An Unsustainable Problem: Sexual Harassment on Public Transportation

Santa Monica College student inside a Big Blue Bus takes public transportation to get home after classes, though there are many benefits in using public transportation there is a downside that stays silent. Anonymous student gets in the Big Blue Bus, her face is hidden by a window's divisor. Sexual harassment is an issue many students have experienced in their commutes, but few have reported it to Santa Monica Campus Police. Santa Monica College, 17th street and Montana Ave, Santa Monica on May 14,2019. (The Corsair/ Janet Ali)

Santa Monica College student inside a Big Blue Bus takes public transportation to get home after classes, though there are many benefits in using public transportation there is a downside that stays silent. Anonymous student gets in the Big Blue Bus, her face is hidden by a window's divisor. Sexual harassment is an issue many students have experienced in their commutes, but few have reported it to Santa Monica Campus Police. Santa Monica College, 17th street and Montana Ave, Santa Monica on May 14,2019. (The Corsair/ Janet Ali)

A man who stands a little too close, a wandering hand that "accidentally" brushes a woman's breasts, a lewd gesture, a crude remark – these are familiar scenes, ones experienced by countless women all over the world during their daily commute.

In recent years, Santa Monica College (SMC) has made a concentrated effort to encourage students to use alternative forms of transportation to get to campus, rather than relying on driving. According to SMC's website, 70% of SMC students use alternative transportation. "They know that a bus, train, carpool, bike, scooter, or a walking trip saves money and is less stressful than driving," the website states.

While there are numerous advantages to using public transit – reducing carbon emissions, avoiding Los Angeles's infamous traffic, not worrying about parking – there is, however, a pressing issue that many students face during their commute: sexual harassment.

One SMC student, who asked not to be named, stated that last fall, a man sat across from her while riding the Expo line. "He kept staring at me, but I was just listening to music and tried to ignore it," she said. "The next time I looked over at him, he had his hand down his pants and it was pretty obvious he was masturbating while staring and smiling at me. I was so shocked and I didn't know what to do...Even though he wasn't touching me, I still felt unsafe."

"After that experience, it took me a few days until I felt comfortable to take the train again…I felt so powerless in that moment. I was too scared to say anything to him myself because I wasn't sure what he would do," the student added.

Incidents like these are not uncommon. Another student, who is in her second year at SMC, said, "Most of the incidents that happened to me usually happen when I'm leaving campus and on my way to the metro station. I have been followed all the way from the main campus to the 17th street station...A student followed me the whole time and was trying to get my number and Instagram. I said no more than one time but he never stopped asking."

According to the Global Mobility Report, which was published in 2017, women's mobility is often hampered by security concerns. "The lack of personal security, or the inability to use public transport without the fear of being victimized – either while traveling on board a public transport mode, walking to or from the transit facility or stop, or waiting at a bus, transit stop, or station platform – can substantially decrease the attractiveness of public transit," the report found.

In 2017, the Los Angeles County Metro Transit Alliance (MTA) found that 17% of riders in the county have experienced some form of sexual harassment on Metro buses and trains. In response, the MTA has taken several steps to eliminate sexual harassment, including creating both a hotline and an app to report incidents, and increasing the presence of law enforcement officials on transit.

Jennie Campos, Community Engagement Officer for Big Blue Bus (BBB), stated that if someone experiences any type of sexual harassment while on the bus, they should alert the bus operator or call 9-1-1.

"Big Blue Bus is making safety investments to improve the experience for all customers and we are taking concrete steps to contract with law enforcement to ride our buses, respond to calls, and monitor the system starting this fall," Campos added.

As a community college, SMC students are especially vulnerable to sexual harassment on public transportation. Sustainability Manager Ferris Kawar stated that though only two bus-related incidents have been reported to campus police in the past year, more may have occurred that were not reported.

The first anonymous SMC student, who did not report her experiences to the police, added, "As a girl, I always make sure I have my pepper spray and my phone on me when I take public transit, and because of my past experiences, I'm always scared of what might happen. It sucks to have to live in fear but I have to take precautions just to make sure I'm safe."

Public transportation has always been convenient because its price, speed and practicality but in some cases students face sexual harassment and those cases stay in the closet. Student poses with a pamphlet to cover her identity. Santa Monica College, Santa Monica, California. May 14, 2019. (The Corsair/ Janet Ali)

Public transportation has always been convenient because its price, speed and practicality but in some cases students face sexual harassment and those cases stay in the closet. Student poses with a pamphlet to cover her identity. Santa Monica College, Santa Monica, California. May 14, 2019. (The Corsair/ Janet Ali)

Kawar stressed that any incidents should be reported to campus police right away. "Students deserve to feel safe riding public transportation together," he said.

In the wake of the #metoo movement and the increased awareness of the prevalence of sexual harassment, many organizations, including schools and transit authorities, have made strides toward protecting citizens. There is, however, still a long way to go.