Mind the Gap

(Photo by Tomas Anton Escobar via Unsplash)

Sexual harassment on public transport has plagued the services for decades and disproportionately affects women. In November 2021, official reports of sexual harassment to the British Transport Police soared by 63%. These official figures also ignore the hundreds of incidents that go unreported, which the TfL estimates could account for 90% of all incidents. Cat-calling, staring, up skirting and pressing or rubbing against someone purposefully have all been highlighted in TfLs new campaign encouraging women to report these crimes, but will this new campaign prove fruitful or does the problem require a tougher stance?

Every month, Transport for London (TfL) travellers make approximately 100 million journeys by bus, over 60 million journeys by train and another 10 million journeys using the Overground Service. Over half of these journeys are made by women. In October 2021, TfL joined forces with the British Transport Police, Metropolitan Police Service, Rail Delivery Group and several women’s safety groups to launch a new campaign to tackle sexual harassment on the London Underground Network. A series of posters and media campaigns encourage women to speak up against harassment and report it, even types of harassment that have been difficult to prove, such as staring. In conjunction with this renewed vigour against sexual harassment, TfL has also stated it utilises more than 2,500 police and police community support officers and 500 TfL enforcement officers patrolling the network at any given time. This is in addition to an extensive CCTV network and transport staff. But are these efforts enough?

There are barriers to women reporting sexual harassment that this campaign fails to address. Perhaps, most importantly, many women do not expect anything to come of the report. Fewer than 6% of reported rape cases end in conviction – what hope of a successful conviction could someone reporting leering have? Moreover, the process of actually reporting the incident can be a burden in itself, prolonging a potentially traumatic experience. Overall, it is estimated that fewer than 2% of women go on to report sexual harassment incidents on the tube. Reasons for not reporting the incident are often complex, possibly cultural and inextricably personal. There is also an element of expected sexual harassment than women must endure, normalising an entirely abnormal experience.

Visible Platform is a web-based option aiming to collect data on harassment on the underground network and use it to instigate policy changes. By making reporting an incident ‘as easy as checking your social media’ women are able to report whatever harassment they might have experienced while travelling. The incident can be historical, currently ongoing, major or minor – whatever it is, women are free to share their story in arguably the simplest way possible. The burden no longer falls to one woman fighting for an individual conviction; all the collated experiences act as a powerful data source to highlight the type of harassment women experience and Visible Platform uses their story to fight for an end to violence against women. 

A recent set-back to women’s safety campaigns is the closure of the Night Tube on Friday and Saturday Nights. It was originally started in 2016 as a safer mode of transport to traverse the capital at night. Although it was closed in March 2020 due the pandemic, it was reopened in November 2021 after more than 125,000 people signed a petition to have it reinstated. The petition highlighted the Night Tube was essential for women’s safety, particularly in the wake of the murders of Sarah Everard and Sabina Nessa. The Night Tube may not be perfect, but as the creator of the petition, Ella Watson emphasised, “it is well lit and very efficient…It seems like the safest option”. Despite these efforts, the Night Tube is closed due to strike action for the next six months. The strike began over debates of the introduction of new rosters, which scheduled ‘up to four night shift weekends per year’. According to Caitlin Slim, Co-Founder and Director of Visible Platform, none of the reports they have received have highlighted the tube strikes as contributing to increased harassment at these times. However, she said “I imagine it’s very possible they have forced women to get on more packed tubes or take a longer route, which could contribute to increased vulnerability”. With 5 months of strike action remaining, it is entirely possible to we will see a trend of increased harassment occurring at these times.

Thus, although the new campaign raises awareness of the types of sexual harassment people may not realise they can report, it arguably does not go far enough to increase women’s safety on TfL services. Moreover, the interruption of the Night Tube could have potentially damaging effects to women’s safety as they are forced to travel via less safe options.

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