Early one evening in October, Rebecca Levine, a 27-year-old law student, was headed down the escalator at the Gallery Place Metro station when she noticed that a man riding ahead of her kept turning around to look at her.
She politely smiled and looked away.
But when the man got to the bottom, he didn’t head for the trains. He stopped and waited for her to come down.
When she did, “he then began to match by pace, step for step, until we reached the turnstiles,” Levine said. “I began to freak out, and so I pulled over to the side, pretending to fumble for my Metro pass, when I actually wanted to see if he would go ahead and maybe I was being paranoid,” she said in an email.
She wasn’t being paranoid. “He did not move," she said. "At this point I called my boyfriend, asking him to remain on the line with me until I knew I was safe.” Eventually the man did go away. “But I was really spooked,” she said. This is why she doesn’t take Metro alone late at night when platforms can be dark and empty. Instead, she’ll pay extra to take an Uber or Lyft.
According to a recent study, there are plenty of women like Levine who choose alternate transportation methods because they fear being harassed — or worse — on public transit, which means they end up paying more for transportation than men do.
It’s another form of a “pink tax,” in which women pay more than men for the same services, such as dry cleaning, said Sarah Kaufman, one of the study’s authors and the associate director of New York University’s Rudin Center for Transportation.
A study conducted in 2015 by the New York City Department of Consumer Affairs found that on average, products marketed to women cost 7 percent more than comparable ones for men, suggesting that women are paying “thousands of dollars more over the course of their lives to purchase similar products as men.”
Similarly, Kaufman estimated in her “The Pink Tax on Transportation: Women’s Challenges in Mobility" study last month that the need to take cabs or a ride-hailing app for safety reasons means that women in New York are paying between $26 to $50 more per month than men for transportation.
The estimate is based on a web-based survey she conducted of about 550 people in New York, which indicated women have good reason to be more worried than men. Seventy-five percent of women who responded said they’d been harassed or been the victims of theft while taking public transportation, compared to 47 percent of men.
As a result, about 29 percent of women said they avoid taking public transportation late at night, compared to 8 percent of men, meaning women are more likely to have to find more expensive alternatives.
It’s unknown whether any similar studies have been conducted in Washington. Kaufman said fewer women may feel at risk in D.C. than in New York because Metro trains don’t run as late as New York’s subway.
But many women — particularly those like Levine, who have been harassed on Metro — say they do think there is a pink tax on transportation here.
“Unless you are traveling with a male companion or in a group of people, traveling by yourself at night, [taking Metro] seems like asking for unwanted trouble,” Levine said.
Trying to figure out how to reverse its loss of 125,00 trips a day over the past decade, Metro is proposing a number of improvements aimed at drawing more men and women riders, like having trains more frequently after rush hour. But there are other steps Metro could take that would focus on making women feel safer, like having more staff on rail platforms, said Levine and others.
“If Metro had more safety staff around, or just more staff in general, I might feel better about utilizing services alone past 7 p.m. or 8 p.m.,” Levine said.
It helps that station managers are monitoring surveillance cameras, she said. But only so much. “Station managers are often dealing with people’s cards that aren’t working, giving directions, etc. Oftentimes, they aren’t even in their little booth,” she said.
One caveat Kaufman gives about her study is that a disproportionate share of the people who took the survey were highly educated and had higher incomes. They could afford alternatives to public transportation. But lower-income women worried about their safety likely aren’t paying extra — because they can’t afford Lyft or Uber, she said.
“Only some of us can afford to pay this pink tax," Alicia Sanchez Gill said. "Those of us who can’t afford cabs every day, who work multiple jobs, are often those who are on the Metro.” Sanchez Gill is the interim executive director of Collective Action for Safe Spaces, a Washington group working on reducing sexual and other forms of harassment in public areas.
Metro spokeswoman Sherri Ly stopped short of disputing that there is a pink tax. But she noted that according to the latest figures available, Metro’s weekday daily rail ridership in May was 626,423 — up about 1 percent from the previous May, after years of declines. Still, daily rail ridership remained down by about 125,000 riders from the same period in 2010.
She also said crime on the system is at a 10-year low. Through October, serious crimes were down 16 percent in the entire system, compared to the same period last year. Through November, the majority of crime victims in the entire system this year — 52 percent— were male, she said. She said also that people generally decide whether or not to use transit based on other factors like reliability.
Sanchez Gill, though, pointed to a Metro survey that found that 27 percent of women, compared to 14 percent of men, have experienced sexual harassment on the transit system. Most of the harassment was verbal, according to the survey, but 30 percent of those who have been harassed said it involved being rubbed up against in a sexual way. Twenty-one percent said it involved groping, and 14 percent characterized what they experienced as sexual assault.
D.C. Council member Brianne Nadeau, D-Ward 1, also said she believes women end up paying more than men for transportation to be safe.
“The pink tax exists,” said Nadeau, who sponsored a bill approved by the council in May creating an advisory committee to figure out how to deal with public harassment and to train city workers in how to intervene.
“During a hearing about the law I heard from woman after woman who described taking Uber or taxis because they felt unsafe walking or taking public transit,” Nadeau said in a statement. "That adds up and it’s unfair. Women shouldn’t have to spend more to feel safe going about their daily lives.”
Dale Van Ollefen knows she’s paying extra to avoid public transportation at night.
“I feel much safer taking a Lyft, and consider it a worthwhile cost so I can travel by myself at night,” she said, particularly after what happened to her in March at the Ballston Metro station.
“A man followed me into the elevator, and it was just the two of us. When the elevator was about halfway to the top, I noticed he was openly masturbating and looking at me. I made eye contact, said, ‘Are you serious?’ and then when the elevator doors opened he ran off,” she recalled in an email.
It wasn’t even late at night. It was about 4:30 p.m., she said.
But paying for Lyft or Uber isn’t always safer, according to national survey of 500 women in October by the National Council for Home Safety and Security, a trade group for the home security industry. It found that 23 percent of female Uber riders and 15 percent of female Lyft riders had been made to feel so uncomfortable they had to report the driver.
Spokespeople for Lyft and Uber said in statements that safety is the companies' top priority, citing steps they take like conducting background checks on drivers, and allowing passengers to rate drivers.
Levine said she’s been harassed on Lyft and Uber as well. “I’ve had male drivers ask if I’m going to meet my boyfriend, where I’m going, if they can go too (not in a joking manner), or just repeatedly comment on my body/face despite my protests or obvious discomfort,” she said.
“Maybe it’s all perception,” she said. “But I still feel safer in a car than on Metro.”
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