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Conference Paper · April 2015


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Andrée Woodcock Jane Osmond

Coventry University Coventry University


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Jane Osmond1 and Andree Woodcock2
Coventry School of Art and Design
Coventry University CV5 9AL
1 +447974984725;

Harassment of women as they go about their everyday lives is a common, yet largely ignored problem.
However, such experiences are not only traumatic, but have a long term effect on women’s sense of worth
and on their mobility patterns. Looking at the transport system as a whole, as required by new mobility
paradigms and whole journey experiences, the continued evidence of sexual harassment may be seen as
leading to inequality and reductions in transport inclusivity. The design of future transport systems need to
look at all aspects of mobility, from origin to destination and the factors influencing or limiting travel
Keywords: harassment, women, public spaces, transport design

1 Introduction
This paper discusses the results of a study into the public harassment of women (on the streets and on
public transport), the consequent effect on women’s mobility, the need for a cultural shift in terms of
raising awareness of what is acceptable/unacceptable behaviour in the public realm and the resulting need
for a consideration of the whole-journey experience.
1.1 Street Harassment
Street harassment may represent the most common and frequent type of sexual harassment encountered
by women. However it is often dismissed as a trivial and natural fact of life that women must tolerate.
Bowman (1993) defines its characteristics as 1) the targets of harassment are female; 2) the harassers are
male; 3) the harassers are unacquainted with their targets; 4) the encounter is face to face; 5) the forum is
a public one; 6) the content of the speech, if any, is not intended as public discourse. The remarks are
aimed at an individual, though they may be loud enough to be overheard and they are objectively
degrading, objectifying, humiliating and frequently threatening in nature. Davis (1994) defined harassment
as ‘spirit murder’, with a drip feed of harassment affecting women’s life and liberty. Recognising the link
between this and mobility is key, a woman who feels that she may be the target of abuse will change her
travel patterns and behaviour. When this arises additional burdens and barriers are placed on women
travellers, resulting in additional planning and suboptimal journeys.
Benard and Schlaffer (1984) commented on the way in which sexual harassment restricted women’s
mobility, claiming that public spaces become the male prerogative, and women are denied access to the
streets, and enjoyment of public resources. Bowman (1993) termed this as a ‘ghettoization to the private
sphere of hearth and home’. Thus, street harassment is an invasion of women’s privacy, an intrusion into
personal space which has a negative impact on women’s self-esteem.
Street harassment may be seen as a way of silencing women and promoting sexual oppression. Although
men may argue that it is harmless flirtation, Langelan (1993) pointed out that ’it is not only ineffective, but
consistently counterproductive; women react with disgust, not desire, with fear, not fascination’ and
‘women never really ignore harassment….they must deal with all the emotional repercussions of
victimization; fear, humiliation, feelings of powerlessness, rage.’
Adopting a feminist, phenomenological approach Turkheimer (1997) argued that men are ‘blind’ to the
pain women suffer. Many do not ‘see’ sexual harassment unless it is pointed out to them and they do not
understand the effects of such harassment. A starting point on the journey to bringing about cultural shift
in behaviour is the articulation, naming and sharing of women’s experiences. In order to raise awareness of
this issue, the following study was undertaken to gather the experiences of women in a UK city.
1.2 Harassment and Transport
Little has been published recently in the academic press about street harassment. However, our literature
review found evidence of national and international studies, showing similar trends. For example, a 2002
survey of 200 citizens in Beijing, China, showed that 70% had been subjected to a form of sexual
harassment, most saying that this occurred on public transportation, with 58% singling out bus travel
(Shanghai Star, 2002). A 2004 survey of 632 women, who travel during the rush-hour in Tokyo, revealed
