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Transport / Mass transit

Latin American transport networks are the most dangerous for women; New York's is the safest

Public transport networks can be wonderful things. In many cities, they’re the quickest and cheapest way to get around; most networks now operate, in some capacity, at least, around the clock. In some cities, though, they unfortunately come with a downside.

Yesterday, the Thomson Reuters Foundation released a poll of 6,000 women in the 15 largest capital cities (plus New York, as the largest US city) about their perceptions of safety on public transport. The survey found that many networks were not considered safe for women, especially at night.

The poll took the form of a series of questions and “to what extent do you agree…” statements, covering topics such as verbal and physical harassment, night travel, travelling alone, assistance from other travellers, and the response of the authorities. Researchers then used the data, along with information taken from interviews with gender and city planning experts, to rank the cities.

Counterintuitively, a higher ranking means a more dangerous transit network. The top three cities are all in Latin America; around six in 10 women polled in these cities had been physically harassed.

Worst of the lot is Bogota, where 82 per cent of respondents agreed that safe public transport is not available anywhere in the city. Beatriz Rodriguez, a Bogota resident, told researchers that public transport in the city is a “nightmare” for women.

Martha Sanchez, the women’s rights secretary in the city’s mayor’s office, said harassment is not regarded as sexual abuse in Columbia – and onlookers are unlikely to intervene. Another contributing factor may be that the city has no train network: the average commuter waits 40 minutes to board the city’s overcrowded buses.  

In Lima, which ranked third, the situation’s not much better. In June, authorities introduced undercover police officers on public transport after a semi-famous local actress caught a man masturbating behind her on a bus. At the time, a minister helpfully recommended that women should carry scissors or other sharp objects to protect themselves from harassers (a brilliant safety policy if ever we’ve heard one).

London’s public transport was rated the fourth safest, but the city’s polling data still doesn’t make for cheerful reading: only 51 per cent agreed that the city’s transit networks are safe.

Here’s a comparison with Bogotan women’s responses: 

London is worse than Bogota on only one metric: bystander assistance. It seems women in London have little faith that grumpy fellow passengers will come to their aid.

Studies, such as this one from the OECD, have repeatedly found that a lack of safe travel options affects women’s ability to work and study – and their enthusiasm to do either. In these large cities, public transport is pretty much the only way to get around. If women feel unsafe on public transport, it’s unlikely they’d feel terribly secure while walking or cycling, either. 

One solution gaining in momentum is women-only train carriages or buses, which are already in use in Japan, Brazil and Indonesia (they’ve been raised as a possibility for London, too). Somewhat depressingly, around 70 per cent of the poll’s respondents said they’d feel safer using single-sex transport. Perhaps unsurprisingly, only 35 per cent of women from New York – rated the safest city – were keen on the idea.

A woman-only train carriage in Japan.

Julie Babinard, a senior transport specialist at the World Bank, told the researchers that while single-sex carriages might help reduce the number of incidents, they wouldn’t be a long-term fix:

The emerging interest….[in] women-only initiatives should be seen as an opportunity for improving security in cities but not as a silver bullet for dealing with gender-based violence.

Other solutions could include more transport police, more transport options (to reduce crowding) and better lighting in stations. Many cities could do with better reporting systems, too: even in New York, more than a third of respondents didn’t feel confident that authorities would investigate a reported incident. In London, it was more than half.
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