The Shocking Connection Between Street Harassment And Street Lighting

Flickr / Michael
Street lighting has a known impact on women’s safety. So why do city planners consider it a ‘gender-neutral’ issue?

I vividly remember the first time I encountered street harassment; I was 12, living in a suburb of Northern California. As dusk settled, I was on my way home from a friend’s place when an older man sitting on a bench in front of his house catcalled me.

He whistled.

I kept walking, but he stood up and began to follow me.

“Hubba hubba, I do like what I see.”

I was shocked, confused. I felt violated. Walking alone in the dark, not only was I terrified, but I didn’t have a word to describe what I was experiencing. I desperately wanted this nightmare to be over, but his whistles followed me and his stalking continued. I ran the rest of the way home trying to hide the tears that were now streaming down my face.

As I got older, the street harassment didn’t go away, but I taught myself how to deal with it. Walk fast. Don’t make eye contact. Avoid certain streets. Quickly look back to make sure I’m not being followed. Don’t go out alone past a certain time. When — not if — it happens, force a smile and hope for the best.

Like many women, I internalized street harassment; I came to take it as a fact of life. But let’s be clear: Being openly propositioned and threatened isn’t normal and our society shouldn’t accept it as such.

It is a well known fact — amply documented — that women face greater amounts of street harassment and violence than men. Additionally, a new study conducted by Harvard researchers reveals that a vast majority — 87% — of U.S. women ages 18–34 have endured sexual harassment or violence.

Force a smile and hope for the best.

What is less clear are the reasons behind why some of these problems persist, and what can be done about them.

If we roll the clock back to 2008 during the economic recession in the United States, many cities began to reduce the amount of street lighting in an effort to cut costs. These marginal cost-saving measures had a disproportionately negative effect on women and women’s safety. In the years after, cases of gender-based street harassment and violence spiked in some cities. In 2014, San Diego reported six cases in one neighborhood alone during a two-month span in which women were physically assaulted on dimly lit streets. In Oakland, California, overall crime rates rose citywide after a reduction in street lighting.

The relationship between poor street lighting and gender-based violence is global and widespread. Cities across India, for example, added thousands of street lights to improve the safety of women traveling at night in response to safety concerns women communicated.

Walking alone at night shouldn’t be something that women have to fear. We have the ability to create streets where women are comfortable using the public space they have a right to, and are safe in doing so. But at the same time, the people in power to make street lighting decisions, such as policy-makers, urban planners, and city engineers — who, let’s not forget, are overwhelmingly cis white males — often claim to take a “gender neutral approach” to street lighting.

Walking alone at night shouldn’t be something that women have to fear.

In my work as a scholar who studies the intersection of feminist theory and transportation policy, I engage with urban planners and engineers frequently. The focus of my research aims to understand the reasoning behind why they undertake certain actions, and how their decisions could better support the mobility needs of women.

My recent work involved extensive interviews with urban planners and engineers from cities within 16 U.S. states to discuss their approaches to providing street lights in the cities where they work. A majority of the interviewees explicitly claimed to take a “gender neutral approach” to street lighting, which is problematic for five distinct reasons.

1/ Referring to street lights as a “gender neutral issue” is a way for city officials to apply a “one size fits all” approach to a situation where the “one size” is clearly best suited to men and their needs.

As a result, the distinct needs of women are not reflected in transportation policy-making and urban planning practices, which has a tangible impact on how our streets look and who is able to use them.

In deciding where street lights are located, the most common approach is to only provide street lights at intersections and along major arterial streets (typically streets with high motorist speeds and multiple travel lanes). While this may satisfy the safety needs and comfort levels of men, women still report not feeling safe walking in dimly lit areas. As a result, this forces women to either consciously or subconsciously change their route to travel along better-lit streets at night.

Unfortunately, not only is the woman now being forced to walk out of her way to avoid dark neighborhood streets, but since these streets generally have higher automobile speeds and lack mid-block crosswalks, women walking at night are then thrust into situations where they are faced with entirely new safety risks.

2/ Different genders look at infrastructure differently, which isn’t accounted for in a gender-neutral approach to street lighting decisions.

For example, when a bicycle path or sidewalk goes through a tunnel or passes between two fences, men and women view these in drastically different ways. A city engineer or policymaker may authorize the construction of a fence along an off-road bicycle path in an attempt to “keep people out” or from trespassing on private property; however, women oftentimes view this as a way of “keeping them in” where they have no “out” in the event that their personal safety is at risk.

Keeping these paths well lit at night is one way to provide a safer environment for women where they feel comfortable and willing to use them.

3/ These safety concerns are multiplied for women of color and gender non-binary people who face disproportionately high levels of street violence.

We’re desperately in need of an intersectional approach to urban planning and street lighting standards to ensure cities are safe for everyone. Intersectional transportation planning recognizes the diversity of mobility needs, and works to include a wide range of viewpoints in urban planning conversations.

There isn’t simply one universal approach to street lighting and urban planning, but equitable urban planning requires participation from the public. More complicated still, sometimes the process for the public to become involved doesn’t meet the needs of certain groups. But simple changes such as providing childcare services, offering translators at public meetings, and soliciting input from people with marginalized and underrepresented identities — through electronic and written methods — can help assure that our built environments meet the safety needs of everyone.

4/ Our contemporary transportation systems and design of city streets are already entrenched in a sexist and patriarchal understanding of mobility and female independence.

As a result of poor street lighting, women sometimes are less likely to independently walk, bike, or use public transit at night, where men are not. This constrains where women freely go, takes away their right to independently use public space, and reinforces a patriarchal view of city streets.

5/ When street lighting is viewed as a gender-neutral issue, it only serves to further normalize and trivialize the realities of the street harassment and violence that women face.

And, most importantly, it ignores that women and other genders have distinct safety needs that aren’t met by gender-neutral urban planning.

Ultimately, city engineers and urban planners are the decision-making forces behind providing adequate street lighting in cities. And, although it is the city decision-makers’ responsibility to ensure the needs of all genders are met in their work, too often the needs of women are camouflaged by gender-neutral practices or overlooked altogether. Women can and should play a direct role in informing and impacting urban planning decisions by working to make their voices heard.

Part of centering these voices is striving to embed these conversations on street violence, body boundaries, and respect from an early age — and having them at home isn’t enough. We must make them commonplace in schools and community and civic programs, all the while empowering women to speak out against street harassment rather than asking them to normalize it.

The most common way to report cases of street harassment and safety concerns is to contact law enforcement; however, because some marginalized communities have strained relationships with law-enforcement officials, local transportation and women’s advocacy groups can also serve as a vital resource in communicating the distinct travel needs of women.

City planners and policymakers play a critical role in curbing street harassment and gender-based street violence, and acknowledging women’s transportation needs by providing ample street lighting is one small step in the right direction.

In order to reach a place where transportation practices meet the needs of all genders, women must be able to share their transportation experiences, and transportation decision-makers must listen.

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