Crowded T cars can mean unwanted touching

Sex harassment should be part of MBTA's safety assessment

CROWDED SUBWAY CARS AND PLATFORMS can mean more than disruption for T riders. They have the potential to produce an environment ripe for sexual harassment. With a review panel now established to address derailments and other important safety concerns, it is imperative that the MBTA also renew its commitment to ensuring a safe public transit experience for all.

In addition to numerous woes facing the MBTA, it has also become very crowded due in part to service disruptions as well as protracted headways. Regularly packed cars are emerging as the new norm. Not a problem for those of you who enjoy being packed in like sardines hoping that a backpack doesn’t end up in your face. Or someone’s hand or foot coming too close to yours. But this is no laughing matter. The increased density of people on subway cars is bound to make for an unpleasant commute. Yet it can also lead to a dreadful experience for those who have experienced sexual harassment or assault in the past and who don’t want to be forced to be so close to other individuals simply in order to get from point A to point B.

MBTA ads dealing with sexual harassment and assault.

Overcrowded subway cars, buses, and packed platforms are fertile ground for unwanted physical contact. We all know that many individuals – women, men, trans, genderqueer – often face harassment and unwelcome interactions, including touching with a sexual overtone, on a far too regular basis. The T knows that. This is why a few years back the MBTA, along with the Boston Area Rape Crisis Center and Fenway Health, launched a sexual harassment campaign to make it clear that sexual misconduct won’t be tolerated. Great ads. But truly congested spaces where there is literally no room to move creates conditions that could easily lead to unwanted touching or interaction.

Policy makers and MBTA leaders grappling with how to effectively deal with the ongoing T challenges need to take this reality into consideration and act swiftly to improve conditions for everyone. For starters, this means acknowledging that safety has many dimensions.

The physical and emotional safety needs of riders should compel officials to reiterate the T’s commitment to taking proactive steps to prevent sexual harassment. In addition, existing efforts to equip MBTA personnel with training and resources should be enhanced given the frequency with which T riders find themselves subject to overcrowded spaces. Finally, sexual harassment complaint data should be analyzed in the context of service conditions.

Meet the Author

Christa Kelleher

Research and policy director, McCormack Graduate School’s Center for Women in Politics and Public Policy at UMass Boston
The complex structural and mechanical needs of our aged subway system will take some time to address. In the meantime, we need some positive signals of a renewed commitment to addressing sexual harassment on the T during this challenging time.

Christa Kelleher is the research and policy director at the McCormack Graduate School’s Center for Women in Politics and Public Policy at the University of Massachusetts Boston.