Last month, in the wake of hundreds of reported sexual assaults on New Year’s Eve in Cologne, a German commuter train line announced it would offer railcars reserved for women and children. Crowded transit systems in Japan, Indonesia, India, Egypt, Mexico, and Brazil already feature women-only rail cars in order to prevent harassment and assaults.
In response to that news, last week NPR commentator Rhitu Chatterjee wrote glowingly of the ladies’ cars in her hometown of Delhi.
“It would be wonderful if men learned to accept women’s presence in public spaces without feeling the need to harass them,” Chatterjee wrote. “But until they do, the women’s car is one good way for us to assert our right to public spaces.”
Her op-ed got me thinking about whether female-only cars might be a strategy to combat sexual intimidation and violence on the CTA.
In 2015 there were eight reported sexual assaults on the CTA—a category that includes everything from groping to rape—according to spokesman Jeff Tolman. He characterized that as “extremely few instances,” considering that 516 million rides were taken last year.
While lesser offenses often aren’t reported to the CTA or police, stories female friends and colleagues shared with me by for this article suggest that inappropriate behavior is all too common on the system.
Jane, a 43-year-old urban planner (who like many women I spoke to asked that we not use her real name), reported that men have catcalled and exposed themselves to her on the el on multiple occasions. Alice, a 53-year-old legal assistant, told me she’s tall and assertive enough to intimidate would-be offenders, but has petite friends who’ve endured so much harassment that they only ride the train alone at rush hour, or not at all.
One of them is Blanca Robledo-Atwood, a Colombian-born graphic designer who’s four-feet-11. One evening she was riding the Red Line when a tall, beefy guy sat down next to her and whispered in her ear, “You are so beautiful—I want to be your friend.”
After trying in vain to ignore his advances, she spoke loudly to him in Spanish, which he didn’t seem to understand. “He got embarrassed and tried to hide,” she recalls. Still, she feared the man would follow her off the train. After that she stopped riding the el by herself at night.
The man who tried to hit on 34-year-old nonprofit worker Ellen on the Blue Line’s Jackson platform at 2 AM was less polite. After she made it clear she wasn’t interested, he snarled, “Well I’m a nice guy, but I hope your boyfriend continues to beat and rape you.”
Ellen held her ground in the ensuing shouting match, but she now thinks that was unwise. “I could have gotten stabbed that night-who knows,” she says. After that she largely switched to commuting by bicycle. “I get high anxiety sometimes when I enter CTA trains, no matter how much I think I’m a strong and badass woman, and it pisses me off to feel that way.”
Brittany, 28, survived a sexual assault that occurred while she was riding the Blue Line out to Oak Park on a Tuesday afternoon in May 2014. As the train crawled through a slow zone west of the Kedzie-Homan station, a large man approached her in the otherwise empty car.
The assailant held her down and attempted to rape her. She was able to snap his photo as he fled. (A few months later police apprehended the man, who’d been attacking other women for years, she says. He’s now doing jail time.)
Brittany rides the el less often nowadays, and when she does she tries to sit in the front car, with the driver. “I still have major issues taking trains,” she says.
Brittany and a few other women I spoke with thought women-only cars could be an effective way to address harassment and assault on the CTA, if the policy could be properly enforced. “I’ve heard enough of these stories that I think many women would welcome a female-only car,” said the legal assistant.
But there’s skepticism as to whether such an approach is necessary in Chicago, even from transportation experts who take harassment seriously.
“Putting men in a train car separate from me will not stop them from harassing me when we exit the train.”
—Courage Project founder Kara Crutcher
Lauren Dean is an urban planning student at UIC who since 2011 has been doing research on the ladies’ compartments of the Mumbai railway system. Gender-separated cars are crucial in India, she says, because “the crowding on the train makes it very easy for male commuters to grope or rub up against women who don’t have any means of escape and often can’t actually identify their assailant in such a huge crowd.”
In Chicago, street harassment is “absolutely an issue for female commuters,” Dean says. But she adds that the physical space on the Mumbai trains is totally different—it’s common for 14 to 16 passengers to be crammed into a single square meter of floor space.
“Even at its most crowded, the CTA doesn’t handle that kind of crushing passenger density,” Dean says.
The CTA’s Tolman notes that 23,000 security cameras have been installed throughout the system in recent years to serve as a crime deterrent and aid police in catching offenders. But he dismisses the possibility of female el compartments in Chicago by pointing out that “no transit system in the United States uses women-only cars.”
Instead, the agency is addressing the problem through a new informational campaign. “If It’s Unwanted, It’s Harassment” warns would-be offenders that abusive behavior will not be tolerated.
The centerpiece of the campaign is a new line of rail and bus advertisements encouraging riders who see a fellow passenger being hassled to speak up, contact CTA personnel via an onboard intercom, or call 911 if there’s an immediate safety threat.
But some of the credit for the new initiative should go to the Courage Campaign, a grassroots organization launched in 2014 by Uptown resident Kara Crutcher to fight harassment on the CTA. Last year the group successfully lobbied the agency to shift its focus from simply asking victims to report incidents to preventing abusive behavior by raising awareness of the problem.
“We’re happy to see a couple of CTA ads up regarding harassment,” Crutcher said. “It is definitely a step in the right direction. . . . Personally, I hope that we can work with them to produce more educational ads, but we shall see.”
As for female-only cars, while Crutcher says these could provide a safe space for women suffering from post-harassment PTSD, she argues they’re a Band-Aid solution that doesn’t get to the root of the problem.
“A cultural shift must occur,” she says. “We must recognize and respect each other everywhere, but especially in these public spaces. . . . Putting men in a train car separate from me will not stop them from harassing me when we exit the train. But education, antistreet harassment advocacy, and courage might.” v
John Greenfield edits the transportation news website Streetsblog Chicago.