that nearly 64% of women in their 20s and 30s said they were groped while commuting. A later study in
Tokyo revealed 2,000 reported groping cases and how this is an underreported crime (Fukada (2009).
In 2008, The Egyptian Centre for Women’s Rights surveyed 2,000 Egyptian men and women and 109
foreign women in four of the country’s governorates about sexual harassment on Egyptian streets. 83% of
Egyptian women reported experiencing sexual harassment on the street at least once and nearly half of the
women said they experienced it daily. Also, 98% of the foreign women surveyed reported experiencing
sexual harassment whilst in Egypt. In addition, wearing a veil did not appear to lessen a woman’s chances
of being harassed, and about 62 percent of Egyptian men admitted to perpetrating harassment. Later, in
2013, the United Nations Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women published a report
showing that 99.3% of Egyptian women have experienced some form of sexual harassment with touching
and verbal sexual harassment being the most common (Johnston 2008 quoted in Stop Street Harassment
iHollaback (2012) reported rates of sexual harassment in public spaces in 2012 in Poland, Croatia and
Turkey as 85%, 99% and 93% respectively. In the US in 2014 a 2,000-person national survey found that 65%
of all women had experienced street harassment. Among all women, 23% had been sexually touched, 20%
had been followed, and 9% had been forced to do something sexual (Kearl, 2014). Also, Crabtree and
Nsubuga (2012) refer to Gallup data from surveys in 143 countries in 2011 that show that in those
countries participating, including Italy, France, Australia, and the U.S., men are considerably more likely
than women to say they feel safe walking alone at night in their communities.
Meanwhile, throughout 2009, the Centre for Equity and Inclusion surveyed 630 women of all ages and
socioeconomic status in New Delhi and Old Delhi, India. 95% of women said their mobility was restricted
because of fear of male harassment in public places. Another 82% identifies the bus as the most unsafe
mode of public transportation because of male harassers (All Headline News 2009 quoted in Stop Street
Harassment 2015). That this fear is very real is reflected in the tragic case of female student Jyoti Singh,
who was raped and subsequently died from her injuries after boarding a New Delhi bus with a male friend
in 2013. (BBC News 2013).
Further, Maffi et al (2014) outlined the gender gap in transport and mobility across the EU, finding that
women travel differently from men in relation to modes of transport, distance travelled, the daily number
of trips and patterns and purposes of travel, tend to use public transport more and are more supportive of
sustainability agendas. Thus women will be key catalysts in achieving sustainability targets. Therefore,
research is needed to look at the barriers women face in making mobility choices and the ways in which
they can be better supported as fearless active travellers and users of public transport.
Woodcock, Lenard and Walsh (2003) also conducted a study on the safety and security of women drivers
and their passengers, part of which looked at the harassment of women drivers. It was found that women
across the world were subjected to varying degrees of harassment from road rage and tailgating to physical
assault. Most of this was gender related. One of the respondents thanked the research team for providing
an opportunity for her to voice her experiences. This paper, based on a 2013 study of sexual harassment in
public spaces outlined below, is a companion piece, examining women’s experiences of harassment as
travellers in the public realm.
2 Methodology
The study used a mixed methods approach and comprised two stages: an online survey, which aimed to
explore women’s experiences of public sexual harassment in the preceding 12 months, and follow up
interviews with a selection of those who completed the survey. The results are based on 193 online surveys
and 16 telephone interviews with women in and around a typical UK city. The respondents were recruited
through local online networks. The prevalent age of respondents was 17-29 years. Just over 90% of the
respondents lived, worked or were attending educational institutions in the city. (For the full survey and
methodology see Osmond 2013).
The harassment of lesbian, gay, bisexual and trans travellers was outside the scope of this survey. The
reader is therefore referred to TGEU (2012) and Hess (2014). Likewise for disabled travellers, please see
Transport Committee Report (2013).

