This is a Guest Post from Women in Urbanism Aotearoa 

Since the horrific and heart-breaking story of Grace Millane began unfolding, women have been coming forward to talk about all the things they do to protect themselves.

Michèle A’Court lists just some of the actions women take to stay safe, everyday:

“Driving when we’d rather walk, walking well lit streets rather than taking the shortcut, snapping a picture of the cab driver’s ID – women have been socialised to suspect the world means us harm.

We drive to places when we would rather walk; avoid car parks down dark side streets; lock our car doors when we get in as well as when we get out (and check the back seat); and walk in a way that we hope looks confident and bulletproof. We use our peripheral vision to check all the spaces between where we are and where we’re going. We know about walking with our keys between our fingers like a claw, and we’ve worked out how to hold our phones with the emergency call button ready to push, even on a locked screen.

We don’t take handy shortcuts – we go the long way round under the brightest street lights. We are constantly assessing the threat level – does this bit feel safe? How far would I have to run to find good people?

We spend money on private rather than public transport. We automatically ignore the driver’s invitation to use the front seat, and then try not to feel anxious if we see him looking at us a little too often in the rear vision mirror. When I’m travelling solo, I use the app feature to “share” the ride so someone knows which car I’m in and can track my journey.”

This experience is echoed by a multitude of comments coming from women on social media, who are listing the ways in which they compensate, or go out of their way, when men don’t have to, just to get home safe.

This, of course, has been going on a lot longer than just this week. Women have been raped and murdered on our streets and in their homes, and their names forgotten, long before Grace Millane.

Women in Urbanism Aotearoa conducted our own survey earlier this year, asking women about their experiences of our transport networks (cars, buses, trains, ferries, walking and cycling). Here are a few examples from the hundreds that responded.

“Catching the bus is mostly great but it’s horrible getting trapped next to a male passenger that at worst harasses you or at best manspreads into your space.”

“I looked after a friends teen for a year. / she called us anytime. We would drive 30k to get her (from cbd) as zero safe transport home for girls.”

“My nine year old daughter would like me to add that she sometimes feels nervous walking down Ponsonby Rd or K Rd because of too many drunk men outside bars. This is not just at night time. Friday afternoon in Ponsonby can be a minefield.”

(On specific problem areas:)

“Henderson train station after 7pm – deserted, and isolated”

“Public transport at night in the city and beyond.”

“Walking home at night from Epuni station.”

“CBD around lower queen st and Britomart at night… Not pleasant when alone waiting for the bus.”

“Long walk to my car from Sunnyvale train station at night.”

“The West Harbour cycleway feels unsafe despite good lighting because of isolation and lack of visibility from the road and nearby houses. I have felt unsafe on the number 14 bus when a bus driver slapped my hand away when I tried to put my card on the reader.”

“Walking through the city at night (along Queens Street) from university to my bus”

(Source: Unsplash)

Also, please see Alex Casey’s article for more stories from women in Aotearoa.

The impact of these experiences on women is that they change their behaviour and enlist hyper-vigilant safekeeping strategies.

At Women in Urbanism Aotearoa, we know there is very little that can protect women from random acts of violence, committed mostly by men. But as Nicole Kalms wrote earlier this year, we need to be engaging with the stories of women and girls it “is crucial for making cities safer. Planners, architects, the police and politicians need to put aside the traditional expert perspective to learn from – and design for – women’s experiences.”

In Aotearoa, we still have too many places in our city, that are frankly shit, and frankly terrifying places to walk during the day, let alone night.

Women in Urbanism surveyed 500+ women this year, to better understand their experiences of the transport networks in Aotearoa.

Over 75% of women report having been harassed at some point while using our transport network. This could be while using the bus, train, ferry, walking or cycling.

Overwhelmingly, women cited their biggest barrier to travel as being safety concerns (over 50%). This means harassment, discrimination, violence etc.

They overcome this, mostly by choosing to drive instead. And who would blame them.

Most of our respondents said they would prefer to bike as their main mode of travel (30%).

But they don’t. They drive because of safety concerns.

And the safety concerns intersect with traffic safety too. In Kansas City, crime rate has been reduced by 74 percent overall since the pedestrianisation around their central park (Sallis et al., 2014)

Māori and Pasifika women are more likely to live in areas with high car dependency. The consequence is that they have little transport choice. It’s also more likely that they have much further to walk from a bus stop, and if you think the lighting situation is lacking in Kingsland, wait till you hit the real nightmare of Auckland sprawl.

