Women’s experience in public transport

Science topics April 2018 Human behaviourRoad safetyTransport

By Gonçal Cerdà Beneito, second-year Master’s degree student in Transport and Mobility (Ecole d’Urbanisme de Paris) –  Academic supervisor : Sandrine Wenglenski, lecturer in urban planning, development and sociology, (LVMT, UPEM)

Public transport plays an important role in daily mobility. In the Paris region, more than one in five journeys every day are made using public transport modesi.

Women and men both use them to a similar degree. However, more than half of the women state that they do not feel safe. Researchers are studying the reasons for their apprehension which tends to limit their participation in social life.


A social space to be shared 

In public transport, the social relations between strangers are regulated by social control. A principle of polite inattentiveness reigns, meaning that everyone can discreetly respect the presence of othersii.

But, as gender studies have been pointing out since the 1980s, such social control depends on norms which still attribute different social roles and positions to men and women.

Extreme situations of harassment and aggression aside, day-to-day experience can cause unease and have an impact on public transit practices.



Women’s experience in public transport - Ifsttar - Drawing : Joël Yerpez Ifsttar - all rights reserved

Unease in day-to-day experience

A research project that employed a number of qualitative techniques (observations, individual and group interviews) has captured the experience of female students who use public transport in the Paris region.

This studyiiihighlights several categories of male attitudes: invasion of territory, staring, verbal comments on women’s physical appearance, or physical contact. The sociologist Erving Goffmanivused the term “modes of violation”, to describe the fact that these attitudes cause personal offence. Among the surveyed women they lead to unease at the very least, combined with varying degrees of anxiety.

Some of these attitudes are perceived as natural or irrelevant by the young women in the survey, during this period when they are learning to be independent. They may link their reactions to a kind of guilt, putting their fears down to their personal « paranoïa ».


Implementing strategies

Women do react to these affronts, but often more preventively or defensively than offensively. They admit to usually showing discretion and employing avoidance tactics (looking away, wearing headphones, etc.). More direct responses, in which they confront the disturbing attitude, are reserved for situations and times where they feel the most at ease. They change their behaviours in the evenings and in situations which they consider to be the most risky. They can implement various tactics and strategies, from changing their behaviour in situ (greater vigilance, care in choosing a seat) to avoiding situations they deem problematic (by taking a taxi, going home earlier than they would have liked, changing their route or appearance, or not travelling home on their own).


The role of “socialisation”

Although all the respondents expressed their anxiety about some male attitudes, the level of this varies. Two socialisation situations seem to affect the differences in their perceptions. First, being used to a highly urban residential environment and early use of public transport result in lower levels of anxiety. Also, the young women who are the most worried described a family environment which made them very aware of their vulnerability.


Ultimately, while apprehension in public transport is not confined to women, their ordinary experience shows that the issue of the place of individuals in society and in physical space remains an important determinant of their mobility, and consequently their ability to take part in social life.


Further readings....

i. STIF, 2013, « Femmes et hommes : une mobilité qui reste différenciée » [Women and men: a mobility that remains differentiated], La mobilité en Île-de-France, n°3, janvier 2013, 4p.

ii. Levy, C., 2013. Travel choice reframed: “deep distribution” and gender in urban transport. Environment and Urbanization 25, 47–63. https://doi.org/10.1177/0956247813477810

iii. Cerdà Beneito Gonçal, 2017, Le vécu des femmes dans les transports en commun franciliens : l’influence de l’appréhension des attitudes masculines sur les pratiques de mobilité quotidienne [Women's experience in Parisian public transport: the influence of the perception of male attitudes on daily mobility practices], Master's degree dissertation, under the supervision of Sandrine Wenglenski, École d’Urbanisme de Paris, Université Paris Est – Marne-La-Vallée, 91p.

iv. Goffman Erving, 1963, Behavior in Public Space, The Free Press.


Bissell David, 2010, “Passenger mobilities: Affective atmospheres and the sociability of public transport”, Environment and Planning, D, Society and Space, 28(2):270-289.

Hanson Susan, 2010, “Gender and mobility: new approaches for informing sustainability”, Gender, Place & Culture, 17(1):5-23.

IAU, 2017, Victimation et sentiment d’insécurité en Île-de-France [Victimization and sense of insecurity in Île-de-France], Publication de l’IAU, mars 2017.

Wenglenski Sandrine, 2017, “Mobility Gaps”, The International Encyclopedia of Geography, 1–4.

Wenglenski Sandrine, 2017, “Daily Mobility”, The International Encyclopedia of Geography, 1–7.

Women’s issues in Transportation, 2014, “Bridging the gap”, Proceedings of the 5th International Conference on WIT, April 2014, 736p.