1. As a woman, I am always afraid of my safety

I feel vulnerable, afraid, and anxious when walking alone at night. Can this fear be eased?

Whenever I have late night plans with friends almost a million questions run through my head:

How will I get home?

Will it be crowded near the restaurant at X time at night?

Can I walk home?

Do I have to spend money on an Uber when it’s surging to travel only 1 mile?

Will it be safe walking around area X at night?

I live in a city and don’t have a car and it’s always nerve-racking to think about how to get home safely at night. I always end up going to the same restaurants near my place. I rely on Google Maps to get around and I’m often frustrated that there’s no way to tell which streets are safer than others at night. And the thing is, very few of my male friends have the same worries. I’m often told that I’m “overthinking it” or “just need to chill out.”

But I couldn’t help but wonder, is it just me who deals with this? Am I really overthinking it? Do other women feel the same way too?

So I decided to investigate a little. I went around San Francisco and asked 100 women and 100 men if they felt unsafe coming home at night and why. I primarily wanted to see if there was a correlation between gender and the fear of safety.

I found that 80% of the women I talked to said they were afraid of their safety at night, compared to only 20% of men. One of the primary concerns for women was walking home alone at night. Many women I talked to stated that they almost always planned ahead and carried a pepper spray at night. 60% of the women who stated they felt unsafe at night said that they stayed on the phone with a parent or friend while walking home. Granted this sample size was small, but it was enough for me to realize that I wasn’t alone in my predicament.

In fact, studies show that many women do feel unsafe in public spaces and are concerned about safe travel, especially at night. Multiple surveys show that women are more fearful of crime than men. The finding below from this study, from the Mineta Transportation Institute, especially stood out to me:

Regardless of being real or only perceived, fear has some significant consequences for women and leads them to utilize precautionary measures and strategies that affect their travel patterns. These range from the adoption of certain behavioral mechanisms when in public, to choosing specific routes, modal choices, and transit environments over others, to completely avoiding particular transit environments and activities (e.g., walking, bicycling) deemed as more unsafe for women. The situation seems to be particularly aggravating for both low-income and minority women . . . who often come back home from work at odd hours, and typically have less transportation options than more affluent women.

The Mineta Transportation Institute’s study also found that empty areas contributes to fear, since many women are afraid that if a crime occurs no one will be present to help.

I’m very fortunate that I can afford an Uber late at night. But what about women who can’t? And what about women who live in other countries where crime is more prevalent?

How can we attempt to tackle this problem?

From my research, I found that the fear and anxiety of walking home alone at night are felt very strongly by women. From here I created a point of view to begin to think about solutions.

How might we lower the stress and fear women feel when walking alone at night? How can we help women feel safer?

After distilling down my insights, I wrote a list of defining principles that inspired my design. I aimed to:

Create an awareness of safety

Build a support network

Prompt action in case of emergency

Nurture a community

A Potential Solution

Taking in mind the insight of creating awareness and making women feel safer I designed a concept for Safe Streets, an application that tells you which streets are safer than others to walk on. This information is based on multiple sources of data which will be described in detail below. Safe Streets also allows you to notify someone when you are walking home, so they can see your location at all times and call 911 in case of an emergency.

Create an awareness of safety

A large part of Safe Streets is to give you the safest walking route home. This is generated from several sources of data:

  1. What is the history of traffic-pedestrian incidents on this area of the street/intersection?
  2. What crimes have occurred on this street and at what time?
  3. Has anything/anyone sketchy been reported on this street? Is their any important neighborhood watch information?

A lot of this data is publicly available. Data on traffic-pedestrian incidents can be found on government websites. Crime maps are created by police departments and there are multiple crime aggregators that exist today. Neighborhood watch information is found on local forums and chat rooms.

Although no recommendation is 100% safe, Safe Streets tries to give the best recommendation based on past incidents and the collective community of people keeping their watch out.

From left to right: (1) The launch screen for Safe Streets (2) The safest route shown after you enter your address (3) If you click the flashlight, you see all the unsafe streets around you in “watch mode”. The map is generated based on data from past crimes (street, time), accidents, and neighborhood information.

When you click the flashlight button the unsafe streets around you are highlighted. The pink route is the safest route calculated. If there is more than one route, both routes will be shown on the map.

Build a Support Network

Knowing that there are people watching out for your safety is a large part of Safe Streets. When you start your walk home, you can notify someone with your location so they can see where you are at all times on your route. This is for peace of mind, so you know that someone close to you is aware of where you are.

When you start your route (click the pink button) you have the option of notifying someone that you are heading home. Then you start your walk home.

You can easily add people by pulling from your contact list on your phone and then choosing close friends, family, or a roommate.

If you click the icon on the top left, you add new friends/family members to a list of people you can notify when you are going home.

Prompt action in Case of an Emergency

If you are walking home and feel unsafe at any point, Safe Streets gives you the option of calling 911 at any time. Moreover, if you are a friend who is monitoring a friend’s location you also can call 911 or call your friend.

Once you opt in to share your location with a friend/family member they receive a notification. After clicking this notification they see your route and have the option of calling you or calling 911 in case of an emergency. Once you reach home they get notified you are safe and your location is no longer shared.

This is what a friend or family member sees. They can see the route taken, where you are on your route, and approximately how many minutes are left in your route. They also have the option of calling you or calling 911 if necessary (if your location stays the same for a long amount of time or if they are worried about you).

Nurture a Community

Stay tuned…

Learnings

I have only been working on this project for a week and there is so much more I want to do and learn more about. But in this time this is what I have learned:

  1. I am not the only one who feels unsafe at night. Women are more than twice as likely to fear walking alone at night than men.
  2. Social norms still play a big part. Many women are afraid of walking alone mainly because of the concern that “women shouldn’t be walking alone” and men are “okay” doing so.
  3. Knowing that someone knows where you are considerably eases fear. I did a small user test with 20 people to concept test Safe Streets and found that 18/20 women stated that they felt safer knowing that someone close to them knew where they were and could act in case of an emergency if they themselves couldn’t.
  4. Calling attention to emergency buttons may raise fear. In Safe Streets, I reduced the attention to the 911 button but still kept it in an accessible place. This decision was mainly to lower anxiety. Calling attention to emergency may increase stress that something bad will happen. I tested this by showing users two different designs: one with a larger and one with a smaller emergency button. I asked users to talk aloud. More than half stated that they felt more anxious when seeing the larger emergency button since it felt like a bad incident was more likely to happen, whereas with the smaller button they could focus on the journey home, but still be aware of their safety.

Safe Streets requires a lot more validation and testing to be near a real solution. There are also many other potentially valuable solutions to be explored that I did not have time to do in one week, but wished I could. I will be building on this concept next week to explore how we can nurture a community of safety.

Stay tuned next week to see more :)

This is part 1 of a year long series on design that improves the lives of women. Follow 52 Weeks of Design for Women to stay updated.