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A Day of Compassion: In the Shoes of Women Riding Public Transit

Updated: Jan 22, 2020

union station travel safety

I live in Los Angeles, and regularly ride the Metro (subway) system to and from work. I am also a self-defense instructor who in addition to hands-on physical techniques, I teach situational awareness in order to prevent becoming a victim of violence or crime.

In my day-to-day commute I see the bitter failings of our society – how we have marginalized and thrown away people with mental illness, addiction issues and living in poverty. Folks who are homeless are the easiest to spot on the train. These folks are often demonized and feared by others and they generally catch our attention first. Ironically however, these folks living on the streets are the most likely to face violence in their day to day life.

But there is another group of folks in our midst who are even more invisible than the demonized homeless.

As a woman, its rather embarrassing to admit that I’ve missed this group all this time. It’s easy to get caught up in the hysteria around homelessness. But this group came to my attention after reading “Understanding How Women Travel”, a report by L.A. Metro. This report is a review of primary and secondary research looking at how women move and travel.

When I think “travel” I generally think of exciting locations, vacations and getting away from it all. But reading this report underscored what a privileged view that is. The travel referred to in the report is more mundane and quotidian. It’s not a vacation, but rather going to work, shopping, taking kids to school, doctor’s appointments, etc., all often with children in tow and juggling bags and packages. This is the far cry from what most of us self-defense instructors think of when we think of how to travel safely. But because this is the everyday reality for many women, it is perhaps more important to think about than not just getting hustled and ripped off on our next vacation.

What struck me the most about the report is two things:

First, that women are more likely to use public transportation and the number one reason is because they don’t have a car. Contrast this to men who are more likely to drive. This difference is rooted in inequality both in the pay gap, types of work, expectations of running errands and women being more likely to relinquish the car in a one vehicle household. This means that though women are at higher risk and express greater fear on public transit than men, women still take public transit because they have no other option.

travel safety for women

Second, is that women who do not have a car are required to “trip-chain” their trips. This means they aren’t just using public transit to go to and from work – but also to run errands, manage their children’s activities and just about anything needing to be done during the day.

how women travel

It was within this context of reading the report that I began my “day of compassion”, an assignment for my class, Understanding Violence through Emory University. While I had noticed women getting on the train before juggling their shopping bags and herding children, I generally looked past them and stayed pre-occupied with my own thoughts. But after reading the Metro report, I now see more.

As they board I now picture their broader experience long before I ever see them:

  • struggling with their carts while keeping an eye on their children just to get down to the platform

  • taking the escalator to and from the platform thinking it is probably the safer option than an isolated elevator... but how safe is it really with kids and shopping bags to juggle?

  • getting through the turnstiles at the ticket point. There is generally only one entry point without bars to allow for carts and luggage, but these become bottlenecked in rush-hour

  • Metro requires separate TAP cards for each rider over age 5, meaning they have to purchase, load, manage and tap multiple TAP cards all while still juggling kids and groceries.

travel safety for families

All this is long before even getting in the train. Then there’s getting on the train and I’m sure the prayer they may send up for a safe and out-of-the-way spot for them to secure themselves with their charges in their care. Never mind all the pushing through to get on and off.

travel safety for women

So what has become a brief observation of a woman getting on the train with her children and packages, has become seeing the bigger picture of everything she has to navigate.

These observations have extended beyond the 24 hours of compassion required for my day of compassion assignment. Now that I’ve paid closer attention to what these women experience, I continue to hold the doors when I see them running to catch the train or make silly faces at her crying child just to give her a moment to catch her breath.

union station women travel safety

But beyond the micro random acts of kindness, this has me re-thinking my responsibilities as a self-defense instructor.

One of the tactics I teach my students to become more situationally aware, is to “think like a bad guy”. This means identifying who is most likely to be targeted for a street crime so that students can modify their own behavior and become harder targets. The report and day of compassion have shown me that these women are incredibly vulnerable, but likely may be the ones least able to access training.

women travel inequality safety

travel safety for women

Alternatively, it’s made me consider what they may have to teach me that they have had to develop out of necessity.

From now on when I think “travel safety” I’m now thinking more day-to-day and how to reach folks who perhaps need it the most.

All photos and graphics from L.A. Metro's report, "Understanding How Women Travel"

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