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Fintan O’Toole: A very basic truth is being dodged - the public realm has to be policed

Feeling unsafe is one of the reasons 95% of Irish women say they need a car

My father was a bus conductor. For younger readers, I might as well have written that he was an ostler or a lamplighter.

I recently saw a battered CIÉ ticket machine, similar to the one he slung over his shoulder like a machine gun, for sale on Ebay for $600. I suppose it qualifies as a quaint antique now.

Personal nostalgia aside, though, what got me thinking about his job were two apparently unrelated events. One is this week’s ballot on industrial action by members of the National Bus and Rail Union, sick of dealing with abuse and intimidation. The other is the Cop26 conference on climate change.

They are, oddly enough, related. The biggest source of Ireland’s carbon emissions is transport. We need to move people out of cars and on to buses, trams and trains.


And that simply won’t happen if travellers – especially women – don’t feel safe. Antisocial behaviour on public transport is a feminist issue. It’s also a green issue.

Sometimes, during the summers, my mother, fed up with us being under her feet, would pack us children off to spend the day sitting on my father’s bus. So I spent a lot of time watching him at work.

He did a lot more than collect fares. He was, bluntly, a man in a uniform with the strange authority bestowed by a blue serge suit and a cap with a shiny badge.

He helped women with prams on and off the bus. He stopped men who were obviously drunk and belligerent from boarding – or, in rare cases, threw them off. He kept gaggles of hyped-up schoolboys in order.

And then he joined the lamplighters as a member of a defunct trade. In 1986, CIÉ began to phase out conductors.

Later, guards, who fulfilled many of the same functions, disappeared from trains, replaced, if at all, by private security contractors – all part of the neoliberal drive to outsource or cut public services.

Fear factor

The long-term product is fear – especially for women. A very important part of the public realm has been shrunk.

A Plan International survey of women in Dublin in 2018 found that 58 per cent said they often or sometimes did not feel safe taking a bus. Last year a study for the State agency Transport Infrastructure Ireland found that 55 per cent of women (compared with 35 per cent of men) would not use public transport after dark or late at night.

Thirty-four per cent of women (compared with 24 per cent of men) said their feelings of insecurity when travelling had stopped them on occasion from going out.

Men feel the nastiness too, of course. One in three of all public transport users in Ireland have experienced or witnessed some form of harassment or violence. But, for women, there is a very specific fear of sexual assault that discourages them from using trains and buses.

A very basic truth is being dodged: the public realm has to be policed. This is not about heavy-handed control or intrusive surveillance. It’s a reflection of the obvious reality that a very small number of people behaving obnoxiously can make public life impossible for the majority.

Three years ago, in his report on the scandals within An Garda Síochána, Mr Justice Peter Charleton remarked that Ireland had a "real problem due to the invisibility of our police force … It is extraordinarily rare that gardaí are seen in uniform on the streets, in contrast to other major cities, such as Rome and London and Athens, where police are visible at intersections, at junctions and in public plazas."

Vanishing act

He put his finger on the precise problem: visibility. The invisibility of those who should be minding us is not just a function of the organisation of formal policing. It is a result of a bigger vanishing act.

Anyone of my age remembers not just gardaí on street corners, but park rangers in parks, conductors on buses, guards on trains. Their superpower was visibility.

It derived from simple assumptions about human behaviour. People feel safer if someone is keeping an eye out for them. Thugs are deterred if someone is keeping an eye on them. This is a virtuous circle – the safer people feel in the public realm, the more inclusively it is occupied and the safer it gets.

But we’ve managed to turn this virtuous circle into a vicious one. If you make buses, trains, parks and public spaces into no-go zones for women, you normalise a state of fear in which women decide not to enter them.

In relation to public transport, the result is not just intolerable for staff and travellers alike. It is one of the reasons why 95 per cent of women in Ireland say that having a car is a necessity.

It is particularly puzzling that we have a Minister for Transport from the Green Party, Eamon Ryan, who does not seem to grasp this connection. He suggested last week that the solution was "to double down and continue what's already happening" with the policing of trains.

What’s been happening for four decades now is a deliberate neglect of the public realm and of women’s fears. If you want a green transport revolution, relearn two words: safety first.