News | UCLA Professor Loukaitou-Sideris Examines How to Combat Sexual Harassment on the "Public Transit Journey"

Stop the Video



by Brittany Cooper, CSULB

A commonly cited concern found among transit riders is the danger of sexual harassment. Sexual harassment is a common occurrence in everyday transit environments (e.g., train stations, train wagons, buses, and bus stops). Each step of the journey until the transit riders reach their destination is a potentially hazardous situation. UCLA Distinguished Professor of Urban Planning Anastasia Loukaitou-Sideris and her team define these settings as the “public transit journey.” They researched the parameters of sexual harassment experiences on this journey by college students. The research project, “Public Transportation Safety Among University Students,” was funded in part by the Pacific Southwest Regional University Transportation Center (PSR UTC).  


Loukaitou-Sideris began her study by researching current literature about crime that occurs on transit. She noted that buses and bus stops create an environment susceptible to crime due to the great number of passing riders and their “fleeting interactions.” Loukaitou-Sideris observed how little attention sexual crimes received within transit crime data studied by criminal justice and urban planning scholars. Only 71 articles about sexual crimes in transit were identified. The team found that sexual harassment was common on transit, even though rates varied from city to city. There was, however, a general lack of consistency in how the data defined what constituted sexual harassment. Sifting through various definitions, the research team focused defined sexual harassment in their research as “any unwanted attention including lewd comments, leering, sexual invitations, threats, displaying pornographic material, being followed, and public masturbation," and sexual assault as a situation in which “someone is threatened, coerced, or forced into non-consensual sexual acts.” Just as there were multiple definitions of harassment in the academic literature, a gap between the definitions in legislation and public understanding of the same topic also became apparent. According to the research team, criminal justice systems often apply narrow views of what constitutes sexual harassment behavior. They specifically focus on physical (touch) harassment, thus leaving many victims unprotected and their experiences undocumented because the harassment they faces may not be only of a physical nature.  


The literature review found that different environmental characteristics influence the number of sexual harassment cases, including lighting, seclusion of spaces, but also (for certain types of harassment) overcrowding, to name a few. While little research has been done on the subject, sexual harassment on transit may be a deterrent for riders and may be contributing to the downward trend in ridership numbers.  To reduce the crime rates on transit and improve the perception of the public, transit agencies have adopted  “specific practices, policies, and programs to reduce and prevent crime and improve passengers’ perceptions of safety.” However, most transit agencies do not address sexual harassment. 


In response to the limited research, Loukaitou-Sideris and her team created a web survey and administered it to students with bus passes from the following universities: University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA); California State University, Los Angeles (CSULA); and California State University, Northridge (CSUN). The focus on college students’ experiences with transit was due to the student population’s greater dependency on transit than other populations and their vulnerability to victimization by sexual harassment. The survey was designed to answer questions such as the extent of sexual harassment occurrences in transit environments, the relation between individual student characteristics and perceptions of safety, and the precautions individuals take to minimize their risk to sexual harassment. The survey resulted in 1284 valid responses.


Seventy-two percent of bus rider respondents and forty-eight percent of train rider respondents had experienced some form of of sexual harassment. While males did report being affected by sexual harassment, unsurprisingly, a higher percentage of females experienced sexual harassment on the transit journey. The researchers also found that the chance of victimization by sexual harassment increased relative  to the frequency of transit use. Mirroring past research, the study found that the type of sexual harassment was dependent on the type of transit and a number of environmental factors. Many female respondents reported that their experience has led them to take precautions on transit, such as modifying dress style, avoiding specific transit routes, and carrying weapons for self-defense.  The vast majority of victimized students indicated that they had not reported their harassment experiences to others. 


In order to combat the occurrences of sexual harassment and the fear that it invokes, Loukaitou-Sideris and her team make several policy recommendations. The team recommends that transit operators conduct surveys to learn about sexual misconduct and build on the survey findings to address environmental elements that create insecurity on transit. Researchers also advocate for on-demand stops at night, more high-capacity vehicles, and a modification of the penal code to designate all sexual harassment as a crime. By taking these suggestions and learning from the transit industry’s best practices, the transit sector may begin to improve ridership experience and safety.