3 Results
Overall, just over 60% of the sample had experienced some form of harassment during the previous 12
months. This broke down as 40% having received unwanted sexual comments, wolf whistling (32.8%), and
groping (12.3%), and 20% some other form of harassment. Over half of the respondents ignored the
incidents, 14% challenged it directly, and in just over 3% of the cases someone else intervened.
The following results are presented as a reflection of the whole journey experience of women (i.e. from
origin to destination). As such, only the results pertinent to travel and use of public spaces have been
included (i.e. work and school place harassment has been excluded, as have those cases which could not be
specifically attributed to the public realm or transport). Bearing this in mind 14.2% of the incidents were on
public transport and 52% on the street.
Asked how safe they felt on public transport or in the public realm, only 6% stated that they felt ‘very safe’;
with 51.2% indicating that they felt ‘fairly safe’, 35% ‘not very safe’ and 6.8 % ‘not safe at all’.
The following section looks at the incidents in more detail and the recommendations suggested by the
3.1 Examples of incidents in the last 12 months
Over 75 separate incidents were reported, most of which occurred in the street. This included in the vicinity
of bars and nightclubs, bus stops, on deserted roads or coming home from work, while walking, jogging, or
with children. The perpetrators were single men, men in groups, on bikes, in cars or on public transport.
The incidents related to:
 Unwanted physical contact (sexual and physical assault, hair stroking of children, bottom slapping,
being pelted with bottles/eggs, forced into cars).
 Nonverbal behaviours including exposure of genitals, and sexual gestures, being followed (on foot and
in cars) and having movements blocked or copied, being ‘accompanied’, kerb crawling, being leered
and beeped at.
 Verbal behaviour including being sworn at by pedestrians, cyclists and motorists, wolf whistles, being
subjected to crude, sexual and patronising comments, propositions and being forced to engage in
unwanted (sexual) conversation.
All of these form part of the everyday experience of being a female traveller. They are neither novel nor
astounding. What is astounding is that such behaviour is tolerated and almost expected regardless of the
damage it does:
‘I was walking to a friend’s house and a man walked passed me, waited until I was a few steps away and
whistled and started making crude comments at me’.
‘…on a bus I was made to feel intimidated by two males sitting behind me wolf whistling, calling me sexy
and asking me to talk to them - ‘at least now we have something sexy to look at’ was one comment.
After ignoring them I became a ‘stuck up slag’ and when I got off the bus they were discussing the way
my jeans made by bum look’.
‘Earlier in the year I had to change my route to work as a man was making me uncomfortable by staring
at me as I stepped up on to the bus each morning, and I was informed by another passenger that he had
ducked down to look up my skirt’.
‘Walking to the bus stop feeling low - someone shouted ‘cheer up love it will never happen’ then ‘give us
a smile’ then ‘fuck off I was only trying to be friendly’. It is not my duty to look cheerful and smile for
3.2 Location of incidents
The location and time of incidents varied (outside bars, walking in the street, cycling, waiting outside work,
in city arcades, in taxis) with one woman commenting: ‘hundreds of incidents, too many to articulate, this is
the reality of day to day life’. The duration of the incidents could be short (as in a one off comment),
persistent – i.e. not stopping until the woman is able to escape (being forced to listen to lewd comments or
conversations on public transport), repeated (e.g. on commuter journeys) and prolonged (e.g. being
followed home for over 20 miles).
3.2 Actions of respondents
The actions of respondents revealed their lack of empowerment and victimisation. For example, on being
subjected to day-time harassment outside a bar, one respondent commented that she did not go into the
bar because she was frightened her abuser would follow her in: ‘ultimately, my main fear is that perhaps,
even with bouncers on the door at the time, I wouldn’t have felt capable and sure enough of my position in
the situation to ask them [for help]; …the sad truth is that your only option is to ignore it, put up with it and
internalise the self loathing that doing this brings with it’.
Also the nature of the harassment and the reaction of others to the situations made the women feel guilty.
They were too pretty, dressed wrongly, or were in a place where such behaviour is expected. If they
reacted aggressively, they became the aggressor or were seen as unable to take a joke. Mostly, women
chose to ignore harassment because they were afraid of an escalation: ‘I just tried not to react in any way
to avoid further engagement, in the hope they would stop’; ‘I had a combination of shock and of fear of
what would happen if I challenged it. Spent the whole of the next day coming up with responses in my
