Illustration by Toby Morris

What is being done about sexual harassment on public transport?

Commute week: Some encounter it routinely, for others its existence may come as a surprise. Is enough being done to combat sexual harassment on our public transport networks? Alex Casey talks to the people trying to change your commute for the better.

It was, sadly, the first penis I ever saw in real life. I was coming home from school on the 224 bus to Mt Albert, and he was wearing a big army jacket and violently masturbating in the seat across from me. We were sitting near the back, the rational part of my brain muttering that I needed to get up and tell the driver, the irrational part screaming that, if I moved a muscle, I would definitely, get something thrown in my hair just like Miggs did to Clarice in The Silence of the Lambs.

I hit the buzzer and ran off the bus via the back door, miles from my house. I didn’t tell the driver, I didn’t tell the police, I didn’t tell my Mum. I felt completely disgusting, then I felt bad for not doing anything, then I forgot about it altogether.

My commuting experience has, luckily, not yielded such horrors since, but there’s been no shortage of other situations that really put on a dampener on the ol’ cheerful journey home. I’ve had to call the police after a man on Karangahape Road was threatening to punch the glass bus stop I was sitting in. I’ve had a man breathe “gorgeous” down my neck while I was topping up my Hop card. That was last week. When I’ve chosen walking over bussing, a group of men have yelled “suck my dick” from their car, which seems like an ineffectual technique but OK.

I’m also not alone in these experiences in the slightest.

Melody was catching a bus to work in Wellington one morning when the man sitting next to her grabbed her butt. “Even though it was a full-on grab, my brain still thought, ‘maybe he just did that by accident’.” It was only after she got off the bus that the rage began to descend. “I was so angry that I had not only let him get away with it but I actually put mental effort into excusing him.” She stood shaking on the footpath, and promised herself that, if it happened again, she would shout out to the whole bus.

Natasha was on Auckland’s Western line at 11.30 in the morning when an intoxicated man got on the train at Avondale station. “He sat in the seats in front of me and turned around to face me directly.” After grimacing at her and repeatedly saying uncomfortable things like “hello beautiful”, she turned up the music in her headphones to try and drown him out. At that point, he reached out and tried to stroke her face. “I slapped his hand away. Luckily the train was at my stop so I could run off.”

Sarah was on the Southern train from Britomart when a man began staring at her across the carriage and moved to sit next to her. “He put his hand on my leg and propositioned me to come back to his place, telling me that I had a ‘hot pair of tits’ among other comments about my body.” She had her headphones in and was avoiding eye contact, surreptitiously messaging a friend about what was happening in case things escalated. When she refused his advances, he called her a “stuck up bitch” and got off the train. There were people around them, but nobody asked her if she was OK.

Anecdotally, sexual harassment on public transport seems rife, but it is difficult to quantify. Auckland Transport says it has received three reported incidents of sexual assault since January 2017 – including a woman being grabbed on a train station platform and two instances of inappropriate touching by male passengers on trains – but harassment was harder to measure as it contains a much wider range of potential actions and keywords. In Wellington, there have been three reports of sexual harassment on public transport in the past two years, two involving passengers and one involving a bus driver.

In a recent survey by Women in Urbanism, an organisation aiming to make our towns and cities more inclusive, it was revealed that 71.4% of women have experienced some form of harassment in a public space (including public transport, walking and cycling) before. So where exactly do women have the opportunity to talk about this stuff? “When I’ve been hit on my bike I know exactly what I have to do to report it,” said Emma McInnes from Women in Urbanism. “With harassment, it’s not so obvious. It should be made easier and women should know that the option exists.”

AT advises various methods for reporting harassment – and urges people to contact the police if there are fears for their safety. “Everything is worth reporting.” says Stacey van der Putten, group manager for public transport in Auckland, “If it’s important to you, it’s important to us that you report it. We encourage people to talk to us through the contact centre, the website, customer service, a transport officer or a security guard.” But McInnes argues the process needs to be made even simpler, suggesting an accessible texting service. “People don’t want to go through all those forms and processes to report something,” she says. “It puts up barriers and contributes to people thinking their experience wasn’t a ‘thing’ in the first place.”

