Women on Transit: The Gendered Navigation of Public Space

Jana Korn, C'18, surveys female students on sexual violence on public transportation.

Thursday, May 3, 2018

By Jane Carroll

Jana Korn, C'18

When College senior Jana Korn arrived in Santiago, Chile, last spring for a semester abroad, the first thing she noticed was the lively street life of Chile’s largest city. “People were loud on the train and loud on the street and picnicking and just living outside more,” says Korn.

The urban studies major from Washington, D.C. began to think about who she was surrounded by on the street and while traveling on Santiago’s heavily used public transportation system—a feeling of vulnerability that was familiar to her from riding D.C.’s Metro system.

“I never had been in a place where trains and buses get so crowded,” she says. “I had to learn to be comfortable squished in with total strangers. I think it’s an experience that any woman or girl can speak to, of realizing you’re surrounded on all sides by strange men—having to think intentionally about how you’re standing and where you’re placing your body.”

But overcrowding wasn’t always the issue. A few weeks into her semester she was waiting for a bus late one night and realized she was alone at the bus stop. “When I got on the bus I was the only passenger, but I felt relieved that the bus driver was a woman,” she says. “I thought, ‘Okay. There’s another woman here.’”

This sense of heightened awareness percolated into research questions that would form the basis of Korn’s senior thesis project: How do feelings of vulnerability affect decisions women make about traveling in cities? How does a fear of violence restrict women’s mobility, and what are the implications for gender equity?

Working with Penn advisors Alec Gershberg, Senior Lecturer in Sociology and Urban Studies, and Elaine Simon, Co-Director of the Urban Studies Program, Korn devised a survey for female students at Universidad de Chile and Pontificia Universidad Católica—the two schools where she was taking classes—as well as at Universidad Diego Portales. Through email listservs and a Facebook group, she queried thousands of female students aged 18 through 32, asking about their experiences on Santiago’s transit system and whether they had ever been victims of or witnesses to sexual violence while using public transportation.

“For the study, I defined sexual violence as anything from verbal harassment, such as cat-calling, to rape,” Korn explains, “anything that would cause a woman to feel threatened or unsafe.” The survey asked what factors the women took into account when choosing a route or time of day to travel, as well as what changes or improvements might make them feel safer.

More than 400 students responded, with over 90 percent reporting that they had experienced or witnessed sexual violence while on public transit.

One curious finding was a discrepancy between the large number of woman who said they view sexual violence as a persistent problem and a smaller number reporting that they personally felt the space was unsafe. “I think that gets to how society in general normalizes sexual violence,” says Korn.

It also could reflect the demographics of the survey participants. “I drew from a pretty privileged survey sample, since they were university students,” Korn says, “Some women said, ‘At night I’ll call an Uber or my mom will pick me up in her car. But very few low-income people in Santiago have access to a private car, so they have fewer options for getting around.” She thinks the victimization rates of low-income and other marginalized women would have been even higher. “Many cities do mobilization surveys as part of their census, but Santiago doesn’t divide it by gender, so that research doesn’t even exist.”
Korn’s study outlined three key areas of improvement that cities could focus on to improve the safety of women: infrastructure, reporting, and awareness.

“If the infrastructure functions as it should, if it runs on time, women feel safer,” she says. “Buses and trains are less crowded when they are not delayed. Better lighting and countdown clocks—there’s pretty interesting research showing that if a bus stop or train platform has a countdown clock, women feel safer because they can wait above-ground before going down to the platform. I often think about that when I’m alone at night on a SEPTA platform in Philadelphia.”

Quick reporting systems that facilitate a direct connection between transit riders, bystanders, operators, and law enforcement can promote shared responsibility in confronting sexual violence. “There’s a pretty cool app they’ve developed in Quito, Ecuador,” Korn notes. “If you are on a bus or train and something’s happening to you, you text a message to a phone number with the number of your bus and they’ll alert the driver.”

The third type of intervention, awareness campaigns, give women the message that they are not alone and that harassment and violence should not be tolerated. A survey of Washington D.C.’s Metro system revealed that riders who saw public service messages encouraging victims to report incidents of harassment were twice as likely to report them as those who did not see the messages. 

Korn summarized her research and recommendations in a recent op-ed for the online magazine Next City. She hopes to publish her thesis as well.

After graduation this spring, she is unsure about what comes next, but urban life will likely remain a focus. “I’m always interested in questions like ‘Who is the city for? Who are public spaces for?’ That’s what I think about a whole lot.”