Our transit provider has fallen behind other cities in addressing the safety of women using its services.
Women in Toronto explores the issues that women in the city face.
It was Friday afternoon, and she, a 23-year-old woman, was standing in a rush-hour subway car, riding south on the Yonge-University line. A man approached behind her, black baseball cap covering his face. He sexually assaulted her there, quietly in the crowd, according to the police report. After she left the train, he stayed standing there until he disappeared at King Station. Officers are looking for him now, but in a transit system that carries almost two million riders every day, it’s hard to find one man.
The story sounds all too familiar: even if the man is caught, even if he’s found guilty, women won’t feel any safer riding the TTC. Last week, the suspect may have been a hat-wearing, middle-aged man; the victim a young woman on the subway. But the week before, he was a young man in a chef’s jacket; she was a 20-year-old passenger on a TTC shuttle bus. Before that, he was a man in camo gear who later revealed a weapon; she was a 22-year-old woman, assaulted twice in the subway car—once before and once after she confronted him. Earlier, he was a man in a spring jacket and running shoes; she was a woman scared he would follow her home.
So far in 2016, 35 instances of sexual assault have been reported on the TTC.
Wherever a public space sees potential for violence, it seems that women are immediately vulnerable. (The reversal of roles does exist, but on rare occasion. Police suspect a woman assaulted a man on a Sheppard-Avenue bus last month. The distinction is that there was nothing allegedly sexual about the incident.) To ignore the obvious pattern—that women are treated as more expendable, targeted for sexual assault on public transit—means missing any chance of solving the problem.
And yet, until this year, the last time the TTC explicitly tackled female safety on its routes was over two decades ago. It’s an understatement to say that the transit board is behind the times—only just this month it approved a motion requested by City Council (in a ridiculously vague one-line document [PDF]), stipulating that this year’s TTC safety audit include a “gender-specific lens.” Even as the City tries to tackle the problem—finally—it seems to be avoiding saying the words out loud: that women are still in danger of sexual assault on their daily commute, and Toronto isn’t doing enough to prevent it.
Why did it take the City so long to react? The TTC’s “Request Stop” program was adopted in 1991, and it was heralded as one of the most progressive transit safety initiatives in the country at the time. It allowed women—and only women—to exit the bus or the streetcar at locations other than regular stops, any time between 9 p.m. and 5 a.m.
Back then, it took a critical mass of serious incidents for the City to seek such measures: by the time a trial version of the “Request Stop” system was announced, a man known as the Scarborough Rapist had violently attacked six women on their way home from TTC bus stops in the eastern Toronto neighbourhood. Years later, Paul Bernardo, one half of the notorious Bernardo-Homolka duo, admitted to having raped 13 women in Scarborough.
As soon as the “Request Stop” program was implemented, women started to use it. The initial two-month phase in Scarborough saw TTC drivers make about 60 extra stops per night. The program’s success continued throughout the GTA, and it still exists today. In 2013, the program expanded to apply to all riders, not just women.
Other safety schemes have been put in place since then, and Susan Sperling, manager of corporate communications at the TTC, is happy to list them out. Our local transit sports a hefty shield of public telephones, security mirrors, and designated waiting areas. Emergency alarms exist throughout the subway trains, where a driver or officer is rarely in sight. But, in 2016, the alarms were three times as likely to be rang by accident than for a security-related issue. An article in the Toronto Star last week told the story of a woman who refrained from pressing the security alarm out of fear that she would be trapped in the subway with her harasser until help arrived.
That’s why one of the TTC’s new ideas this year, born out of last week’s meeting with the cryptic one-line document, is an app for reporting harassment. Sperling says the app, which will likely be purchased before the end of the year, is “part of a set of tools to help women and vulnerable people protect themselves or feel safer.” By 2017, when WiFi exists across the subway network, women could discreetly take photos of their assailants and notify security without putting themselves at risk.
But whereas the TTC in the 1990s was a leader in women’s safety, it’s now one of the last in the game. Campaigns and programs (of varying degrees of ambition) against sexual assault on transit have already started in Vancouver, Edmonton, and Montreal, among others. The hashtag #commutingwhilefemale has galvanized women in North America who are sick of being victimized on the bus or the subway. Unfortunate examples and calls for change have been popping up all over the country.
Perhaps if the TTC lived up to the recent request for gender parity in City boards and corporations, these issues would have been addressed earlier—after all, who is more likely to suggest improving women’s safety than a woman? We already know that, right now, the TTC is drastically unbalanced, with women making up only 15 per cent of its employees in 2015.
Sperling points out that the TTC is working hard to remove barriers and hire more women (she mentions behavioural training, diversity training, and internal working groups), and I believe her. I’m glad the TTC is progressing. It’s a good sign that our transit provider is acknowledging the need for more female employees and the existence of safety problems that tend to target women. But it’s been a long, long time coming, and we shouldn’t be shy in pointing the problem out. Transit safety is about women’s safety, about sexual assault. Avoiding those words in a one-line document won’t make things any easier—in fact, it will make them much, much harder.