Many women chose to carry on walking, putting distance between themselves and their assailants, an act
which may lead to more danger: ‘ran away – ended up having to run across the ring road due to there being
nowhere else to go – risking safety even more.’ One woman said she ‘walked away fast and hoped the
children wouldn’t notice the bad language’ and ‘I ignore it, because I worry that if I challenge it the situation
may escalate, especially if I have children with me, or I fear for their safety’.
Those who witnessed harassment rarely confronted or apologised for the behaviour of the perpetrator.
They sometimes attributed blame on the victim, ignored it or exploited the situation: ‘one time after being
harassed I sat down at a bus stop to cry and another man came along, asked if I was ok, and then stole my
3.4 Perceptions of safety
From the results of the survey it would seem that women travelling alone or with children experienced
harassment at levels which significantly affected their mobility: ‘It has almost become a part of life that us
as women have to accept and put up with it as it is not tackled’. They felt unsafe when they were alone,
especially at dusk or night time, near groups of men, in public spaces and car parks, in taxis, in deserted
precincts, in underpasses and poorly lit areas.
The effects on mobility are marked in comments such as: ‘I think I’m constantly waiting for someone to
follow me, shout at me, engage me in conversation’; ‘I drive whenever I can as I hate being on my own in
the streets’; ‘I actually feel safer when running because I am on the move and clearly engaging in an activity
(which I probably naively feel protects me from more attention)’;’I just hate walking anywhere on my
own…am constantly waiting for someone to follow me and sexually demean me in some way.’ and ‘I am
always on guard whenever I am out and about on my own’.
The impact on mobility patterns is clear. ‘I would not travel on a bus after 6pm’; ‘…commonplace for me to
bolster my safety by not going to lonely places, by using public transport at night rather than return to a car
park’; ‘…walking down the centre of my own street at night, and not going out alone at night’ and ‘…always
aware of my surroundings and not to put myself in a vulnerable position’.
Although often overlooked, the quality of the public realm was considered important, in particular lighting,
dark subways and car parks. Other items mentioned included the physical fabric of neighbourhoods - litter,
cars parked randomly, poorly maintained roads and pavements and poorly maintained properties.
Over half of the respondents mentioned that they would like better lighting in dark areas, specific places,
near bus stops and car parks. Increasing police or community warden presence and visibility was also
mentioned by over a quarter of respondents, especially at night, with additional comments around the
need for sexual harassment to be treated more seriously, and to increase police powers by moving to a
zero tolerance of antisocial behaviour. This was accompanied by calls for better treatment of victims,
better conviction rates and raising the awareness of and increasing the number of support centres. .
3.5 The need for cultural change
Many of the comments pointed to a need for cultural change and education:
‘Until society's attitudes change I don't think there's anything that can be done to make us feel safe. I'm
getting really tired of being told as a woman it's not safe for me to walk alone especially at night: why
not tell men it's not okay to treat us the way they do? It angers me that society has the ability to make
women feel like victims just because of our gender’.
One aspect of this need for cultural change has resonance with Darly and Lantane’s (1968) research into
the bystander effect, which relates to the inaction of people in groups when faced with an emergency
situation. The authors posited that this tends to happen because people take their cues from others when
deciding how react – in this case, it could be argued that because public sexual harassment of women is
seen as ‘normal’ then people do not intervene when then are faced with such an incident.
This was reflected in a related, small pilot study conducted with 12 male students aged between 17 and 21
in 2014. Of these 63% had witnessed wolfwhistling and 11% had seen women receive unwanted sexual
comments. However, 86% of the sample ignored what was happening, justifying their behaviour by stating
that ‘being wolf whistled’ at was not really sexual harassment and that intervention would create
unnecessary trouble. Although none of the male respondents reported that they engaged in sexual
harassment at the start of the study, when asked at the end of the discussion, 58% admitted to some form
of harassment, most commonly ‘leering at women’s bodies.’ They claimed that such activities were part of
being flirtatious, or ‘making a move’ on a specific woman. This confirms the claims made almost a decade
ago by Langelan (1993) and Turkheimer (1997), The findings are also in line with the NUS survey on the
growth of ‘lad cultures’ in UK universities (Weale, 2014). Interestingly, even brief exposure to the topic
leads them to look at their behaviour in a new way.

