Street Harassment on Public Transit

Riders worry about unwanted harassment on public transit. Agencies and policymakers are partnering with community organizations to address harassment and improve rider experience.
By Arianna Smith
Managing Editor
Transit California

Agencies across California are committed to improving passenger and operator experience while bringing back ridership to pre-pandemic levels, but riders’ fear of street harassment could undermine efforts to reach these goals.

The US Department of Health and Human Services’ Office on Women’s Health describes street harassment as “behavior or comments that can be sexual but are not always and may target your sex, gender, age, religion, nationality, race, ethnicity, or sexual orientation.”  Those who harass others in this way often target women, LGBTQ+ and gender non-conforming people, disabled people, and people of color.  

Transit is a public space where many people experience street harassment, and the statute reflects lawmakers’ desire to deter harassing behavior.  Certain behavior on transit vehicles or at transit facilities is illegal under California law and can be reported to authorities, including disturbing people by “making loud or unreasonable noise,” “engaging in boisterous or unruly behavior,” blocking a person’s path, or spitting on a person.  

Fear of experiencing street harassment can dramatically impact how some populations use – or avoid using – transit.  A 2019 LA Metro study found that women respondents noted safety as their top concern and top barrier to using transit, with 40% of women riders feeling unsafe on daytime Metro trips and 80% feeling unsafe at night.  Many others felt unsafe waiting at stops and stations.  The same study reported that non-binary individuals were most likely to report an experience of sexual harassment on transit.  

BART’s passengers are reporting similar experiences: in 2020, BART added a question to its Passenger Environment survey asking passengers if they experienced gender-based sexual harassment on BART transit systems within the previous six months, with an average of 9.4% respondents reporting such harassment over 10 three-month reporting periods.

While street harassment can be deeply distressing to victims, often the behavior isn’t illegal.

“It’s not criminal because people can say horrible things, and unless they’re threatening to physically harm you, it’s usually First Amendment protected,” said Annie Lee, Managing Director of Chinese for Affirmative Action and a leader of the national coalition Stop AAPI Hate, which was founded in response to the escalation of anti-Asian American and Pacific Islander racism and discrimination during the COVID-19 pandemic.  A 2022 Stop AAPI Hate report about hate incidents against the AAPI community found that the vast majority of harmful incidents were non-criminal, 67% involved verbal harassment, and 9% occurred on transit.

Lee explained why such harassment on transit is of great concern to members of the AAPI community and others: “It is really important because it is impacting how we move through our public spaces and that puts a burden on us to cross the street or take a different bus or change routes.”

Transit agencies across the state recognize the negative impacts of street harassment on their riders and operators, and they are implementing a variety of local solutions to reduce incidents.

In March 2023, LA Metro officially launched a pilot program to deploy 300 Metro Ambassadors across its system. The Ambassadors, who are not security officers, have been trained to help passengers proactively and provide a “welcoming and visible” presence, as well as reporting safety concerns – all issues that many passengers have reported as being important aspects of providing a comfortable riding experience.  They also report maintenance concerns, help passengers navigate the system and pay fares, connect people experiencing homelessness to services, and provide general customer service.  

“In survey after survey, our customers have told us that they want more wrap-around support for riders on Metro,” said Metro CEO Stephanie Wiggins. “Metro Ambassadors are a key part of delivering that support, along with the other layers of our Metro team." 

In April 2021, BART partnered with the Bay Area based advocacy organizations Alliance for Girls, Betti Ono, Black Girls Brilliance, and The Unity Council’s Latinx Mentorship and Achievement Program to launch the Not One More Girl Campaign to prevent sexual harassment.  The campaign included hiring and training a cadre of unarmed safety ambassadors who speak multiple languages, adding sexual harassment to BART’s customer code of conduct, posting public awareness artwork and posters selected by youth, and the addition of non-criminal unwanted sexual harassment category to its BART Watch reporting app.

At the one-year anniversary of the campaign, Dr. L.B. Williams, Founding Director of Black Girls Brilliance, said, “Safety on public transit is a civil rights issue. When Black and Latinx girls and gender expansive youth can travel freely through the city with no threat of harm, we are all safer. These communities have a right to be protected. The culture of violence on our public transit systems is unacceptable. This initiative shows what can happen when transit agencies are accountable to the wellbeing of their riders and make a deep commitment to collaborate with those most impacted to provide safe and just passageways. Together we are transforming the culture of ridership.”

Agencies that serve smaller regions and populations are also taking steps to make their systems safer and rider experiences more comfortable.  Christy Wegener, Executive Director of Livermore-Amador Valley Transit Authority (LAVTA Wheels), reports, “Our operations team relies heavily on the nine cameras that are positioned on each bus, and we use that footage to work with police or other institutions to identify passengers who break the rules, or are disruptive, unsafe, or unruly. Our management team will also proudly put on their Wheels vests and go into the field to provide support and to importantly show our workforce that they are not alone when facing challenging customer situations.”   LAVTA has also installed onboard notices, plays audio announcements about inappropriate conduct, and works with schools to send out notices alerting families to issues on School Tripper routes.  The agency will soon provide de-escalation training to operators.

The California Transit Association is working with members of the State Legislature and the Governor’s Administration to provide a critical statewide tool that, once implemented, transit agencies will be able to use as a starting point for developing regional solutions.  The Association is supporting Senate Bill 434, legislation by Senator Dave Min (D-Irvine) that requires California’s ten public transit systems with the most annual unlinked passenger trips to collect and publish survey data on riders’ demographic information and experiences with safety.  Ultimately, that survey data would help inform efforts to improve rider safety and reduce harassment on public transit.  The measure builds on the 2022 law by Senator Min that requires the Mineta Transportation Institute (MTI) at San Jose State University to develop the survey.
Min said of the bill, “No Californian should feel unsafe commuting from one place to the next. Period.  As we rebuild and reimagine a post-pandemic world, improving public transit should top our list of priorities. I’m proud to introduce this bill in partnership with Stop AAPI Hate to finally address the systemic safety issues that have plagued our public transit systems for too long. . . . It’s time we step up and give public transit providers the tools necessary to keep all passengers safe.”  SB 434 has bipartisan support and passed its first policy and fiscal committee votes with no opposing votes.

The state of California recently launched a portal for individuals to report experiences of harassment or hate crimes, whether those incidents occurred on transit or anywhere else.  California vs. Hate is a non-emergency network administered by the California Civil Rights Department.  People can report incidents online or by phone to be connected to culturally competent, trauma-informed professionals and next-steps resources, which can include legal, financial, mental health, or mediation services.  Law enforcement is not contacted or provided the report unless the reporter requests it.  Reports of hate incidents are collected and periodically analyzed, ultimately to help reduce and prevent such incidents.

“Harassment is so pervasive,” said Lee of Stop AAPI Hate. “It happens all the time . . . but when you stop and think about it, we actually don’t have to treat each other this way, and we don’t have to live in a world like this.  It seems impossible to change human behavior, but we have done it before through public health campaigns that have stopped smoking, and that have encouraged people to wear seatbelts. . . . I think we can do this with street harassment. We are so grateful for the Association's support and collaboration.”

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