(Sprawl is the perfect setting for a horror film TBH. Gregory Crewdson-Beneath the Roses )

As a community, LGBTQIA+ people face higher rates of poverty, stigma, and marginalisation, which put them at greater risk of sexual assault. They also face higher rates of hate-motivated violence. It’s critical that the voices of these communities are elevated, and bought into the room when we’re planning, designing and engineering spaces and transport options in our city.

Cities that consistently rate highest in terms of safety are those with walkable networks, and good urban design.

In Japan, the crime rate is so low. They have 5 times the population of Australia, but less than four times the homicides Australia has. In conjunction with it being very walkable and having amazing transit this makes it a place where parent’s happily let their children walk, cycle or take public transport to and from school.

(Japan. Source: Unsplash)

Amsterdam is also one of the safest cities. The city is safe for solo women travelers, even after dark. Public transport is still well used, even during the wee hours of the morning.

In Alex Casey’s excellent article, what is being done about sexual harassment on public transport,  she notes that there’s plenty of anecdotal evidence for sexual harassment on public transport. But that it’s 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.”

Auckland Transport does not have an easy and accessible way for people to report harassment on our transport networks. When we have raised this before, we’ve been told by an Auckland Transport official, at one of the highest levels, that “We don’t want to focus on crime as this will deter women from taking public transport.”

How can we begin to tackle this problem, when we’re not even willing to measure it?

Even though we may have a call centre buried somewhere in Auckland Transport. And we have lovely transport officers, harassment is still not being taken seriously. And because of this, women find it difficult to reach out and talk about it. They’re often second guessed, not believed or victim blamed.

And often, women themselves might not know what constitutes sexual harassment, because we’ve been climatised to tolerate a lot of verbal and physical abuse everyday.  

If we can can create an open environment, where women feel safe to call out and report incidents of harassment, this will definitely move the conversation along. We’ll be able to measure the problem, and better address it.  

HERE ARE A LIST OF WAYS TO MAKE OUR CITY BETTER FOR WOMEN:

  • Gender mainstreaming: this is a term used in urban design when access to city spaces must benefit all genders equally. By listening to women and asking questions about their needs, gender mainstreaming has recognised the impact design has on women’s sense of safety. We need to embed this in local and central government.
  • A CPTED(crime prevention through urban design) audit of our city.  
  • Good visibility, clear orientation and pathways, efficient lighting, well maintained public toilets and spaces that foster frequent use.
  • An accessible and easy way of reporting harassment.
  • Support pedestrianisation. Support more car free streets and low speed areas.
  • We need better driver training, so that drivers look-out for hostile situations and understand what they should do in those situations;
  • More diversity in Auckland Transport’s leadership, to make sure women’s issues, and our marginalised communities’ needs, are made significant in the planning and design of our streets and transport network. And when we say diversity, we mean people who use the public transport system – with children, at night, as slow or mobility-impaired or vision-impaired users. We mean people who are not just feminists, but who won’t compromise access and inclusion for some other political or economic agenda;
  • Ensure that with driverless technology, people will still keep their jobs on trains as they are important for maintaining passive surveillance;
  • We need a web app, like Free to Be, where women can “drop a pin” in places where they have felt safe or unsafe;
  • Women are a diverse group. To design for women is to be inclusive of all women and girls, including cis-women, trans-women and intersex women and to take into account their cultural background, socioeconomic status, where they live, their sexuality, dis/ability and age.
  • In your RPTP submission (due this Friday!) We urge you to raise the need for the above.
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48 comments

  1. Thanks for this, everything you have said here is right and just requires those that are holding the cards to look at our city through the prism of someone elses experience. My daughter is growing into a wonderful , caring and considerate pre-teen- just imagine what she can achieve if the city is open and welcoming of her.

  2. We need more CCTV and the police should follow up. Maybe a few guards on the crime hot spots.

    There should also be a police response team that deals with PT and active transport crime.

      1. No, but a lot of women do feel safer with CCTV. This is a thing in China.
        Perceptions of safety are important too.

        1. More CCTV is a bad solution. Think intersectionally. Subjecting young Maori, Pasific Peoples, Middle Eastern, African and Latin American men and women to further oppression and victimisation from the police and private security industry so that rich young white women can have a (falsely) increased perception of safety is not a progressive solution.

        2. I very much disagree. Your argument is predicated on the idea that cctv doesn’t increase the safety of an area, whereas evidence shows that it does. All members of society, regardless of ethnicity or gender, will benefit from making the city’s streets safer and free from crime.

  3. I also noticed a lot of anti social, homeless, beggars and drunken people on the queen street.

    Under the previous government, there are police and city watch presence on friday and saturday night and homeless will be called off.
    However this year under the labor government those things seem to be tolerated and the issues gets worse.

