A Novel Technological Approach to Women’s Safety on Public Transportation

Shannon Acton, Arif Butt, Eyon Butterworth, Bridget Lenet, Paul Moran

Image Source: leszekglasner, Adobe Stock Images

Women and those identifying as women have unique and complex needs, behaviours, and expectations when it comes to transportation and mobility. Men’s and Women’s experiences with public transportation systems are different regarding safety, personal security, frequency, accessibility, and affordability (Grisé et al 2022). Women take more short-distance trips than men, make multiple short-duration stops, and often travel during mid-day or off-peak times. Women are the main users of public transportation worldwide, yet these factors are not taken into consideration when planning and designing transport systems (Gonzalez Carvajal and Mehmood Alam 2018, Zhen 2021).

Safety and personal security are some of the primary factors influencing women’s transportation and mobility preferences. Women regularly pay more to use ride-hailing and traditional livery services to avoid harassment and aggression on public transportation (Loukaitou-Sideris 2009, Zhen 2021). Studies of the transport sector in Latin America and the Caribbean by Transport Gender Lab, show that greater than 60% of women who use public transit have experienced some form of physical or verbal assault (IADB 2022). These findings are similar to those about the experiences of women in North American cities, who have a greater reliance on public transit than men and often travel during off-peak hours because of their responsibilities for domestic work and roles as caregivers (Burns-Pieper 2019, Golob and McNally 1997, Gelinas 2022, Grisé et al 2022, Loukaitou-Sideris 2009).

Women experience different perceptions of safety than men while using public transit in Canada (Grisé et al 2022). Although women’s safety and personal security concerns while using public transit are recognized by local governments, opportunities exist to further engage riders in understanding how these concerns can affect a user’s overall experience. Safety concerns on public transit in Calgary are at the forefront of discussions after a series of recent high-profile incidents on CTrain platforms (Smith 2022). These concerns are expected to intensify as Transit officials increase service to 90 percent of pre-pandemic levels by the end of September 2022 as part of the city’s economic recovery strategy (MacVicar 2022a, b).

The Problem: Women are the main users of public transportation, yet their unique needs and safety concerns are overlooked when designing and planning public transit systems.

Public transit systems are historically designed using a gender-neutral approach, which marginalizes large groups of users including women and those identifying as women (Grisé et al 2022). This design approach is tailored to able-bodied white men who travel to and from the suburbs to a central business district in metropolitan areas. Transit systems designed using this approach make it challenging for women to travel, since they are more likely than men to act as caregivers and be responsible for unpaid domestic work (Steiner 2000). As a result of these responsibilities, women may have lower incomes and are more reliant on transit and make shorter, multiple trips closer to home.

How might we improve safety and security for women and address their unique needs on public transit systems? It is well documented that public sector and transit agencies have workforces with a higher proportion of male-identified staff compared to female-identified staff (Grisé et al 2022). Improving gender equality in the public transit workforce may help to address women’s needs by directly adding their perspectives to the operation and design of transit systems.

How might we increase the number of women working in public transit? Although it is recognized that improving gender parity may help to address women’s needs and concerns about personal safety on public transit, how do we recruit and incentivize women to work for transit agencies? Not only do the needs of women using transit need to be addressed, but the needs of women working for transit agencies also need to be identified and acknowledged. Making conditions more favourable for women from both a user and employee perspective will improve experiences for everyone who uses public transit.

How might we make transit more accessible and affordable for everyone? Since women are more likely than men to act as caregivers and be responsible for chauffeuring people in their care, lowering the cost of travel may help to meet their needs. Lowering or removing fees for children, seniors, and other segmented groups who use public transit has been suggested to remove barriers to travel (Grisé et al 2022). Making transit ridership more affordable could also incentivize new users to start using transit, which in turn could increase diversity and inclusion. Providing cost-effective travel will ultimately encourage more equitable ridership, which will benefit everyone who uses public transit.

How Might We (HMW) address women’s unique needs and safety concerns when designing and planning public transportation systems? There are several problems to consider when designing more diverse and inclusive transit systems that meet the needs of groups such as women and those who identify as women. Innovative design and improved delivery methods will provide more accessible and streamlined service.

Perceptions of Safety and Personal Security on Calgary Transit

Safety and personal security are key concerns for all people who use public transportation in Calgary. Users may feel frightened or anxious to travel on public transit following several recent violent and drug-related incidents along or near CTrain platforms (MacVicar 2022a, b, Rodriguez 2022). While the most recent available City of Calgary Transit user survey data from 2016 suggests that people feel safe overall, user perception of safety has plummeted since the beginning of the pandemic (Smith 2022). Problems with unruly behavior, intoxicated people, drug overdoses and violence have plagued Calgary Transit throughout the pandemic resulting in an overall drop in ridership.

Based on the most recent available survey data from the City of Calgary in 2016, around 1 in 10 people feel safe when using Calgary Transit (NRG Research Group 2017). The main reasons for feeling unsafe were due to encountering unruly or intoxicated people and a lack of Peace Officer / Security presence. These issues have only gotten worse throughout the pandemic resulting in significantly lower ridership (Smith 2022). Image Source: NRG Research Group 2017.

