Photo by Ben Schumin on Flickr.
For women and LGBT individuals, street harassment can make using streets, parks, and public transportation unpleasant at best and dangerous at worst. Raising awareness about their experiences can discourage this behavior and produce more sensitive planning as well.
Street harassment is sexual harassment or assault that happens in public places. It generally targets women and lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people. Harassment can include vulgar remarks, insults, stalking, leering, fondling, indecent exposure, and other forms of public humiliation. It can vary in severity, starting with words, but can lead to more violent crimes like rape, assault, and murder.
Although many people experience street harassment daily, they often do not talk back, report, or fight. Collective Action for Safe Spaces, the group that pushed Metro to address assault on trains, is organizing DC residents to speak out against harassment and advocate for safer spaces.
Part of CASS’ mission is to educate and empower harassed groups by reminding them that this kind of harassment does not have to be tolerated. Recently, the group focused its effort on DDOT’s moveDC transportation plan to make sure that the agency takes street harassment into account.
When co-founder Chai Shenoy and executive director Zosia Sztykowski discussed safety issues with DDOT, agency officials primarily talked about driver safety. They wanted to tell DDOT that the built environment and the design of streets and transit facilities can have an impact on safety.
CASS began a campaign to raise awareness in response to DDOT’s public outreach moveDC meetings. When DDOT surveyed residents about their transportation needs, CASS encouraged people to encourage the agency to plan for safety. CASS endorsed creating better connections between neighborhoods, as well as initiatives focused on pedestrian safety and public spaces, like Safe Routes to School.
Previously, CASS successfully organized people to speak about their experiences with sexual harassment on Metro. By speaking out about the issue at public meetings and encouraging victims to tell their stories, they pushed WMATA to start a public awareness campaign, train workers to confront harassment and generally create safer stations and trains for riders. Metro also became the first public transit system to have a reporting system for harassment.
Street safety is not always discussed as part of the built environment. As planners ask the community about their wants and needs, they could ask residents how they feel moving through the environment or what barriers there are to using transit.
Safety walks can also both empower community members to take back their streets and identify areas for improvement. Some simple design factors such as wider sidewalks, better lighting, tree placement, and more open and accessible places can go a long way to combating street harassment.
For instance, long waits to cross the street is one way that pedestrians can become targets. Shorter wait times allow people to get away from a potential assailant.
Feeling safe moving through one’s environment is an important goal and should certainly be a part of the conversation. Safety as a goal in and of itself may not be the best way to plan a city, but working on issues such as lighting and wait times can make a big difference in someone’s life.
Ultimately, speaking out about street harassment and sexual assault can go a long way in changing the culture and make it clear that it is never okay to cat-call a woman walking along the street or waiting for a bus.