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A new study has reportedly found that fear of sexual assault and other gender-based violence are keeping women from walking in their cities. The results of the survey published by Leading Cities reflected studies that have shown the majority of women and many nonbinary pedestrians in the U.S. experience gender-based harassment and abuse in their cities.
Conducted by two Columbia University researchers and published by Leading Cities, a new survey asked people of all genders from 12 countries (including the U.S.) how safe or unsafe they felt while walking in their communities, and how the features of their built environments impacted their perceptions.
For women-identified respondents around the globe, the results were overwhelmingly similar. A shocking 30% of women responded that they “always” or “very frequently” choose other modes to get around the city, or when possible, skip going out altogether, simply because they feel unsafe walking. Moreover, a staggering 70% of all women surveyed listed the possibility of sexual assault as their number one worry.
In contrast, though the small sample of gender non-binary people who responded to the survey also ranked sexual assault as a top concern, zero men who responded to the survey said the same.
As aforementioned, other studies have showed that women and nonbinary people experience gender-based harassment and abuse in their cities, but the researchers behind this particular paper said that theirs is one of the first attempts to actually quantify just how deeply pervasive — and sometimes deeply inhibiting — fears of violence really are among women and enbies who walk.
“When we started showing this research to people, every other woman we spoke to was like, ‘Oh my god, this is so obvious; why do we even need a study?’” Shagun Sethi, who co-authored the paper, reportedly said. “And every single man was like, ‘This is shocking!’ — including our publisher, our colleagues, our family and friends, everyone. As women, we constantly run on the notion of being unsafe, and a lot of men truly have no idea.”
Sethi underscored that those fears themselves are often just as big a barrier to women’s mobility as the actual violence and abuse women experience in the street realm. But in many communities, crime prevention strategies don’t prioritize creating environments that feel comprehensively safe. For example, by cultivating inviting, walkable neighborhoods with lots of other pedestrians around — instead favoring isolated enforcement and prevention strategies at discrete points where crimes have already occurred, or are likely to.
As Sethi explained, “An assault happens after dark in a certain neighborhood, they put up street lights in the area, and then they say, ‘It’s safe now.’ But safety is a state of mind. The fact that more than half of our population is not feeling safe when they’re on the street is reason alone to enhance our safety measures.”
And yet, the features of the built environment that women say would make them feel safer while walking, like active street fronts and wide sidewalks, are not substantially different than what other genders want out of their roadways, too.
Juliana Vélez-Duque, who co-authored the paper, and Sethi there’s far more research to be done to really understand how to help women and gender-nonconforming people of all backgrounds feel safe on their city streets. The sample size of their study was small — about 300 people— and many of the respondents came from Sethi’s native India and Vélez-Duque’s native Colombia. Still, both researchers say the survey provides more than enough evidence that the perspectives of women of diverse backgrounds needed to be better represented in the planning process, particularly in decision-making roles.