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Virtual Conference Shines Light on Women’s Transit Safety Issues New UCLA report on transit safety of college students is released during InterActions LA

By Lauren Hiller

A new UCLA study found that being a woman, identifying as LGBTQI, having a long commute, or waiting in poorly lit areas significantly increased the likelihood of being sexually harassed on public transit.

In the UCLA Lewis Center for Regional Policy Studies report, “Transit Safety Among University Students,” Anastasia Loukaitou-Sideris of UCLA Luskin Urban Planning and researchers sought to better understand the characteristics of individuals and circumstances that increased their risk of harassment during their public transit journeys.

Professor Loukaitou-Sideris reported the findings during the Lewis Center’s April 3 InterActions LA conference, which brought together researchers, transit agencies and community activists around the topic of women’s safety in transportation.

The study surveyed 1,284 students from UCLA and the California State University campuses of Los Angeles and Northridge. According to the report, this population was chosen because university students are typically more transit-dependent than the general public, and because their young age may make them more vulnerable to victimization. Los Angeles was one of numerous cities studied as part of a global research project.

Much of the preexisting data on perceived safety and incidents of sexual harassment on transit in Los Angeles did not identify such characteristics as gender, sexuality and race. This study also uniquely delved into when in the course of a transit journey — walking to or from a station, waiting for the bus or train, or on the actual vehicle — sexual harassment occurred.

According to the study, 72% of respondents experienced some form of harassment on a bus, compared to 48% on rail, with women experiencing far more numerous instances than men. However, very few students (10%) reported the experience to either law enforcement or transit agencies. And more than half of women reported changing how they dressed or adjusting their travel patterns, such as riding only during daytime or waiting in well-lit areas.

Because women make up more than half of transit riders in the United States, Loukaitou-Sideris said it’s imperative to prioritize their safety.

“Their safety is an important concern that we need to tackle if we want to have more women riding transit and — for women who are already captive transit riders — riding transit more comfortably and without fear,” she said. “I think everyone deserves that in our transit systems.”

Safe Transit During COVID-19

The challenges that women and vulnerable populations face have only been magnified by the current COVID-19 crisis. Under statewide and local “safer at home” orders, it is frequently low-income women of color who are still traveling to work to provide essential services to the rest of the region, according to the other panelists at the InterActions event, including speakers from Pueblo Planning, Los Angeles Walks and Alliance for Community Transit-Los Angeles (ACT-LA).

“COVID-19 has revealed that our transit system is a lifeline,” said Mariana Huerta Jones, senior coalition and communications manager at ACT-LA, a nonprofit organization dedicated to ensuring equitable access to public transit infrastructure and funds.

During the InterActions presentation, Huerta Jones said public transit is often the only transportation option available to low-income residents working in jobs deemed essential in industries such as grocery stores, hospitals and sanitation.

Ensuring Women’s Safety

Other InterActions speakers like Monique López, founder and social justice planner at Pueblo Planning, spoke about the importance of including the voices of marginalized communities when crafting policy recommendations. And Daisy Villafuerte, advocacy and engagement manager from Los Angeles Walks, discussed grassroots efforts to improve transit experiences.

Presenting the next steps from LA Metro’s recent “Understanding How Women Travel” report, Meghna Khanna, senior director of the Countywide Planning and Development Department, and her team found that safety is still the biggest concern and barrier to riding transit for all women riders. While 60% of women felt safe traveling on Metro during the day, that number decreased to 20% at night.

Khanna and her team at LA Metro found that women frequently mentioned increased police presence as a solution that would help them feel safer on transit; however, not all transit riders agree.

“For many people of our community, more police doesn’t mean more safety. It can actually mean the opposite. It can mean racial profiling, harassment, criminalizing of poor or houseless individuals,” Huerta Jones said.

Solutions beyond policing — such as increased service frequency, improved cleanliness around stations, and the presence of non-police transit ambassadors — are just first steps in ensuring women can use transit without fear.

Loukaitou-Sideris Studies Sexual Harassment on Public Transit

An article in Progressive Railroading highlighted the findings of a study on sexual harassment co-authored by Urban Planning Professor Anastasia Loukaitou-Sideris. Conducted at San Jose State University, the study found that sexual harassment experienced by riders on buses and trains leads to reduced use of public transportation. Of the 891 student transit riders surveyed, 63% indicated that they had experienced some form of sexual harassment while riding the train or bus over the past three years. According to Loukaitou-Sideris, “the findings from San Jose State University are comparable to those found when the same survey was administered at 18 other universities located across six continents.” The report included recommendations to combat sexual harassment, including educating the public, making it easier for riders and bystanders to report incidents of harassment to the police, and keeping transit environments well-lighted.


ITS Experts Assess Massive Hit to Transit Agencies

Experts from the Institute of Transportation Studies (ITS) at UCLA Luskin are weighing in on the financial burden that the COVID-19 health crisis is placing on public transit agencies. “The virtues of public transit are precisely at odds with coping with the pandemic. … We now have essentially a mandate to not move, to not have a lot of people together anywhere,” ITS Director Brian Taylor told the Hill. The article also quoted Emeritus Professor Martin Wachs, who leads research into transportation finance at ITS. Both ridership and sales tax revenues are down, Wachs said, but transit is “a public service that we must keep operating during the crisis because people who have no option other than transit need to shop for food and get to doctors’ offices and hospitals.” On Curbed LA, ITS Deputy Director Juan Matute said Los Angeles’ Metro system may be forced to cut service dramatically or delay work on key projects. He also noted that, once the health crisis has lifted, “if there’s a severe recession, people who are out of work but still need to get around will become reliant on Metro.”