        1. On the street the homeless people are extremely vulnerable to violence and being attacked themselves. A lot of the time by drunk boys.

          Homeless may make you have low perceptions of safety, but they aren’t doing anything to make you unsafe. They’re probably making you safer by being eyes on the street.

    1. Yeah, blame Jacinta, she hates women!!! Definitely her fault, she has caused homelessness and drunken behaviour in the space of a year…shame on her!

      Get a grip mate, don’t use centuries and centuries of gender inequality and violence to have a political dig

  4. Let’s talk about the whole mid-town precinct and why the ‘linear park’ is not worth doing if it’s surrounded by poorly lit side-streets with tiny footpaths.

    1. Under the Access for Everyone project, we have the chance to improve those side streets, and to make the city more walkable and safe for everyone.

      We don’t believe Linear Park wont be worth doing if it’s done in isolation. It’s unlikely they can roll out Linear Park and upgrades to all the side streets at the same time (in a perfect world, that would of course be excellent.) Upgrades to the side streets should follow Linear Park.

      1. Perhaps “not worth doing” was the wrong choice of words.

        I’m worried we will lose some of the potential benefits that the Linear Park will bring if we don’t take a good look at the surrounding streets too. I can remember Fort Lane being too dangerous to walk down at night, but feeling 100% fine on Beach Road despite it being only metres away.

    1. Yes, there is a fair bit of discussion around it. Yet I’d like to know where Auckland’s lighting levels sit within this discussion. I’m not someone who is particularly put off by stranger danger. But where I am, Pt Chev, the lighting is so poor you can trip on branches or ‘left objects’ – often inorganic waste randomly left on the footpath, or slip on leaves and mud.

      And to remove lighting from parks which people do use at night as transport paths simply removes those people from the parks, leaving it as an unsafe spot. This is proposed for Western Springs Park, yet I downloaded the crime stats and can see no reason for doing so.

      I imagine in Auckland our lighting levels are very poor, and our opportunities for providing passive surveillance by, for example, turning at-grade carparks into mixed use development, is huge.

      1. Lighting as a solution in isolation of course won’t be a silver bullet to the issue of personal safety! Also need more environments that create passive surveillance. Thank you for the book suggestion!

  5. Yes to all of this.

    And on the lighting/crime point, Maíread de Roíste at VUW did some cool mapping showing the discrepancy between where people feared crime and where they actually suffered it. Street lighting was statistically significant for both but the opposite of what you’d expect and I recall lights’ colour was the key!

    1. Interesting – please tell me more. Street lighting “the opposite of what you’d expect” – so, are you saying, that dark streets are safer, and it is actually the well-lit, and therefore well-walked streets are the danger places? I can sort of believe that – but I’d like to know more. And do you have a ref for Maíread de Roíste? I’d quite like to read that.

    2. +1, colour is key. Yellow light makes it really hard to see into hidden corners, really hard to see stationary objects, and really hard to see a person’s face to judge their mood or intentions. Traditional street lighting is high mounted yellow orbs that produce strong patterns of intense light under the bulbs and almost no light at the point half way between bulbs. This is fine for helping motorists to see other moving vehicles, awful for pedestrians in terms of trip hazrads and perception of safety.

      Modern lighting design tends to have white lights spaced more closely with strong downward focus. This reduces light pollution to the sky and adjoining properties, while highlighting stationary hazards and pedestrians. ie. it focuses on the safety of the people most likely to be injured rather than preventing rare multiple vehicle collisions.

      1. Yellow lighting was that colour due to what was understood about electrochemistry vs the cost of producing and running the lights. LED and other whiter lighting is simply the result of the onward march of technological development. But this doesn’t mean that newer lighting is better…

        http://theconversation.com/american-medical-association-warns-of-health-and-safety-problems-from-white-led-streetlights-61191 – In the case of white LED light, it is estimated to be five times more effective at suppressing melatonin at night than the high pressure sodium lamps (given the same light output) which have been the mainstay of street lighting for decades. Melatonin suppression is a marker of circadian disruption, which includes disrupted sleep.

        Bright electric lighting can also adversely affect wildlife by, for example, disturbing migratory patterns of birds and some aquatic animals which nest on shore. Additional to that copy/paste, LED lighting can actually make it harder to see clearly, particularly when it’s wet.

        In short, better visibility is an important thing to strive for but don’t blindly accept technological solutions to social issues. Technology is seldom a case of positives without compromise and LED lighting is an example of an imperfect solution.

      2. Its just the Kelvin rating of the LED luminaries used in Auckland are 6500K which are white. You can get this with both LEDs and standard bulbs and vice versa. I personally prefer the white 6500K light over the yellow 3000K too.

