Sexual harassment in the workplace and on public transport towards female-identifying people has been at the forefront of media debate in recent months.
According to the Bureau of Infrastructure, Transport and Regional Economics (BITRE), public transport remains a leading method for daily travel for Australians, with one in eight people using trains across the capital cities.
BITRE also predicted the use of public transport would grow by 30 per cent by 2030, yet a quick Google search reveals numerous sexual harassment claims from various news outlets, largely from women who felt violated when using public transport.
While there is no uniform definition for sexual harassment in Australia, the Centre Against Sexual Assault (CASA) defines this as a crime that includes: “stalking, unwanted touching, obscene gestures, voyeurism, unwanted sexual comments or jokes, sex-related insults, pressuring for dates or sex, indecent exposure, being forced to watch or participate in pornography, offensive written material, and unwanted offensive and invasive interpersonal communication through electronic devices or social media.”
Dr Nicole Kalms, a Senior Lecturer and the founding director of the XYX Lab with a PhD in Architecture from Monash University, says that according to Victoria police statistics in 2013-14, “one in 11 incidents of sexual harassment occur on public transport.
“What we also know is that sexual harassment and sexual assault is entirely underreported by over three quarters,” Dr Kalms reports.
The nature of public transport makes it a potential playground for perpetrators. Peak periods or delays and cancellations on the train, tram and bus networks often lead to congested services and the inevitability of close contact between people.
Pictured: Melbourne CBD Tram. Photo credit: Jessica Whitty.
Pictured: Melbourne CBD Tram. Photo credit: Jessica Whitty.
Dr John Stone, Senior Lecturer in Transport and Urban Planning from the University of Melbourne, says other cities have contributed to making public transport safer by “increasing public transport services, making sure the bus stop is right by the station entrance so women don’t have to walk across dark carparks and having shops built into the station, so people are around all the time.”
Councillor Nicolas Frances Gilley chairs the transport folio for Melbourne City and says “this city will have 50 per cent more people in it in 20 years than it has now.”
With this significant population increase, it is vital to create safe, accessible and gender-inclusive public transport spaces.
“…we can always do better, but we have to do better, because it’s growing so quickly,” emphasises Cr Gilley.
Dr Iderlina “Derlie” Mateo-Babiano, is a Senior Lecturer in Urban Planning at the University of Melbourne and also leads the Women in Transport Leadership in Australia. This is ‘the first knowledge network created in the Australasian region solely dedicated to empowering women and developing a mass of female transport leaders’.
Dr Derlie says “in the transport sector, more collective efforts are necessary to be able to even create a dent.
“We do not recognise that both men and women have different way-finding behaviour and travel preference. We tend to base our design on our limited understanding” which has “largely contributed to gender discrimination,” she argues.
If the current design of our public transport system is adding to the problem, can it be changed to become the solution to preventing sexual harassment on public transport?
What if the planning of our urban spaces and public transport hubs could help us create safer environments?
While I consider myself fortunate to have not experienced the level of discomfort or powerlessness in these communal spaces that many others have, it intrigues me to think design may play a part.
Introducing the XYX Lab: Monash University’s research project that is uncovering inequity in urban design.
The XYX Lab is a joint collaboration between communication designers, architects, urban designers and researchers, all working together with other organisations such as CrowdSpot and local government stakeholders to address this social and spatial problem.
Leading director of the Monash Art Design and Architecture (MADA) XYX Lab, Dr Nicole Kalms is passionate about “gender diversity” and ensuring these “voices are heard”.
Although the XYX Lab was formally launched on 26th March last year, the research team has been working on projects since 2016, focusing mainly on women and girls as well as projects relating to LGBTQI+ communities.
Through research and statistical findings, the XYX Lab uses data to “understand” what the “conditions” of public transport areas might be and whether they “prohibit or indeed prompt sexual harassment to occur,” Dr. Kalms says.
Urban planners and developers have often shaped cities and establishments in their own image, sometimes neglecting the needs of those who have actually experienced gender inequity.
Dr Stone believes that “it’s really about engaging with people who have experienced some degree of discomfort in a public space and asking specifically what it is they need.”
The XYX Lab does just that. As Dr Kalms says, “we invite women and girls into design environments with us and we set up a series of questions and problems and we create environments where they can actually become co-designers to think about a solution.”
Through these consultations, designers were able to pinpoint certain design principles that might heighten the sense of powerlessness often experienced by women in public spaces.
The XYX Lab discovered that design objects such as “sexualised and sexist advertising in public transport spaces” caused women and girls to “feel quite vulnerable and unsafe.”
Pictured: Armidale Station. Photo credit: Jessica Whitty.
Pictured: Flinders Street Station. Photo credit: Jessica Whitty.
The XYX Lab looks at the “triangulations” of “design, communication and the nature of public transport” and then uses these elements not only to design “solutions” but also to “understand them”. These communal areas “require design thinking and design methods, and then we co-design as a way to think about solutions,” concludes Dr Kalms.
It’s time for all of Australia to acknowledge sexual harassment towards women as a real problem.
As Dr Stone argues, “designers and planners [need] to take it seriously and not retreat to a position where it hasn’t happened to them.
“There’s a really strong push for women to speak up and what is needed by the planning profession is to take their perspectives seriously,” he concludes.
Dr Derlie has the final word. She contends that “we as women must be on the table at all times to advocate these issues,” but for change to occur women also “require the support of our change partners to create a critical mass.”
“While urban design and planning can help and support the co-creation of a more gender-sensitive and gender-inclusive city, design alone could not achieve this.
“Urban design and planning must be undertaken alongside a suite of interventions including policy change, awareness raising, improved infrastructure and behaviour change, with the end goal of shaping a more inclusive society,” she concludes.
Learn more about XYX Lab here.