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Encouraging women’s fears on public transport does nothing to help



Cast your mind back only to 2015 and you’ll remember Jeremy Corbyn and the confusion over women-only train carriages. The then-Labour leader was dragged over the coals by folk who thought he had advocated for such a thing.

In fact, he’d said that if women wanted single sex train carriages he would listen to their arguments. Which was fair enough, but far less headline snatching.

This time last year the transport minister Jenny Gilruth started a debate about the need for women-only train carriages in Scotland after detailing her own experiences of feeling unsafe travelling at night.

Necessary or nonsense, necessary or nonsense, a debate perfectly pitched to the rhythm of wheels on a track, and just as circular.

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Now here we are again as a report commissioned by Ms Gilruth to look at women’s experiences of using public transport is released. The report, published by Transport Scotland, detailed how women and girls feel safer travelling by day than at night. They change their behaviour and their travel habits in order to make themselves feel more secure.

Men, and drunk men in particular, can be an intimidating presence on public transport, particularly at the weekend. Unreliable services turn women off using public transport, seeing them drive or take an Uber rather than risk waiting about in the dark for a bus that doesn’t turn up.

Around a third of women said they felt afraid to travel alone at night – albeit this was a small sample size of 35 women. They reported being followed, harassed, intimidated. They gave a raft of safety measures they take: keeping keys between their fingers as a weapon, wearing flat shoes to be able to run, phoning friends to make their whereabouts known.

As with so many of these things, the question is begged: Did we really need a report to tell us this?

These so-called safety tips have been passed from woman to girl, woman to woman and girl to girl for forever. We have been banging on about intimidating male behaviour for decades.

The solution, of course, and as Jenny Gilruth points out, is for men to endeavour to behave themselves in public and leave women well alone.

But we know that’s pie in the sky so women make accommodations instead.

The Transport Scotland report makes 10 recommendations, among them that rail passengers should face harsher penalties for drinking alcohol on trains in Scotland. ScotRail has expressed a preference for dry routes and dry trains at specific times, such as around major sporting events, rather than the current alcohol ban. The booze bans are of general benefit, rather than being specifically to make women feel more confident, and are designed to cut anti-social behaviour.

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Dry carriages to provide safe spaces for women would be just as short sighted as women-only carriages. Carriages should already be dry, if enforcement was working correctly. Would there be the increase in staff and the willing to stop a drunk or a determined pest from taking up space on a dry carriage?

Improved lighting at stations is another, more workable, suggestion as a way to make women feel more confident. And that’s really the point. “Unanimously,” the report reads, “Women felt safer travelling in the day rather than at night or in the dark.”

It’s less about safety and more about perceptions of safety. Some women, Ms Gilruth said, are in a constant state of vigilance. Which is a dreadful, stressful way to live and, worse, a self-limiting way to live.

For many women the issue is not actual incidents that have happened to them, but the fear of what may happen. Of course, far too many women have anecdotes about harassment and intimidation – or worse – on public transport. I have my own fair share, from mild, irritating comments to a chap who sat down next to me on a train, undid his trousers and, er, took himself in hand.

As I’ve written about plenty of times, I love travelling solo and I love walking and running at night. I refuse, point blank, to be intimidated into staying at home or modifying my behaviour. That, though, is a very unusual position and one that gives my friends the collywobbles. I hate that, the impact my decisions have on the friends who care about me.


But our fear restricts us and becomes self-perpetuating. The more women stay off the streets, the more desolate and intimidating the streets. The more desolate and intimidating the streets, the more women stay off them.

We’re told so often that women are unsafe on public transport, that we are not safe walking home at night. We shouldn’t be alone in the evenings in public spaces, such as restaurants and gyms or gigs or movie theatres.

The reality doesn’t quite stand up, however. Men are far more likely to be attacked in public by strangers than women are. Women are more unsafe at home, in the hands of the men who are supposed to care for them, than they are from strangers.

It is easier for women to take precautions about how they move around in public than it is to put precautions in place at home. It’s also far easier to chide women for their behaviour in public. Out at night and something happens? Your own fault.

Walking alone? Your own fault.

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Much easier to make women feel bad about their actions than change male behaviour. So much easier to frighten women and have them self-police than tackle the ingrained problem of misogyny. We need to make sure women are informed of dangers without the risk being exaggerated. Otherwise you are telling women that public spaces are only for men.

In this political climate it’s become unfashionable to advocate for balance but let’s make it fashionable. We can tell women it’s alright to take steps that make themselves feel better while also advocating for a measured perspective on real risks. We can say be careful but don’t be so afraid. We can say, firmly, these streets, these rail carriages, these bus stops are for you.

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