  6. Singapore has it sorted. Everyone is safe there (except drug-dealers, thieves, murderers and anti-social types). Motor vehicles are also heavily regulated and public transport is excellent.

    But did Grace willingly go into a hotel and get into a car with a strange man she had never met before, with no idea of what horror might lurk behind an internet personality? It hasn’t been spelled-out, but the reports do seem to indicate this. If so, this would be risky behaviour even in Singapore. Taking time to do due diligence in safe situations before getting into someone’s clutches can save a lot of grief.
    Though maybe this is not what happened. . .

    1. No not this. Dave B think of the hundreds of occasions when a woman may “ get into the clutches” of someone she doesn’t know; taking a taxi, viewing a rental property, visiting an accountant, meeting someone new. The list is endless and they should be safe on each occasion and it is not their fault if they are not. Are you suggesting they need chaperones or like in some countries they are just forbidden from living an independent life.

      1. Good question to pitch the other way IMO: How would most guys feel about women meeting them in bars never wanting to come home with them, purely out of safety concerns?

        1. Who is saying “never”? Genuine guys would respect a woman’s caution at a first meeting in a bar.
          In former times, a period of no-obligation courtship would follow, including meeting of families and learning of each other’s ways and backgrounds etc, before plunging into situations that may be hard to get out of..

        2. How would “most guys feel”? Well, to be honest, I never go to bars with the intention of trying to pick up women, I thought that attitude died out in the 90s. Really? People still do that?

          But also, even if I did, I’d be astonished if any woman agreed to “come back to my place” to a man she had only just met. I’d probably think “this woman is clueless and far too trusting for her own good.” I think I’d give her my number and say call me, when you’re sober, if you’re keen to see me again.

      2. True, Vinny, but people are much more “in the clutches” of another when they have walked willingly into a situation where the expectation is a romantic/sexual liaison, rather than a purely impersonal business transaction where any move towards romance is totally not part of the deal.
        Just saying, check out the spider before you get entangled in the web.

  7. I absolutely agree that the urban environment needs to change. One example is more people on the streets makes for a much safer environment than people in cars, and walking to car parks can also potentially be unsafe.

    I wonder though whether it is not behavioral change that is more important. We all know that alcohol is a significant contributor of harm not only male / female, but male / male.

    A couple of weeks ago my teenage son came home smashed up as a result of trying to break up a fight outside a bar in the city. Surely our society should not have to continue to suffer the effects of wide spread alcohol abuse?

  8. It’s all a system of people behaviour, moving around and places. We all need to do the bit that we can, not just pass on to the bits that someone else should deal with.

    This is a really good prompt for action, and the RPTP is a critical part of the system to raise this in.

    Since doing things the conventional way got us here, laying out the unconventional ways of tackling the issue can give us new thinking on what we do.

    CPTED does give us one approach, but I feel we need clearer design principles in general, always applied by all designers of places and services. Focussing on the most vulnerable will provide good results for everyone, so can never be wasted effort.

    Advice to any Dinosaurs out there: Grow wings, learn to fly.

  9. This is an old idea I read in Monocle publication but in Japan there are lots of policemen in little booths in the street who help with people’s minor problems – need directions, handing in a lost wallet – that also serve as eyes on the street. More public figures would be good.

    Also at a recent Auckland Conversations with Jarrod I asked about better transit hubs – and the answer was that they all agreed but there was not the funding. I don’t understand about priorities, that sorting out things like, wayfinding, signage, seating, lighting, emergency buttons/ speakers that connect people to real people who can assist in an emergency, which MUST be cheaper than the big projects on the table, can’t be done. It feels like low-hanging fruit that would have so many positive outcomes beyond simply increasing PT usage.

    1. @ Alex Suzanne Bonham – The problem is that in many societies, providing for motor-traffic has been the absolute priority for many decades, in terms of transport-funding and municipal funding. Nothing else has come close.

      The things you suggest have had to be squeezed from miserly budgets instead of being showered with funding the way roads have for so long.
      Things are certainly improving, but we still have a long way to go and much institutional resistance still to overcome.

    2. What the Japanese are doing would require a change in attitude of the function of the Police. The reality is that in New Zealand they are generally “Law Enforcement”, whereas in Japan they are there to “Assist” in the smooth functioning of society. To make such a change is not about changing slogans, it is about changing the entire attitude of policing.

  10. One of the reasons Japan has a low crime rate is that crimes against women are not followed up to the same extent as elsewhere. My wife took a photo a few years ago of a sign warning of rapists in an area. I mean they stuck up a sign with a picture of a wolf on it and a message warning women what might happen to them. Remember this is the country of danson- johi. A place where harassment is part of the culture. I don’t think we want to follow their example.