4 Discussion
4.1 The whole journey: the hexagon spindle model
As can be seen, it is impossible to separate street harassment from gender mobility issues, and so a shift
towards seeing the whole journey is needed – not just a focus on separate journey events. Woodcock
(2012) proposed the use of the hexagon spindle (H-S) model (Woodcock, Woolner and Benedyk, 2009) as
a means of representing the whole journey (i.e. origin to destination). Models of ergonomics take as their
starting point the user and represent the factors which influence the successful completion of the task.
Translating this to transport design, the user becomes either the driver or traveller, who may have a super
ordinate goal of reaching their destination (as safely, comfortably or conveniently as possible). The
fulfilment of this goal can be influenced by factors such as the design of the vehicle, the transport
infrastructure, behaviour of other passengers (Figure 1).
Figure 1: Hexagon-Spindle Model Applied to Transport


Management factors

External factors

Transport work setting

Transport work place



Task factors


The model proposes that a journey is made up of a number of segments (or legs), and that the experience
on any of these may have profound effects on mobility behaviour. The model also differentiates between
the factors that can affect journey experience. Each element of the journey from planning and purchasing
tickets, to arrival at transport gateways and travelling on vehicles and arrival at one’s destination needs to
be optimised for each traveller. The sequence of these can be represented as hexagons on a spindle, with
each hexagon representing a distinct part of the journey (Figure 2).
Figure 2: Model showing decomposition of aspects of the journey across time

This research has addressed the issue of the safety of women as travellers in the public realm and on public
transport and can include active forms of transport (walking and cycling), waiting for transport and
journeys on public vehicles. It is contended that the level of issues raised in all sectors of the H-S model at
the transport setting levels are so important because they seriously affect the mobility behaviour of women
and lessen their enjoyment of travel.

5 Recommendations
At the time of writing, there is little evidence that UK transport operators are specifically addressing the
issues identified in this paper. However, there have been police-led moves to address unwanted sexual
behaviour in two particular cities. In Project Guardian the police are working closely with Transport for
London to help reduce unwanted sexual behaviour on public transport (British Transport Police 2014); and
in the West Midlands, Project Empower is training public transport staff to spot any incidents and support
passengers to report. This latter initiative is backed up with an on-board and in-station marketing
campaign. To date Project Empower ‘has investigated nearly 100 allegations and made 26 arrests; 11 of
whom have now been convicted whilst several others are awaiting trial’ (West Midlands Police, 2015).
Although any attempt to address harassment on public transport is to be welcomed, the focus at the
moment seems to be on policing behaviour – not how to create a culture and transport system in which
such behaviour is regarded as abnormal and abhorrent.
Meanwhile, the findings of the above study are reflected in recommendations produced by the Equality
and Human Rights Commission (EHRC), which published the results of an inquiry into harassment of
disabled people on public transport. Although the focus of this inquiry was on disabled people, the
recommendations are based on the principles of inclusive design, which aims to minimise exclusion of
diverse groups.
It is therefore recommended that all public transport operators both undertake a review of their existing
services and include – at the very least - the following in any new transport initiatives (EHRC 2013):
 Transport designers should routinely take into account a diversity of users when considering design of
 Transport providers should identify ways to design out potential for conflict in new fleet and transport
infrastructure design. For example, they should review their vehicles and waiting areas to ensure that
they have adequate lighting, seating and staffing
 Public transport operators should develop reciprocal reporting arrangements between providers so
that people can report harassment experienced at stops, stations and on transport to whichever
operator they encounter. They should also develop systems to allow repeat perpetrators to be refused
entry to each other’s vehicles (similar to those already used by licensed premises).
 Regular equality training should be provided for frontline staff on handling harassment and clear
guidance to staff on routes to take when reporting an incident. This should be included as part of core
training, before transport staff work with the public.
 A wide range of groups should be involved in public transport policy development and transport
providers should work in partnership with criminal justice agencies to reduce risk on and around
transport provision.
 Data on high risk areas and subsequent actions to reduce risk should be collated. Based on this data
they should provide adequate protection where known high risks exist, in the same way as other
provision is made, for example, around football matches.
These recommendations can be plotted against the H-S model as follows:
Table 1: recommendations plotted against sectors of the H-S model

