Philbrick: How can we stop harassment on public transit?
A VTA light rail train arrives at the Metro/Airport station in San Jose in this file photo.

The train car is empty, but the man sits in the seat right beside you. When you avoid eye contact, he stares too long at you. Brushes his hand against your leg. There is nowhere to go and no one to tell, and suddenly an easy ride home feels increasingly uncomfortable and potentially dangerous.

Many women who use public transportation have come to expect harassment as part of the experience — this is unacceptable. In order to change this disturbing reality, the facts must first be documented: why is this happening, who is it happening to and what can be done now and in the long run to stop it?

Recently, researchers from the Mineta Transportation Institute developed a survey tool that California transit operators can use to gather information from passengers about the extent, location and characteristics of any street harassment they have experienced.

The study was conducted in accordance with Senate Bill 1161, which was introduced by state Sen. Dave Min in 2022. More recent legislation from Sen. Min, Senate Bill 434, requires California’s 10 largest transit agencies to document passenger experiences with harassment using the Mineta Transportation Institute survey or an equivalent and report the findings by the end of 2024. The survey instrument was produced in English, Spanish and Chinese. It is also available in 11 Asian American Pacific Islander (AAPI) languages thanks to support from Stop AAPI Hate.

Street harassment can include verbal, non-verbal and physical behaviors. Examples include cat-calling, racist gestures, groping and spitting. Harassment acutely affects mental health and can even cause post-traumatic stress disorder symptoms and/or worsen existing depression, anxiety and other mental health conditions. Even just the fear of harassment and these behaviors escalating into further harm leads many potential transit riders to ride only at certain times of day or only when traveling with a companion — some even stop riding transit altogether.

Unfortunately, street harassment happens everywhere, including on transit. But this widely recognized phenomenon has historically gone largely undocumented. Although harassers can target victims based on different personal characteristics such as perceived gender, race, disability or sexual orientation, harassment can happen to anyone.

This is not a California or even a U.S. problem. For example, despite Japan’s low crime rate, the country has long grappled with rising sexual assault on transit despite efforts to combat it like introducing women-only train cars. Some reports indicate about 75% of all Japanese women have been groped — but few victims report when they have been assaulted, possibly due to fear of not being believed or not supported.

Nationally, the past few years have seen a rise in harassment and hate crimes against AAPI individuals. Here in California and around the world, women, girls and gender-expansive individuals are most likely to be targeted. Throughout the U.S., this is also especially true of girls and women who are low income and/or people of color.

The ongoing issue of street harassment on public transportation demands urgent attention. Street harassment can impact individuals regardless of gender, race or background, but more research must be done on who is most likely to be targeted and how to ensure their safety. Collective efforts toward dismantling the culture of harassment and prioritizing the well-being of vulnerable passengers will foster a safer and more inclusive public transportation environment for all.

San José Spotlight columnist Karen E. Philbrick is the executive director of the Mineta Transportation Institute, a research institute focusing on multimodal surface transportation policy and management issues.

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