What Do Women (Transit Users) Want?

With gas creeping (or it that racing?) toward $5 a gallon, transit advocates and transit system operators have been tallying the number of new riders with a sense of "our time has come." For transit-dependent riders, however, the effect of high-priced gas is has been more problematic.

And for some women riders, transit dependency may be a frightening, unwanted outcome of higher prices at the pump.

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Because of recent ridership gains, Metro's trains and buses are more crowded, with loads that often run well above 100 percent of the available seating. On some bus routes, it's not uncommon for a loaded rush-hour bus to blow past stops, leaving frustrated passengers waiting anxiously for the next bus. (Noted in this Where We Are posting.)

And Metro's realignment of transit services has eliminated some bus lines or spliced them into feeders for the Rapid (limited stop) buses. That means more walking to and from stops, more frequent transfers, more waiting at typically bleak bus stops, and new costs (since each leg of a trip is full fare unless you have a monthly pass or a $5 day pass).

For low-income women who made choices where to live or work because of access to a now missing bus line, the alternatives include buying a clunker that will clog city streets, moving, or finding a new job. None of these is an easy choice.

Crowding and inconvenience are perennial customer service problems for Metro, whose focus has long been on building high-cost infrastructure rather than providing every rider with fast, clean and easily accessible transportation. And for women riders, there are other, equally important values missing from Metro's transit plans.

A nationwide survey of transit agencies in the United States led by Anastasia Loukaitou-Sideris, professor and former chair of the Department of Urban Planning at UCLA (with the support of the Mineta Transportation Institute), found that "Women have distinct safety/security needs and are fearful of certain transit settings. This leads some women to avoid using public transit at specific times or at all. The situation is more acute for particular groups, who because of age, income, type of occupation, sexual preference, and place of residence feel more vulnerable to victimization and harassment than others."

The report also noted the gap between what a transit agency regards as secure and what women riders look for in a safe setting. According to the report, "There is a mismatch between the safety/security needs and desires of female transit riders and the types and locations of strategies that transit agencies use. Train platforms, trains, and buses are the focus of security efforts, while the use of safety/security strategies is low at bus stops, even though most women riders report higher levels of anxiety waiting at the bus stop than they do when riding on the transit vehicle."

The report went on to describe what women riders wanted from transit planners: fully lighting bus stops and the streets leading to them, relocating stops to sites that created a greater sense of security, designing transit shelters for surveillance from adjacent businesses, offering by-request stops during late evening hours, and giving every stop a real-time display of arrival times. Women also preferred the presence of transit staff members to technology (such as closed circuit TV cameras).

Loukaitou-Sideris' recommends a "whole journey" approach to dealing with perceptions of safety and convenience, and not just for women rides. According to Loukaitou-Sideris, studies show that more crime tends to happen in the vicinity of a bus stop or train station than at the stop or station itself. She urges transit planners to understand all the components of a transit experience: park-and-ride lots, escalators, elevators, platforms, transit vehicles and even the nearby neighborhood.

As Loukaitou-Sideris points out, "Transportation planners really need to look at women's fears in transportation settings and know that there are things that they can do to ... reduce these fears. These solutions involve policy, design, policing, and outreach and education."

And what's good for women riders will ultimately be good for all riders.

D. J. Waldie, author, historian, and as the New York Times said in 2007, "a gorgeous distiller of architectural and social history," writes about Los Angeles on KCET's SoCal Focus and 1st and Spring blogs.

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