Examples Organisational Sector Contextual Sector Personal Sector

only Transport Transport
Social and Cultural Individual
Management Infrastructure Design factors Task Factors
Factors Factors
Factors Factors
 Promotion of
travel behaviour
 Increased  Captive
legislation and audience
 Review of police powers legislation
 Development  Citizenship
External  Safer changes made  Heightened  Sexual
of zero education
Environment streets/improveme to lighting in police or harassment to
tolerance from primary
Level nts to public realm wake of council community be taken more
areas school
budget cuts warden seriously
presence and  Sensitivity to
visibility needs of victims
 Awareness
 anti-  Better street
 on-board and in-  support
Transport Work harassment lighting near bus
station marketing passengers
Setting Level regulations stop and car
campaign to report
on vehicles parks
and stations,  Safer bus stops
 system to  Panic buttons at
report bus stops
harassment  Perform audits
 increased with all user
services groups
 Use of traffic
 training public
staff to spot
any incidents
 empowering
staff to act
Traveller Individual characteristics and skill and wellbeing levels for this individual at this time, relevant to the journey
Level experience

Further recommendations need to address the social, political and cultural factors. One way to begin this is
by sharing stories, to understand the severity and the extent of the problem in order to plan the most
appropriate solutions and to reflect on and share best practices from other countries. Education will play a
key part from primary school upwards as it is as young passengers that children start to absorb cultural
norms, when they see how other travellers respond to their parents on school runs, for example.
6 Conclusions
This paper has presented the findings from a study of the everyday harassment women have to contend
with when they are going to and from work, the shops or leisure activities. This harassment takes place in
the public realm, on transport, whether women are walking, exercising or with their children. Both young
and older women are targeted, with abuse that can range from wolf whistling to serious sexual assault and
molestation in public places. The behaviour of the harassed and the bystander, by failing to report or
intervene to stop harassment are sending signals that such behaviour is tolerable and even acceptable.
Therefore cultural shifts need to take place. Firstly, in educating the public about what is acceptable/
unacceptable behaviour in terms of treatment of women ; secondly in terms of mobility, if the whole
journey is the unit of study, equal weight needs to be given to all parts of the journey, with clear
commitment and funding streams to improving the safety of pedestrian and active travellers throughout
their journey. A complimentary stream of activity is needed in all transport related projects to ensure that
all travellers have safe and enjoyable journeys. Such activity needs to start with the education of primary
school children, who witness their mothers and carers being bullied and harassed in the street and on
‘school runs’.
Harassment and perceived safety affects women’s mobility patterns at planning, mode, time and route
choice levels. Women incur additional direct/indirect costs associated with unsafe streets and poor system
design in which they are truly third class citizens. We are left asking two questions 1) why would a woman
support a system where she is left feeling wounded and degraded; 2) why, with investment surrounding
smart, safe and inclusive transport is so little attention being placed on tackling transport system
inequalities. Further, this may be seen as another symptom of gender inequality in transport provision
which includes the failure to consider the complexity of women’s trips (trip chaining) in surveys and
transport planning (Maffi et al, op cit), making their journeys safer will provide more encouragement for
them to undertake and encourage sustainable forms of mobility to others
Thus, Woodcock (2012a) has previously argued that the whole journey experience is ‘other’ than the sum
of its parts, and that the experience, from planning to arrival at destination should be the focus of
attention, as depicted in the H-S model (2012b). While it has been contended that the experiences of the
longest journey have the greatest effect on perceived quality (Susilo and Cats, 2014), evidence presented
here may support a contrary view - that there is a threshold level at which experiences may be so
unpleasant, even on short parts of a journey, that they not only bias perception but change mobility
Consequently a microlevel analysis of the whole journey experience is recommended using the H-S model –
in particular its external layers which look at what influence external and cultural factors have on
person/transport interaction. These external and cultural factors are shaped by prevalent attitudes towards
women, law enforcement and are played out in the transport workplace and work settings levels (i.e. in the
vehicles, on the streets, at stations). Clearly urban and environmental design also has a part to play in
better provision of lighting, cctv cameras and service design such as regularity of services, sensitization of
staff, and so an exclusive focus on design of vehicles, although important, is not sufficient to address the
As this is a global and seemingly intractable problem, educational solutions are needed to target social and
cultural factors which will lead to zero tolerance of sexual harassment and greater self-awareness that this
is an unacceptable, offensive and discriminatory behaviour. Many future transport scenarios depend on
inclusivity and equity of provision, active, public and shared forms of transport and build on a reputation

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