  11. I definitely agree that significant improvements need to be made to ensure that all Aucklanders feel safe on the city’s streets and on public transport. There are far too many incidences of people, of all genders, being subjected to violence and harrasment while in public. A zero tolerance approach to this kind of behaviour is urgently needed, coupled with ensuring there are enough police and security resources to meaningfully enforce it and ensure that people feel safe.

    However, some of the rhetoric in this article isn’t helpful in promoting civil and constructive discourse on the issue. For example, the comment ‘Catching the bus is mostly great but it’s horrible getting trapped next to a male passenger that at worst harasses you or at best manspreads into your space,’ is discriminatory and hateful. Claiming all men who use public transport are sexual predators is blatantly false and shifts the blame for sexual harassment from the specific people who choose to act in an inappropriate manner to the entire male population. Replace ‘male’ with another demographic category, such as Maori, and any decent human being will see why such statements are unacceptable. Just as it is completely bigoted and counter-productive to blame all Maori for gang violence or blame all Muslims for Islamist terrorism, it is equally as problematic to tar all men with the same brush.

    Ensuring that everyone feels safe in public and on public transport is a goal that is shared by any decent member of society. Trying to frame it as an ‘us vs them’ issue is uneccessarily divisive and will do nothing to improve the situation. Amassing the public support, funding and political will to bring about positive change in relation to urbanism or public transport is already difficult enough – what benefit is there to trying to divide the urbanist community with bigoted rhetoric? When we stop trying to blame and stigmatise people based on demographic factors which they have no control over (gender, ethnicity, etc.), we can all work together towards ensuring that Auckland is a city where all people, including all women, feel safe.

  12. The list at the end of this article is a good summary of what improves cities not just for women, but will improve cities for everyone if achieved.
    Does anyone know how London compares to other similar cities for safety? It is reported to have more cameras and monitoring than any other city, so I am curious as to how effective that has been.

    1. I agree with you – a good list for everyone not just young women. I do not know the figures for NZ or Auckland but in Britain when I lived there young men had the highest risk of being attacked by strangers in a public space and women over 60 the least. However the fear was the other way round with women over 60 most scared and men 20 – 25 least worried.
      Purely anecdotally the three cases that I know of all applied to young men – a colleague at work who was a heavy built over 2 metres tall man but he was scared of London’s nightlife because as a gentle peaceful and non-athletic man he was picked on because of his size by guys trying to prove how tough they were. The second case a champion Taekwando fighter who was attacked by strangers in Brisbane walking home after a meal with his mates – after many operations he will walk with a limp forever. The third a rugby player attacked in Takapuna – he had just signed to play for one of the major professional teams but his eye socket was smashed and he was lucky not to lose an eye – his ambition ruined he moved to Queensland. I also lived for many years in Port Moresby and men and women learned to be cautious – there were many frightful random attacks.
      Although I can see the significance of gender especially fear of sexual attack I do not see the need for more gender diversity in AT leadership. Since there are 3 female graduates for each 2 male graduates they should be assuming leadership positions already. If not complain. But as an elderly man I know I am as concerned, if not much more so, than my 3 adult daughters about their safety living in Auckland.
      Living near to where Blessie was murdered I know she was safe while on a Birkenhead Bus but she was attacked while walking from the bus stop home down a rather poorly lit street. The evil man who killed her was likely to have found a victim whatever the spending on urban design.
      If you want to stop young men hassling young women then you need to change our western culture – just switch on TV any time and you will see role models for potential sexual attack and adult men proving their worth by acts of violence.

  13. Councils and transport authorities should be required to have:
    1) vision zero safety (human & road) departments
    2) that they are headed by women.
    3) that the departments have budget
    3) that the departments have veto (i.e. have to issue no objection certificate) on designs

  14. I agree with the general sentiment and the recommendations of the article, but disagree with the idea society should be focused on making things better for women specifically. It should just be about people.

    Perception is quite different to reality. Even if most men feel safe walking around at night and most women feel unsafe, it doesn’t reflect reality. Statistically it is far more dangerous to be a man walking about in public, than a woman. That is the undeniable fact. Sure, you can split the data in different ways and NZ’s stats are a bit more balanced that many other countries. But overall, its safer to be a woman, than a man.

    Based on the facts we should be making public places safer for all the men and obviously need more men making decisions… Joking aside, the article suggests that having more women making decisions would make things safer for women. I don’t follow that logic at all. Given that more men are victims of public violence, in public spaces, designed by men, that logic doesn’t follow. If anything, we are probably just really terrible at designing for people.

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