Manville Weighs In on Declining Bus Ridership

Michael Manville, associate professor of urban planning, was featured in a New York Times article discussing the factors responsible for a nationwide decline in bus ridership. Urban planning experts point to suburbanization, increasing levels of car ownership and new rideshare services as partially responsible. Manville added that the rise of Craigslist has “altered the market for used cars, making them easier to find and cheaper to buy.” In addition, declining immigration rates in general could shrink the pool of potential bus riders. Manville argued that the best solution is to “make the true costs of driving more apparent” by implementing congestion pricing, higher parking rates and higher gas taxes. “At the end of the day, we may never know what’s driving this decline,” he said. “But I guarantee you that if you took a lane of Vermont Avenue in Los Angeles and gave it only to the bus, ridership would go up.”


Manville on Combatting Congestion in L.A.

Michael Manville, associate professor of urban planning, spoke to Curbed LA about measures being taken to combat traffic congestion in Los Angeles. According to a newly released index on congestion and mobility, the typical Los Angeles driver logged 103 hours of traffic in 2019. The index also found that the metro area is home to the two most congested stretches of road in the country, on sections of the 5 and 134 freeways. Among other strategies to lighten traffic, transit agencies plan to expand rail lines. While this would provide an alternative to driving, it may not reduce traffic, Manville cautioned. “It basically allows people to avoid exposure to congestion. But if you want to actually improve congestion on the 405, the unfortunate truth is that you have to toll the 405,” he said.


 

Taylor Expresses Concern About Eliminating Transit Fares

Brian Taylor, professor of urban planning and public policy,  spoke to Public Source about the prospect of universal free public transportation. In December, Kansas City, Missouri, became the first major U.S. city to eliminate all public transit fares. Proponents of the move argue that doing so increases ridership, simplifies the experience of riding and benefits low-income riders. However, experts worry that eliminating transit fares is not a universal solution, especially for cities like Pittsburgh, which dwarfs Kansas City in ridership and fare revenue. “By offering free transit service for all trips, you run the risk of actually incurring a very high marginal cost to accommodate where your peak demand is,” Taylor said. He argued that there are better ways to increase ridership and serve the needs of those dependent on transit. Instead of eliminating fares, Taylor recommended spending fare revenue on services and programs that make transit more reliable and accessible.


UCLA Luskin Represents at TRB Annual Meeting

UCLA Luskin faculty and students were well represented at January’s Transportation Research Board annual meeting in Washington, D.C., and much of their research was highlighted on Streetsblog USA’s Talking Headways podcast. Brian Taylor, professor of urban planning and director of the Institute of Transportation Studies (ITS), and MURP student Yu Hong Hwang presented an updated analysis of the standard for setting speed limits, which has been in place for decades. MURP student Cassie Halls spoke about her research on the impact of a bus-only lane on Los Angeles’ Flower Street; Halls’ work won “Best Master’s Student Poster Presentation” at the annual meeting. ITS postdoctoral fellow Andrew Schouten discussed his research showing a decrease in public transit use among immigrant communities, possibly due to settlement patterns and an increase in car ownership. In the first Talking Headways episode, Taylor and Hwang’s comments begin at the 1:45 minute mark and Hall’s at the 18:16 minute mark. In the second episode, Schouten’s comments begin at the 23:28 minute mark.


 

Manville on Limited Success of Public Transit Projects in L.A.

Associate Professor of Urban Planning Michael Manville spoke to the Economist about the limited success of recent efforts to improve public transit in Los Angeles. While voters have approved ballot initiatives such as Measure M that have increased funding for public transit, the number of people actually using public transportation has declined. Manville describes public transit as a “safety net for the poor, not a service for most people.” According to Manville, the proportion of households without access to a car has fallen from 10% in 2000 to 7% in 2015, with an even sharper fall among immigrant households. He explained that in order to persuade Angelenos to get out of their cars, “trains and buses must be almost as fast and convenient as driving.” At the recommendation of urban planning experts, the city is now planning a congestion pricing pilot program.


Shoup’s Solution to Game-Day Congestion

Distinguished Research Professor of Urban Planning Donald Shoup wrote an article for CityLab proposing transit validation as a solution to traffic and congestion at major sporting events. Due to limited bus service and no direct rail connections to Miami or Fort Lauderdale, most of the 62,000 football fans who attended the Super Bowl in Miami Gardens on Sunday arrived by car. While game-day congestion is often seen as part of football tradition, Shoup recommended that sporting venues contract with public transit operators so that all ticket holders can ride buses and trains free on game days. He argued that by arranging fare-free public transit on game days, sporting venues could increase transit ridership, reduce traffic congestion, save energy, and reduce pollution and carbon emissions at a very low cost. Validating transit rides is cheaper than building parking lots or garages for occasional game-day drivers, and it could reduce drunk driving incidents after sporting events, he said.

Public Transit Ridership Declines in Bay Area, ITS Study Finds

A study by the Institute of Transportation Studies at UCLA Luskin was featured in a Mercury News article on declining public transportation ridership in the Bay Area. Researchers found that transit ridership in the area fell 5.2% between 2016 and 2018. “Compared to the rest of the country, the Bay Area is doing better, but it is on the decline,” senior research manager Jacob Wasserman noted. The study found that ridership has declined on transit lines that do not serve major job hubs but remains strong in locations such as downtown San Francisco. Uber, Lyft and other ride-hailing apps may be contributing to the decline, but the impact is difficult to determine because these companies do not share detailed ridership data, the researchers found. The forthcoming study, which was also featured on ABC and NBC television affiliates in the Bay Area, proposes lowering ticket prices during off-peak hours and building more housing near transit hubs to increase ridership.