Ingrained fears limit women’s transport choices

Women often feel responsible for their own safety when travelling alone

It would be understandable if women's fears around travelling alone were heightened following the killing of Sarah Everard, abducted while walking home from a friend's house in London earlier this month.

In research commissioned by Transport Infrastructure Ireland (TII), the body responsible for the provision and operation of public transport systems, Irish women tell of their fears in walking to and from stops and stations, of harassment on buses and trains and their strategies to make themselves invisible.

The Travelling in a Woman’s Shoes report was based on research conducted last year, unprompted by any particular incident. It speaks not of a sudden reactive shock, but of an ingrained fear, or at the very least unease, of women going about their daily lives.

The report details how women’s experiences and perceptions of danger limit their activities, to a greater extent than might have been imagined.


More than half of women surveyed said they would not use public transport after dark – not just that they didn’t feel particularly comfortable doing it, but that they wouldn’t do it at all. One third said there had been times when the feeling of insecurity around travelling alone had stopped them going out altogether.

Depressingly, women appear to see this as their own problem, the report found.

“When talking about safety, most women viewed it as their responsibility, and were hesitant to express issues they were experiencing out of fear for not being believed or being seen to be dramatic. Some women worried that they would lose their independence if they told others. Instead, women often try to resolve these issues by limiting what they do, or instituting elaborate workarounds.”

‘Makeshift weapon’

Lengthy in-home interviews with a cross-section of women revealed the convoluted, and perhaps not always effective strategies they employed just to be able to feel safe taking a bus or a train. These included travelling one stop further than required to avoid an unsafe station, holding keys when walking home as a “makeshift weapon”, calling someone along the way, or “dressing down” to avoid attracting attention.

These fears, sense of blame and coping strategies were often inculcated from a young age the report found.

“This discourse is often passed down within families, who often send different messages to young boys and girls growing up,” but were perpetuated throughout society. “Compounding the message shared within families, discourse in the workplace and educational institutions can also perpetuate the harmful idea that it is up to women to protect themselves.”

The report recommends investment in infrastructure that directly and indirectly improves safety of public transport walking and cycling, including better street lighting and improved visibility, more trained staff, increased frequency of services (especially at night) and easier ways to report incidents. “The women interviewed also relied on nearby shops and cafes to feel safe while waiting for transport, showing us that convivial placemaking is also key.”

Car ownership

The report acknowledged it was essential for women’s safety, and their perceptions of their safety, that these barriers to using public transport, walking or cycling were removed, but it said it was also vital from a climate prospective.

The research found that 95 per cent of women nationally and 79 per cent in Dublin viewed having a car as a necessity. While in many cases this was because they viewed sustainable transport as inconvenient or unavailable to them, the perception that these modes are unsafe, doesn't help.

“If women feel more empowered and safe to use sustainable transport modes such as walking, cycling, public transport and carpooling, there will be less dependence on cars, more public transport trips taken across the day and night, and enhanced quality of life for all,” the report said.

“In the context of the climate change targets, and TII’s mission, we as a public agency need to promote these sustainable forms of transport. Exploring the experiences of women travelling in Ireland, their mobility barriers, and the challenges that they face, is a critical part of the sustainability agenda. Without a better understanding of women’s needs, we will struggle to achieve modal shift.”