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Public Safety

Raising awareness can curb street harassment

For women and LGBT individuals, street harassment can make using streets, parks, and public transportation unpleasant at best and dangerous at worst. Raising awareness about their experiences can discourage this behavior and produce more sensitive planning as well.

Photo by Ben Schumin on Flickr.

Street harassment is sexual harassment or assault that happens in public places. It generally targets women and lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people. Harassment can include vulgar remarks, insults, stalking, leering, fondling, indecent exposure, and other forms of public humiliation. It can vary in severity, starting with words, but can lead to more violent crimes like rape, assault, and murder.

Although many people experience street harassment daily, they often do not talk back, report, or fight. Collective Action for Safe Spaces, the group that pushed Metro to address assault on trains, is organizing DC residents to speak out against harassment and advocate for safer spaces.

Part of CASS' mission is to educate and empower harassed groups by reminding them that this kind of harassment does not have to be tolerated. Recently, the group focused its effort on DDOT's moveDC transportation plan to make sure that the agency takes street harassment into account.

When co-founder Chai Shenoy and executive director Zosia Sztykowski discussed safety issues with DDOT, agency officials primarily talked about driver safety. They wanted to tell DDOT that the built environment and the design of streets and transit facilities can have an impact on safety.

CASS began a campaign to raise awareness in response to DDOT's public outreach moveDC meetings. When DDOT surveyed residents about their transportation needs, CASS encouraged people to encourage the agency to plan for safety. CASS endorsed creating better connections between neighborhoods, as well as initiatives focused on pedestrian safety and public spaces, like Safe Routes to School.

Previously, CASS successfully organized people to speak about their experiences with sexual harassment on Metro. By speaking out about the issue at public meetings and encouraging victims to tell their stories, they pushed WMATA to start a public awareness campaign, train workers to confront harassment and generally create safer stations and trains for riders. Metro also became the first public transit system to have a reporting system for harassment.

Street safety is not always discussed as part of the built environment. As planners ask the community about their wants and needs, they could ask residents how they feel moving through the environment or what barriers there are to using transit.

Safety walks can also both empower community members to take back their streets and identify areas for improvement. Some simple design factors such as wider sidewalks, better lighting, tree placement, and more open and accessible places can go a long way to combating street harassment.

For instance, long waits to cross the street is one way that pedestrians can become targets. Shorter wait times allow people to get away from a potential assailant.

Feeling safe moving through one's environment is an important goal and should certainly be a part of the conversation. Safety as a goal in and of itself may not be the best way to plan a city, but working on issues such as lighting and wait times can make a big difference in someone's life.

Ultimately, speaking out about street harassment and sexual assault can go a long way in changing the culture and make it clear that it is never okay to cat-call a woman walking along the street or waiting for a bus.

Abigail Zenner, is a former lobbyist turned communications specialist. She specializes in taking technical urban planning jargon and turning it into readable blog posts. When she's not nerding out about urban planning, transportation, and American History, you may find her teaching a fitness class. Her blog posts represent her personal views only. 


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by selxic on Jan 13, 2014 1:14 pm • linkreport

I am relieved to hear the knockout game is a myth.

by charlie on Jan 13, 2014 1:15 pm • linkreport

Luckily I've never been harassed in DC and have always felt pretty safe, but I've heard enough stories especially from female friends. I appreciate the approach of looking for practical solutions. I was reading up on people who were suggesting installing "smart street lights" somewhere that would turn off when they didnt detect motion and all I could think of is, enjoy your increased crime activity. I think a lot of it comes down to urban form. What are you doing to activiate street life at different levels around the city. I remember when downtown used to be dead after 7PM at night and it was frightening at times because you were the only person walking around.

by BTA on Jan 13, 2014 1:26 pm • linkreport

Thank you for addressing street harassment. As a queer male with a twin sister, street harassment arises as a topic of discussion often. Streets have to be safe spaces for everyone, and catcalling only reinforces a culture which normalizes objectification and violence.

by Andrew on Jan 13, 2014 2:46 pm • linkreport

yes great topic and an important consideration in design of the built environment. Thanks!

by Tina on Jan 13, 2014 3:57 pm • linkreport

Thanks for this article! Most of the street harassment I receive is men yelling at me from cars. Not only wider sidewalks but better physical separation between the road and sidewalk (such as wide planting strips) would make me feel less vulnerable in these types of interactions. I also like your suggestion of minimizing wait times at crosswalks. Often I get catcalled from an idling vehicle at a red light while I'm standing on the corner waiting to cross the street.

by Rebecca on Jan 13, 2014 4:25 pm • linkreport

...and I don't want a stranger telling me to smile.

by Capt. Hilts on Jan 13, 2014 7:13 pm • linkreport

Um, why LGBT? You can't tell if somebody's gay just by looking at them.

by Eric on Jan 14, 2014 5:44 am • linkreport

My wife and her female coworkers often get catcalls from men in cars when walking down the street in front of their office.

What I want to know is what these men are expecting to accomplish with their behavior? Do they expect these women to come over to them fawning for attention?


by CyclistinAlexandria on Jan 14, 2014 7:50 am • linkreport

Thanks for this article. Very important topic.

by Ronit Dancis on Jan 14, 2014 8:30 am • linkreport

The best way to deal with this kind of behavior is to call it out (safely) every single time it happens, in any context (that's safe). The problem seems to multiply in on-line forums where people you would think could never stoop to this kind of behavior find cover in the comments section of blogs. I hate to say it, but as a species, we aren't as evolved as some think, regardless of education or station in life.

Brit Hume just talked about the "feminized" environment we live in where "muscular masculinity" like Chris Cristie's is sometimes unwelcome. Really? Feminized? It's called civilized, and comments like Mr. Humes imply the worst kind of stereotypes. It simply needs to be called out and made as socially unacceptable as possible.

by Thayer-D on Jan 14, 2014 8:43 am • linkreport


Men who harrass women and LGBT individuals on the street are seeking to make them feel uncomfortable and threatened. We could have a whole discussion about the underlying psychology of this, but essentially the men themselves feel marginalized so they lash out by harassing women. The sexual assault crisis in India is an example of this behavior taken to the extreme.

by Rebecca on Jan 14, 2014 9:21 am • linkreport


Totally agree that this behavior should be called out whenever possible. Unfortunately many times it happens so quickly that by the time the victims realize and process it, the harassers are long gone. This is especially the case with men who catcall women from cars.

This is why I really like the author's suggestion to examine ways in which the built environment can make everyone feel safer on the street.

by Rebecca on Jan 14, 2014 9:28 am • linkreport

I completely agree Rebecca. In the end though I think Jane Jacob's eyes on the street is the best approach, ontop of the specific design moves you pointed out. Nothing will stop a bully from yelling a slur out thier window, but building a more social and thus pedestrian friendly environment is the best we can do.

by Thayer-D on Jan 14, 2014 10:09 am • linkreport

by Richard Layman on Jan 14, 2014 10:54 am • linkreport

@Eric, many gay folks "blend in," but many are targeted based on stereotypes. (Of course, straight folks could be targeted based on those stereotypes as well, but I doubt 'phobes care all that much if their victims are actually LGBT.) And trans people that don't "pass" well have it particularly bad; a tragically high number of trans folks have been the victims of violence and even murder as of late, here in the District as well as elsewhere.

by Fran on Jan 14, 2014 4:15 pm • linkreport

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