one station to when they open at their destination isn't going to be a simple solution to a complex problem.

1 - Fenstermaker and West. 2002. Doing Gender, Doing Difference. New York, NY: Routledge.
2 - Trench, Oc and Tiesdell. 1992. Safer cities for women: percieved risks and planning measures. Town Planning Review 63:2.
3 - Loukaitou-Sideris, Liggett and Iseki. 2002. The Geography of Transit Crime: Documentation and evaluation of crime incidence on and around Green Line stations in Los Angeles. Journal of Planning education and research 22:2.
4 - Valentine. 1989. The Geography of women's fear. Area 21.
Photograph by licensed under creative commons 2.0 Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license.


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