Margaret Wroblewski is the first to acknowledge that her experiences on Metro are not unusual.
“It’s a very little situation, but this happens all the time to women,” said Wroblewski, 22, who lives in Olney, Md. “It’s always in the back of my head when I step on Metro.”
For a long time, Wroblewski — and many other regular riders — just assumed that such interactions were the unavoidable reality of riding public transit on a daily basis. You just hope that it never rises to the level of something more serious.
But more recently, prompted by the #MeToo movement and the increasing sense of the power of speaking out, women like Wroblewski are working to identify strategies to combat the problem of harassment on public transit.
Wroblewski, a graduate student in new media photojournalism at George Washington University, has been working on a project called “I Was On the Metro When,” highlighting the experiences of other women on public transit. She’s photographed and interviewed a handful of women about their personal encounters with harassment on the system.
Ultimately, she said, she wants to interview 50 people, and find a way to share their photos and stories at an exhibit inside a Metro station.
“There are so many small moments, and a lot of women feel that their story isn’t valid, or valid enough,” she said. “And they just brush it off and move on with their day. But it is valid, and it’s important.”
And she’s not the only one. At an upcoming meeting of the Action Committee for Transit in Silver Spring on Tuesday night, the topic of discussion will be “Women’s Safety in Transit,” with a conversation led by Kristen Jeffers, founder and editor in chief of the Black Urbanist blog.
Jeffers said her talk will focus on ways to increase safety for female transit riders, but also improve safety for female transit workers, and consider how race and class are taken into account when considering whose stories of harassment gain the most traction.
She believes there should be more discussion about strategies — for riders and also for transit agency managers — that could be employed to solve the problem.
Jeffers said women should feel more empowered to seek assistance from a bus driver, or sit in the first car of a train near the operator, when they feel threatened by a fellow passenger. They also should not hesitate to speak up on a crowded train, and seek the help of other passengers to take photos or videos of a person engaging in sexual harassment.
Transit officials should find better ways to use surveillance video footage to identify people who are consistently intimidating women on buses or trains, she added. But, Jeffers pointed out, Metro passengers and administrators need to balance the need for asserting women’s safety while remaining aware that black and brown men on public transit are often targets of over-policing.
“All of these suggestions are really tricky because they get into how we see each other and how we perceive gender, race and who has the right to public space and the right to look at us in public space,” Jeffers said.
Anastasia Loukaitou-Sideris, professor of urban planning at the University of California at Los Angeles, said in October that harassment on public transit is a legitimate, and significant, public policy issue. One negative experience can give a person second thoughts about using public transit at all, or opting for ride hailing services or driving their own car when considering a trip late at night.
“These experiences that happen very early on — because they’re so dramatic and they make you so scared — they have quite a lot of impact. They may taint your use of public transportation and public settings for a very, very long time,” Loukaitou-Sideris said.
Wroblewski said that’s how she feels about her commute. She doesn’t drive to the District because it’s too expensive to park, but she wishes she could — just so she could avoid harassment on the train. Other women she has interviewed for the project have expressed similar misgivings.
Wroblewski said many of those women did not want their full names shared.
There was Megan, who described her experience of dealing with a persistent stranger on the Metro platform.
“He walked up to me and started telling me how beautiful I am and how he really wants my number and wants to take me out,” according to the account accompanying her photograph. “I told him politely that I don’t feel comfortable giving my number out to strangers. He would not walk away until I promised that the next time he sees me again that I have to give him my number because we wouldn’t be strangers anymore. He was harassing me for about 5 minutes until the Metro got there.”
She wished someone had stepped in to come to her defense as she floundered in her attempts to ask him to leave her alone.
“There were plenty of people around especially since it was rush hour going to work, but no one said anything. I didn’t feel right for the rest of the day. Since then I get to the Metro and I am scared he is going to be there again,” the woman said in her account.
And there was Lisa who offered advice to other women on how to deal with intimidation by men on the train.
“I would just tell a person pray,” she said, according to Wroblewski’s project. “That’s what I do. Hopefully they will have a peaceful ride to their destination and a peaceful ride back. Please God let me get to my destination in one piece. Get all these men and boys to leave me alone I just want to get where I’m going.”
But the project also provides examples of how staff at transit stations could do a better job of responding to such incidents. One woman, Violet, recounted an experience in which a man at Union Station brushed up against her, put his hand on her leg, lifted her dress, and touched her thigh — then whispered “sexy” in her ear.
She told station security guards, but they did not take down her information to log it.
“I confronted them and they stated, ‘Oh yeah we let everyone know but we think he left so don’t worry about it’. They didn’t write any information down about what happened to me or seem to care at all,” Violet said.
Loukaitou-Sideris said it’s important to log those types of incidents, to provide thorough data on where, and when, these kinds of incidents occur most frequently.
Wroblewski said the most heartening interview she has done so far provided a model for how bystanders can help deal with harassment. A woman named Olivia told Wroblewski about a recent experience in which she watched uncomfortably as a man sat next to a stranger on the train and put his hand on her thigh and began to rub her leg. The woman sat frozen, seemingly shocked.
“So I thought … Oh God. What do I do? Do I call him out. I don’t want him to react violently and start a large scene,” the woman recounted in Wroblewski’s project. “So what I did was I went, ‘Hey oh my god! I haven’t seen you in so long! How are you? Come sit right next to me!’ She looked at me, she jumped up from the seat and sat right next to me. He was glowering in the seat close to us.”
The women got off on the train together.