Blog Post

All Londoners should be free from the threat of sexual harassment on public transport

The threat or fear of sexual harassment on public transport impacts Londoners’ in many ways. City leaders must do more to proactively stop offenders and make people feel safe.

Last December, a Centre for London survey found that women were nearly twice as likely as men to mention personal safety as a barrier to walking and using public transport. These barriers range from deciding not to walk because of narrow pavements and fast cars or choosing not to cycle because of the lack of bike lanes, to opting against using to tube for fear of sexual harassment.

While concerns are far-reaching, this blog focuses on sexual harassment which disproportionately affects women’s ability to benefit from all the opportunities London offers. After all, a great opportunity is only as inviting as the dimly lit pavement – or overcrowded tube carriage – leading to it.

Sexual harassment on public transport

Sadly, our findings are not unique.

Transport for London found that 15 per cent of women had experienced unwanted sexual behaviour on the tube back in 2013.

These cold statistics are brought to life in conversations I’ve had with friends. One colleague told me how she’d had a hand reached up her skirt by someone passing her whilst she stood on a packed tube escalator. By the time she realised what had happened, the flow of people had moved on. She didn’t know who did it, or whether anyone would act if she reported it.

Reasons for not reporting are complex. Though the rate of reporting incidents has increased, some fear the situation escalating, some feel embarrassed to speak out. Some aren’t certain that other passengers would support them, or that reporting it would lead to any action being taken.

Sexual harassment can also intersect with other forms of violence experienced by women of colour, and the LGBTQI+ community. The threat is so real that some members of these communities are taking matters into their own hands: for example, the artist Travis Alabanza has set up a fundraising initiative to help with the cost of getting home safely from venues. And some of London’s queer nightclubs offer free taxis home to guests.

Concerns are more acute at night

It will come as no surprise, then, that many were more worried at night, particularly on London’s bus network. So much so that some women would rather spend more to use other forms of travel after dark.

Our research found that it’s not just the bus journey’s themselves that women were put off by. Not just the prospect of secluded top decks and leering drunken passengers. Interchanges on London’s night bus service often mean an unspecified wait time in an unfamiliar and poorly lit part London. And it was this woman often found the more daunting.    

Improving women’s safety while travelling at night is not just about ensuring women can socialise and play, it’s also about enabling them to work. London’s night-time economy employs nearly 800,000 women. None of whom should have to compromise their personal safety to earn a living.

But sexual harassment isn’t just a concern on public transport…

…It also deters women from using private hire vehicles.

Again, when I asked around, I was struck by the number of stories that came out. One woman told me how a driver began texting her asking for sex in the days after she called for a ride. Another explained how a driver who’d helped her move to her new house made sexual advances whilst she was still in the car with him.

Concerns about one particular operator made headlines at the end of last year for allowing drivers to use fake identities, placing passenger safety at risk. As the number of new firms and taxi-hailing apps grow, policy makers at the city and national level need to put frameworks in place, to keep businesses in check, and passengers safe.

Work is underway

The Night Czar Amy Lame, Met police-led Report it, Stop it and grassroots movements like Hollaback! are encouraging more women to report harassment. These initiatives are helping to identify perpetrators and inform a coordinated response (we now know that the Central Line has the highest number of reported assaults).

But the onus shouldn’t be on those who have experienced it to stop it.

London’s leaders need to do more than just encourage the reporting of sexual harassment, and proactively stop offenders.

CCTV on all tube lines is crucial – the Central Line is still without it despite what we now know. Better lighting, lines of sight and more “eyes on the street” would also help, particularly at night. And a good understanding of what we can do as bystanders would give those “eyes” added weight.

Harassment isn’t just an urban issue. It’s a wider societal matter which needs to be consistently and clearly tackled at all levels of policy making, not just in relation to transport providers, but all locales – workspaces, public spaces, parties, shops and schools.

Sexual harassment may shape how some women experience London, but it shouldn’t be a ‘normal’ part of city living. Women have as much right to the city as others and should be free to move around – without fear – regardless of the time of day.



Erica Belcher is a Researcher at Centre for London. Follow her on Twitter.