The time of day that people use public transit in Calgary heavily influences safety attitudes. Safety attitudes on CTrains or Calgary Transit Buses are positive before 6:00PM when ridership is the highest (NRG Research Group 2017). However, there is a significant drop in ridership on the CTrain after 6:00PM, which corresponds to a significant drop in safety attitudes. After 6:00PM, Calgary transit users feel safer travelling on a bus versus the CTrain, likely due to the relatively close presence of a driver in the event of any perceived safety issues that may arise.

Image Source: NRG Research Group 2017

Men feel significantly safer waiting at transit stops or using CTrains and Calgary Transit buses after 6:00PM relative to women (NRG Research Group 2017). Users aged 55+ also feel unsafe using Calgary Transit under the same circumstances relative to those younger than 55. Overall, transit safety is a concern for more vulnerable demographics including women and older adults during off-peak hours.

Image Source: NRG Research Group 2017

Incorporating Women’s Experiences and Needs into Calgary Transit Design

The experiences of women and those who identify as women are important to consider when designing and planning public transit systems. Public transit is an essential service for cost-effective travel within municipalities to access services, amenities, and places of employment. Incorporating women’s experiences, behaviours and feelings into the design will ensure that their travel needs are met and will ultimately make transit service more equitable and accessible for all users.

To better understand a women’s perspective of their experiences when using Calgary Transit, we developed the persona of Clare, an undergraduate University Student who regularly uses Calgary Transit to travel to the University of Calgary and to her part-time job in retail sales at Southcentre Mall. What unique needs and safety concerns does a rider like Clare have that should be incorporated into the design of Calgary Transit systems? What positive changes does Calgary Transit need to make to reduce a transit rider like Clare’s anxiety and fear of taking transit in the evening?

The target user persona of Claire, an undergraduate University Student who regularly uses Calgary Transit to travel to the University of Calgary and to her part-time job in retail sales at Southcentre Mall. Image sources: City of Calgary and leszekglasner, Adobe Stock Images.
Customer journey of undergraduate student Clare when she uses public transit to travel to and from appointments, shopping, social events, and work. Women like Clare take more short-distance trips than men, make multiple short-duration stops, and often travels during mid-day or off-peak times.
Empathy Map outlining behaviours and feelings from the perspective of target persona Clare’s unique needs and safety concerns while using public transit in Calgary. Women like Clare may feel frightened, anxious or frustrated that their personal safety is not being addressed or taken seriously when they use public transit and may opt to use more expensive alternative forms of transportation. Image source: leszekglasner, Adobe Stock Images.

A primary reason for users like Clare feeling unsafe is encountering unruly or intoxicated passengers while taking Calgary Transit. How might we prevent these types of encounters from happening? A possible solution is enhanced video surveillance of Calgary Transit stops, shelters, CTrains and Buses. Calgary Transit equips stations, buses and CTrains with cameras to enhance rider safety and offer security (City of Calgary 2016a).

Video cameras are monitored by Calgary Transit security staff that are in direct contact with peace officers who can dispatch them quickly or call other emergency responders. A question arising from this solution is how informed are transit users of these efforts? The City of Calgary 2016 survey showed that although 86% of riders were aware of the presence of video cameras on CTrain platforms, less than 70% knew that there were video cameras on CTrains and buses (NRG Research Group 2017). If cameras are being used in an attempt to dissuade inappropriate behaviour through active surveillance and rapid deployment of resources, how effective is this solution if users are not aware that it exists and authorities are unable to respond in a reasonable amount of time?

A secondary cause for users like Clare feeling unsafe is a lack of visible uniformed Peace Officers or security staff on Calgary Transit trains, buses, platforms and stops. As part of a service relaunch strategy, Calgary Transit plans to hire permanent security personnel to monitor each segment of the CTrain line and support Calgary peace and police officers (City of Calgary 2022b, MacVicar 2022b). An important question that arises from this strategy is how might we increase the number of uniformed Peace Officers and security without raising the overall cost of transit services? Increasing cost of services will reduce accessibility for lower-income users like Clare and may result in a continued reduction in overall ridership. It’s an age-old problem faced by municipalities and governments worldwide: how do we maintain the service levels that people demand and expect when no one wants to pay for them?

The increase in enforcement and patrols as well as the upgrading of video system security monitoring systems may ease women like Clare’s fears. However, these women may resort to paying more for alternatives such as ride-hailing or taxi services instead of using transit out of concern for their personal safety. Unfortunately, ride-hailing services such as Uber or Lyft are associated with their own unique safety risks and concerns for women like Clare. Multiple incidents of assaults and harassment of women passengers by male Uber drivers during off-peak hours have been reported in Calgary and other cities (Hixt 2018, Peason 2018, Nassar 2019). These types of incidents are typically underreported by ride-sharing services such as Uber, which has prompted the development of several initiatives in response to these issues (O’Brien 2021).