Harassment is a thing, and it’s so much of a thing that you might have noticed a new contingent of high-vis Transport Officers on board Auckland’s Western and off-peak Onehunga train lines. They work in pairs to crack down on both fare evasion and “antisocial behaviour”, empowered with both the right to issue fines and the skills to de-escalate situations. Faiekina Vea has been a Transport Officer for two months and knows the signs of harassment all too well. “It comes down to observing customers when they are getting on. How come that man is by himself? Why is his arm around her chair? Why is she looking a bit tense? Then you use those opportunities to pop over and have a little word with them.”

Transport Office Kina to you to sir. Photo: supplied

Faiekina, Kina for short, loves her job in a way that I find almost unnerving. “One of the most exciting things in my life is coming to work, she grins. “I’m always ready to meet new people and build relationships with returning commuters.” After an intensive eight-week training course, she is one of the 168 – and counting – transport officers with a very specific set of skills to combat creeps. Creeps just like the man from my school ride home that day. “We had one man who liked to … fidget … on our service. The moment I found this out, I moved him to the end of the train where he wasn’t visible, and I moved all the other people away from him.” She called the police, and he was apprehended at the next stop in Kingsland.  

There are many other tips and tricks that Kina uses to solve uncomfortable situations on board. She knows self-defence, but she’s never had to use it. One day, when a man sat down next to a woman a little too close, she gently approached him to check his ticket. “Even though I’d already checked hers before, I checked the woman’s ticket with my machine as well. I then used that opportunity to remove her from the situation by telling her there was a problem with her ticket and took her all the other way to the end of the train.” The man got a stern, calm warning, and was kicked off the train at the next station. Basically, do not fuck with Kina.

Humans like Kina aside, there are 950 cameras on the rail network that can be accessed at any time, with emergency points available at every station. It’s crucial that safety is considered in the design of these spaces. “Train stations and bus hubs need to be really well lit, have visible sightlines and open spaces with no places to hide,” says McInnes, before acknowledging that sometimes the problem goes beyond the platform. “We also need to be working on that first and last mile before and after the train station,” she says. “Women have reported struggling on their walks home from the bus and the station, and waiting at the bus stop.”

An Outer Link bus overtaking an Inner Link bus stopped at Victoria Park (Alex Braae)

With a pending future of autonomous vehicles and probably flying cars, McInnes argues it is crucial to consider the experiences and concerns of women in public life before the robots take over completely. “As we move to more autonomous vehicles and trains, it’s possible we will eventually have a lot fewer people patrolling the aisles on board,” she says. “There’s a very real concern that women will not only be more unsafe because there’s less authority present but also their perceived idea of safety will change.” If there’s a time to talk about harassment, it’s now.

Because for all the call centres and transport officers on offer, it still feels like harassment on public transport sits in no man’s land, an occurrence so every day that women have learned to absorb it in silence rather than kick up a fuss. One woman wanted to complain about the man who tried touch her chest on the bus, but was worried she would miss her flight if she did. Another felt disheartened by the fact that other passengers chose to ignore her obvious discomfort during an interaction with a man on the train, so didn’t see the point in telling any authorities. Several others second-guessed the validity of their experiences altogether.

“There’s still a bit of work done to change the culture and make people aware that there’s actually a problem,” says McInnes. “Women are aware of how much sexism we experience every day, but men just have no idea that it’s happening.” Of course, we aren’t talking about just one particular type of woman in this situation either. “Yes, women, in general, are disproportionately affected in public spaces, but it’s especially women of colour and women in the LGBTQIA+ community that are particularly vulnerable in these situations,” says McInnes. “And if we make our city function well for our most vulnerable people, then we will make a city that is better for everyone.”


Read more of Commute Week here 

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