By Ruby Bolaria
UCLA Luskin Student Writer
I cannot remember a time when I felt safe at every moment. From walking through a dimly lit area, hearing catcalls while running, or riding public transit late at night, women and girls are taught to always be alert because of potential circumstances beyond our control.
Frankly it is very disempowering.
So I was immediately intrigued by the Women, Transit and Los Angeles: Claiming a Safer Multi-modal Community event put on by the UCLA Planners Network and members of the UCLA Luskin Urban Planning department. The event is part of the first-ever student led UCLA Luskin-wide series, The Personal is Collective: Taking Action Towards Gender Equity.
The event organizers, Masters of Urban and Regional Planning students at UCLA Luskin, claimed the event was partly in response to the multiple attacks on women on public transit. The recent sexual violence against women on transit, ranging from the violent fatal gang rape of a 23-year old student on a bus in India, to the rape of a mentally disabled 18-year old on a Culver City bus is rarely discussed. The event aimed to be a safe space to talk about safety and gender issues in relations to public transit.
To help demonstrate the complexity of gender and transit in Los Angeles, the students invited Miguel Gutierrez to help facilitate a participatory theater. Gutierrez is a Ph.D. candidate at UCLA’s School of Education and a Theater of the Oppressed practitioner.
He facilitated a reenactment of different transit situations. In one scenario, it was late at night and one male walked into a train with four empty seats and one female. He proceeded to sit next to her while she tensed and tried to move to create distance. The man followed her to another seat and then stood next to her as she moved to stand. The scene had no words but it seemed like every woman in the room nodded in recognition.
Another scene asked the audience to think about how to intervene when they see aggression and harassment on public transit. A male walked onto a crowded bus and proceeded to harass the woman standing in front of him. As he groped her, others looked in disapproval but were unsure how to take action. As male and female audience members took the actor's place, male versus female intervention was markedly noticeable.
“How does race and gender change the situation? What if it was a homeless person or an elderly person intervening?” Gutierrez asked.
The exercises brought to life the various dimensions and challenges when thinking about transit safety, gender and race. In every scenario people offered their own personal stories that mirrored the examples. People shared their feelings of fear, how they overcame potentially dangerous situations and were glad to see examples of what to do in these situations.
As someone who has never owned a car and has relied on taking public transit throughout my life, living and working in major cities including San Francisco, Chicago, Boston, New York and Washington D.C., all these situations hit close to home. I understood the decision-making process that goes through your mind when you’re in a precarious situation late at night.
Do you ignore it? Do you confront him? Do you get off at the next stop and call a cab? Will the person next to you help? Do you intervene and help but risk averting that unwanted attention on you? Does your cell phone get reception? The questions and scenarios that play through your mind alone can be exhausting.
I am fortunate enough to have more options than most. I do not leave work at midnight without any other option than the bus as many lower-income women, which UCLA Luskin Urban Planning professor Anastasia Loukaitou-Sideris pointed out.
Hopefully, this exercise demonstrated that it is our responsibility as a community to say something when we see something. That men who intervene hold certain power and can be instrumental in helping create safe spaces. That women also have power, especially when intervening with others watching. Shaming people to inaction and ensuring they know their actions are being watched and are unexcused is a powerful tool.
After the participatory theater, an all-female panel of experts talked more about the issues and potential solutions to encourage transit use and improve safety. Panelists included Streetsblog Los Angeles writer Sahra Sulaiman, Greyhound bus driver Sindy Vasquez, Bus Rider Union Organizer Sunyoung Yang, and UCLA Luskin's Anastasia Loukaitou-Sideris.
Yang made sure to remind us that the majority of violence against women occurs in private familiar spaces and people should not fear public transit.
"Public transit is one of the few places we have left where people are forced to interact," Yang said, "and it’s beautiful to see people of all races and genders interacting and working to understand each other.”
Vasquez, who used to drive an MTA bus and is an avid bus union activist, said she fondly remembers a bus driver who would wait for her on her daily commute to downtown Los Angeles. She also encouraged women to ask for help from their bus drivers who could provide support.
“A woman with a firm voice is more intimidating than a man in front of your face” Vasquez said.
Panelists also spoke about issues facing seniors, perceptions of rail security versus bus and the lack of action from transit organizations. In Loukaitou-Sideris’ research, which asked 137 transit agencies if they thought women faced certain insecurities, only one-third answered yes. Of those, only three were actually doing anything about it.
Some of the conclusions included: focusing on reducing overcrowding could help decrease incidences of molestation and harassment. Well-lit bus stops and reliable and frequent service can help reduce wait time at bus stops.
Loukaitou-Sideris highlighted systems in London and San Francisco that tell passengers when the next bus is coming in real time, in order to limit wait time at stops. She also praised the website HollaBack!, created to end public harassment by taking pictures of harassers and putting them online for others to view. Some of the action has led to police intervention, but mostly it is for the public to use and publically shame offenders. According to Loukaitou-Sideris, it has worked remarkably well as a deterrent.
“Taking pictures on the phone has been used to stop harassers and even led to police intervention,” said Loukaitou-Sideris.
The best strategy, whether it is including more involvement in the form of police or transit agency action, is still unclear. However, the panelists agreed people need to act when they see harassment in order to make a change our culture.
I am a proud transit user and will not let the malicious actions of a few ruin that. I am part of the majority, not the aggressors. It’s time we remind them of that.