Most drivers who work for ride-sharing and taxi companies are men. According to the City of Calgary in 2017, only 3 women drove taxis and 100 drove for ride-sharing services, making up less than five percent of all drivers for these services in the city (Klingbeil 2017). Ride-sharing apps like DriveHer and Ride Please that cater exclusively to women drivers and passengers were launched to address this since many women do not feel safe driving alone with a male driver or passenger. These services are an innovative approach to dealing with issues of personal security while traveling for women, however, their cost and limited availability is a barrier for those who cannot afford to use them.

Mobile Safety App Tailored to Women who use Calgary Transit

To address the concerns and needs of women like Clare who rely on Calgary Transit for cost-effective travel, we determined that a modern and novel technology-based solution was needed. Despite adding more uniformed Peace Officers, installing updated security monitoring systems, and instituting the “Transit Watch” reporting program, overall ridership is down since the start of the pandemic due to safety concerns (City of Calgary 2022a, MacVicar 2022a, Smith 2022). To provide a way for women to discretely seek help when they perceive a threat, we would like to design a mobile app that could be used to alert authorities in the event of an emergency or perceived threat. The app would be designed with the intent to have buy-in and collaboration with all stakeholders including users, Calgary Transit, Calgary Police, Women’s Safety Groups and participating ride-sharing services.

The mobile app, CLARE (Calgary Location Alert Response Emergency), will be designed to alert Calgary Transit Peace Officers, Calgary Police, Calgary Transit drivers, and/or any other authorities in the event of an emergency or perceived threat. Using the app will alert a central dispatch service that will coordinate resources while simultaneously determining the proximity of nearby authorities based on the user’s location. Central to the app’s design is a prominent help or alert button that will appear on the notification or lock screen of a mobile device while the app is installed and running. Using the app will enable a user to discretely alert authorities without drawing attention from unruly, intoxicated, or threatening passengers from getting up to use a help button, finding posted information to text for help, or attempting to exit the train or bus.

Throughout the inspiration, ideation and initial design processes, the importance of making the app easily accessible during an emergency was emphasized. To make using CLARE as simple as possible in the event of an emergency, the user can seek help by pushing a large red button on the notification or lock screen or in-app on a mobile device where the app is installed. Big red buttons are synonymous with controlling a function of critical importance in almost every culture, which will make it accessible to all users. Another feature that was highlighted during the discovery phase is the importance of receiving a confirmation response from authorities. The app will send a message to the user via push notification or text to acknowledge that the request for assistance has been received and help is on the way.

Iteration of CLARE prototype, a mobile app that can be used to alert authorities in the event of a perceived threat or danger to women riding on Calgary Transit. The first iteration was not easy to use and did not address the target user’s needs. The final iteration is accessible and easy to use, requiring just two clicks to access emergency services.
Storyboard of undergraduate student Clare’s experience when she uses the CLARE mobile app to request help from Calgary Transit while taking the CTrain home from work. Clare was able to easily access the app and request help, which made her trip home safer and less stressful.

The initial testing stage of the CLARE mobile app prototype will focus on the experience of the target persona, Clare. To test the app, we will recruit ten female Calgary Transit users like Clare who are in their early 20’s and attend a post-secondary institution such as the University of Calgary or Mount Royal University. The test recruits will not own vehicles and rely exclusively on Calgary Transit to travel to school, work, and extra-curricular activities. Being in their early 20’s, the CLARE test group will have owned mobile phones for more than 10 years and are familiar with accessing, using, and readily learning the capabilities of new apps.

To test how accessible, useful, and easy our prototype solution is to address the problem of personal safety for riders on Calgary Transit, we will gather our target users and walk them through our wireframe prototype (Fanguy 2020). We will use this prototype to explore what happens when clicking through the prompts on the app and show them what the screen would look like through each step of the process. Using consistent colour with an accessible and prominent button, the app will direct the users to push the button to access help from authorities in the event of an emergency or perceived threat (Google for Startups 2016).

The types of questions that we will ask the target user group will relate to ease of use of the mobile app, which was identified as one of the most critical features in the event of a potential emergency:

  • How fast can you access the CLARE app?
  • Is the CLARE app easy and simple to use when personal safety is a concern?
  • Are you willing to provide your personal information to the app to fast-track your information being forwarded to authorities or emergency services?
  • What issues did you encounter using the CLARE app? Was it easy to use?
  • Are there any redundancies?

Considering Women’s Experiences and Needs Important to Better Design Transit for All Users

New and innovative designs and services addressing women’s concerns about personal safety and security will need to be developed to improve overall user experiences on public transportation. Solutions above and beyond simply providing greater numbers of uniformed staff and increasing surveillance need to be implemented to reassure women and other users that they are safe. Responses to concerns including making uniformed officers more approachable, redistributing service throughout the day from peak times, and partnering with other agencies will help to provide a greater sense of perceived and actual security (Grisé et al 2022). Incorporating these services with a mobile app such as CLARE, will help to improve the personal security of women who use public transit, which in turn will enhance safety and experiences for all users.


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