Monday, November 5, 2018

Cities for women? Transit and gendered spaces

Bus route changes that force longer walks, especially at night, can be particularly discouraging to female transit passengers. Photo: Charlotte Area Transit System bus, in 2010, by James Willamor via Flickr - CC BY-SA 2.0

I recently found myself listening in on a group call with Daphne Spain, author of Gendered Spaces (1992) and How Women Saved the City (2002). Spain, a sociologist at University of Virginia, studies and writes about ways women and men historically have been treated differently in both public and private spaces. And I now have two more books on my To Read list.

Spain talked about public transit, among other topics, and at one point noted India has created women-only trains because of the extreme harassment women there can experience.

As it happened, the conversation came a few days after I saw the viral video, “A Scary Time,” by Lynzy Lab. With more than 1.3 million views as of Nov. 5, the video from Lab, a dance lecturer at Texas State University, mocks some discussion that arose after the Brett Kavanaugh hearings in Congress that men’s fear of being wrongly accused of sexual improprieties dwarfs the fears women live with over sexual assault, harassment and not being believed.

Accompanied by a ukulele, and ending with a plea to vote Nov. 6, Lab sings, in part:

“I can’t walk to my car late at night while on the phone / I can’t open up my windows when I’m home alone / I can’t go to the bar without a chaperone … / I can’t use public transportation after 7 p.m. / … And I can’t ever leave my drink unattended / But it sure is a scary time for boys … / I can’t live in an apartment if it’s on the first floor … / I can’t have another drink even if I want more … / I can’t jog around the city with headphones on my ears. … / And so on.

But back to Spain. She noted that women are more dependent on public transit than men. She also mentioned that if bus route planning took greater notice of women’s concerns that bus service would run later into the night to accommodate night-shift workers at places like hospitals. (This, obviously, applies to male night-shift workers, too. But women are disproportionately more likely to use transit, and more likely to live in poverty, meaning they can’t afford to own a car.)

This resonated loudly. The Charlotte Area Transit System recently redesigned some of its routes, to make them speedier and more convenient to more passengers. It’s adding more cross-town routes. Without a massive infusion of funding – not possible in an era when federal transit funds are shrinking and the transit-hostile N.C. state legislature must OK any new sales taxes for places like Charlotte – this means trade-offs are required. The route changes dropped some stops on neighborhood streets and moved them to thoroughfares. That means some riders must walk farther.

A Charlotte Observer article on the pluses and minuses of the changes has this passage, with echoes of Spain’s remarks:

One rider impacted by CATS’ changes is Alberta Alexander, who works nights at a restaurant. Her bus stop on a residential street near Tuckaseegee Road has been eliminated by the changes. 

“It’s my only transportation,” she said. “If I do not drive, and they’re changing these buses and changing these routes, I have no other option.”

Now, if she gets off work late, she’ll have to walk from Tuckaseegee to her house at night, instead of getting off much closer on State or Sumter streets.

“Before the changes, I had a bus stop in a 2-1/2 block radius,” she said. “I wasn’t afraid to walk home.”

Men as well as women walking alone on a dark, deserted street are vulnerable to muggings, robberies, etc. But women, often less physically able to overpower any attacker, make easier targets. Plus they experience the additional fear of sexual assaults. Consider this, as reported in a Next City article, “Designing Designing Gender Into and Out of Public Space”: “A 2014 Hollaback!/Cornell University study found that 93.4 percent of women surveyed globally had experienced verbal or nonverbal street harassment in the last year, and more than half had been groped …”

This isn’t meant to say the CATS bus route changes were, on balance, a mistake. As CATS chief operations planning officer Larry Kopf told The Observer, while some riders might have a longer walk or lose a stop nearby, the majority will benefit from faster bus trips and more efficient routes.

But it’s important to ensure that the concerns of women – about walking to bus stops along well-lit, not deserted streets, for instance – are treated seriously when changes are proposed.

And this is not just an issue for CATS. The city of Charlotte should pay more attention to, and put more money into, making streets safer for all pedestrians, for the disabled, and for people riding bicycles (and today, scooters). Fewer than half the streets in Mecklenburg County have a sidewalk on even one side.
Charlotte has many streets without sidewalks, like this one in a neighborhood near SouthPark. That can make pedestrians, especially women,  feel unsafe, particularly in the dark. Photo: Mary Newsom
Building a well-used, safe transit system means more than better and more frequent routes. It requires more sidewalks, improved sidewalks, better street-lighting (with energy-efficient LED lights that point downward so as to avoid blinding glare), and requiring development that creates “eyes on the street,” to reduce deserted areas.

Daphne Spain, in the conversation last month, mentioned that she serves on the Albemarle County (Va.) planning commission. In her time on the commission, she noted she hasn’t worked with a single female developer. “The people building our cities,” she said, “are still men.”