Tackling sexual assault on public transport

As commuting makes a comeback, viruses are far from the only threat

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There is a myriad of differences between public transport experiences worldwide, but one remains almost ubiquitous, especially for women and other vulnerable people: sexual assault. London is no exception. A 2020 YouGov survey found 55 per cent of women and 21 per cent of men had experienced harassment or assault on public transport in London, although 90 per cent of harassment is still not reported. And despite campaigns to increase awareness and enforcement, a Freedom of Information inquiry by Spotlight has shown that reporting of assaults across the UK went up only slightly compared with the most recent preceding years, while the conviction rate has barely budged.

Public transport, with its rushed and crowded spaces, presents unique opportunities for harassers. Shola Apena Rogers, a lecturer in forensic psychology at Birmingham University, wrote her PhD research on perpetrators of assault and harassment on the London Underground. She looked at the “scripts”, the patterns, that characterised offenders and offered an insight into how to intervene, such as training staff to spot prolific offenders. Most offenders travel with the intention of offending, rather than doing so opportunistically. “In that [Tube] environment thesore are certain things that allow behaviours that wouldn’t necessarily happen in another environment,” she explains. For example, a crowded rush hour tube is a lot like a nightclub in some respects. Bystanders also play an important role, and Apena Rogers believes changing how they view and respond to incidents could have the most powerful impact on preventing sexual assaults and harassment.

In the capital, the most concentrated attempt to turn back the tide has been Project Guardian, launched by Transport for London in 2013. The scheme involved the Metropolitan Police and British Transport Police, with women’s organisations such as the Ending Violence Against Women coalition (EVAW), Hollaback! UK and Everyday Sexism advising on how to best support victims and survivors of incidents and encourage them to come forward and report. “The initial response to a report of sexual offending is really important to get right,” says EVAW director Andrea Simon. “If they [the victim] have a negative first experience it really impacts on them and their confidence around the system.”

Plain-clothed police were deployed as part of Project Guardian to patrol public transport, processes were reviewed, and officers and transport staff were trained specifically on how to respond and ensure victims felt believed and supported. Reports of harassment and assault went up by 20 per cent while the project was running and detection of sexual offences on the public transport network increased by 32 per cent.

On the national level, British Transport Police commissioned a review of the evidence in 2015 to identify some strategies to help it tackle sexual harassment across the UK’s trains, trams, underground systems and buses. The authors argued that no single intervention would be effective, but that a “coordinated package” of measures – such as increased surveillance (human and CCTV), design improvements to increase visibility, awareness campaigns, easier reporting mechanisms, and using technology to identify hotspots – would be needed. These are not the only potential solutions, however.

“A lot of the initiatives that are tried on public transport are not evaluated, or assessed, in any way as to their effectiveness,” Miranda Horvath, one of the authors of the review, tells Spotlight. The authors found that while many public transport agencies in the UK and around the world were trying a variety of approaches, they were not able to point to tangible impacts because most were not evaluated, so the results are hard to trace. This remains an issue, Horvath says. “More often than not, they [interventions] are not very wellpublicised and one of the things the literature seems to suggest is that for these things to be effective, the public needs to know what’s going on.”

At the time of writing, the net results of the UK schemes offer less consolation than one might hope. In response to a Freedom of Information request submitted by Spotlight, the British Transport Police said that reported cases dropped by about two-thirds during the 2020-2021 lockdowns – in absolute numbers, from around 1,600 a year to just below 500. Charging and summons rates rose from around 11 per cent in 2018/19 and 2019/20 to 17 per cent in 2020/21.

But conviction rates barely went up – from around 5 per cent in 2018/19 and 2019/20 to 6 per cent in 20/21. Commenting on the findings, detective chief inspector Sarah White of the British Transport Police, says: “We are absolutely committed to reducing sexual offending on the rail network, and victims and survivors remain at the heart of our strategy. We are working tirelessly to deter and identify offenders, increase positive judicial outcomes, provide increased reporting mechanisms and engage with victims on how we can improve. This year we have almost tripled the number of officers who are specially trained to investigate sexual offences across England, Scotland and Wales.

“We would urge anyone who has been a victim of any sexual offences or unwanted sexual behaviour to report it to us in the confidence that we will extensively investigate and do everything possible to support them,” she adds. “No report is too small or trivial, and we will always take you seriously.”

Deploying more law enforcement officers is one of the most common responses, and is effective to an extent, but is not without its own problems. Evidence from across the world shows that law enforcement is often biased against women (particularly survivors of sexual assault), ethnic minorities and LGBTQ people.

Jorge Arteaga, deputy director of the US-based Hollaback!, says the organisation does not support criminalisation, as it often results in the police continuing to disproportionately target people of colour. Instead, Hollaback! has focused on educating and training people to make bystander interventions and develop grassroots solutions to harassment and violence.

Horvath, for her part, would like to see more trials of schemes tried across the UK, such as request stops for buses in more rural and remote areas. These would enable transport authorities to collect the data on what works and spread those practices across the network. “With a lot of these things you’re actually not talking about a very difficult or costly thing to try and just test,” she says. With transport usage slowly creeping up closer to pre-pandemic levels, this would seem a good time to explore and deploy new strategies, to ensure the number of assaults do not rise accordingly

Samir Jeraj is a Special Projects Writer at the New Statesman

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