Women are disproportionality affected by feeling unsafe and as a result are changing the way they live and move. In this blog we take a look at Sustrans’ position on personal safety and speak to our own colleagues to gain their insights on personal safety and feeling safe.
Public spaces need to be and feel safer
Our mission is to make it easier for everyone to walk, wheel and cycle.
To do this, we must ensure that we make public spaces safer and more accessible for everyone.
This includes the National Cycle Network which we’re custodians of.
We need to develop a thorough understanding of what impacts and influences safety and feeling safe.
This includes challenging our own assumptions, biases and approaches.
It requires everyone involved in place-making to work together in partnership.
Because transport professionals, urban planners, decision-makers and law enforcers, all have an essential role to play in influencing societal change.
In December 2021 we published our position on personal safety, setting out our commitment and multi-faceted approach.
Women feel more unsafe than men
In August 2021 the Office for National Statistics published its first study of perceptions of personal safety and experiences of harassment when walking.
A selection of statistics from the Office for National Statistics study:
- One in two women and one in seven men felt unsafe walking alone after dark in a quiet street near their home.
- One in two women and one in five men felt unsafe walking alone after dark in a busy public place.
- Four out of five women and two out of five men felt unsafe walking alone after dark in a park or other open space.
- Disabled people felt less safe walking alone in all settings than non-disabled people.
- Some 6 out of 10 people who reported feeling unsafe during the day, and 4 out of 10 who reported feeling unsafe after dark, had altered their behaviour, as a result, in the previous month.
Talking about personal safety and feeling safe
53% of Sustrans colleagues are women and we have an internal Women’s Network.
This supportive community facilitates a safe space for members to discuss women’s issues and to take actions that will improve the lives of women both in and outside of Sustrans.
We invited the members of our Women’s Network to answer six questions about being outdoors and alone after dark.
It's important to acknowledge that in this blog we're sharing the thoughts and experiences of just one group of colleagues.
We recognise that there is an enormous amount of work to be done across society to improve personal safety and feelings of safety.
But in hosting and sharing our own conversations, we hope to raise awareness of this important issue and continue a dialogue both in and outside of Sustrans.
Q1. How do you feel about walking or wheeling alone after dark?
“Sometimes frightened, but always wary and alert. Which is pretty sad as a baseline response to just being a woman alone after dark.”
“I always keep my phone close but concealed and take my headphones out. I text someone too, to let them know when I set off and when I get home.”
“I try to avoid walking alone in the dark, which is a real shame because I enjoy seeing the city lights. But I’m aware it might not be safe for me, so I limit myself to only walking from A to B.”
“I feel pretty brave about it but I shouldn’t have to in the first place. Walking alone after dark shouldn't be a risk and so bravery shouldn’t have to come into it.”
“It’s depressing and tiring to think that I could be attacked just for being a lone woman. And society has raised me to think that I shouldn't be surprised about this either. It's a heavy burden to fear rape and murder on a regular basis.”
Q2. If you cycle, does this change how you feel about being alone after dark?
“I tend to feel a bit safer because cycling is faster, so I’m home in less time.”
“I don’t often cycle after dark but in an empty street it would be my preference to give me the best chance of escaping danger quickly.”
“I feel a bit safer cycling than walking as I think I’m less of an obvious target for attack since my bike would be something extra for an attacker to dispose of. It’s awful to have to even think this way though.”
Q3. How does your environment affect how safe you feel when outdoors and alone after dark?
“Well-lit residential areas make me feel a bit safer. I can keep an eye on my surroundings, plus there’s a chance that residents who will look out for my best interests will keep an eye on me too.”
“Busier streets with businesses which stay open late help me to feel safer when I’m walking home after dark.”
“Routes which I know well help me to feel more confident as I can stride purposefully along them. Looking lost might equal me looking vulnerable.”
“Lights generally help me to feel safer but in very isolated areas I sometimes feel I’d rather walk in the dark to not draw attention to myself. I also feel lights don’t make much difference on quiet, linear paths with no escape routes.”
“If other people are around I feel like someone might come to my aid or at least film an attack so I’d have evidence. Which is a really dark thought to feel obliged to have.”
“I feel ten times safer walking anywhere after dark with my dog because she’d raise the alarm if I was attacked. Making me a much less desirable target in the first place.”
“I feel perfectly safe pretty much all the time at music festivals because there are so many people and lights after dark. It makes me wonder, wow, is this how most men feel all year round?”
Q4. Do you ever change your plans or behaviour in response to your environment?
“I go for an early swim most mornings. In winter I change my route so I’m walking well-lit, busy main roads and avoiding the parks and quiet streets. Even though they offer a faster, more direct route with cleaner air. I feel I must compromise to be and feel safe.”
“There’s a street near me which has low lighting and not many residential buildings. Using it is the most direct route home, but I never do because if I got into trouble, there’d be no one to help me.”
“I don’t listen to music in headphones for fear of someone sneaking up on me.”
“I’d love to say I never let feeling vulnerable change my plans, but it totally does. I frequently coordinate with friends (especially male ones) to walk together when it’s late.”
“Cycling home from work in winter is a case of which is worse: Feeling unsafe in an unlit park or getting hassled for cycling on the road by people driving cars? What a no-win, no-win choice.”
“I don’t feel safe using a torch when walking through the park because I don't want to highlight myself as a lone woman. It’s such a frustrating compromise as I end up walking in mud and animal poo.”
“I have friends who carry alarms and pepper spray, it makes me wonder if I should too.”
“Sometimes I feel forced to give up walking and cycling (which I love) in favour of public transport or my car. Not because of the weather, just because it’s dark. Just because someone else might want to ruin or take my life. It feels absurd and maddening.”
“With horrific stories of unimaginable violence against women frequently in the media, I totally compromise how I live to try and avoid becoming a headline. So I lock myself away on busses and in buildings. I deny myself outdoor exercise after work in the refreshing night air. I miss out on seeing nocturnal wildlife. All so I can feel safer in my own neighbourhood. And the worst of it is, I know I'm not alone. In fact, I'm sadly typical.”
Q5. Have you had any specific experiences relating to personal safety when outdoors and alone after dark which you’d feel comfortable sharing?
“I once had to walk alone after midnight through the outskirts of an unfamiliar city. It was against my wishes and I genuinely expected to die at the hands of a stranger before I'd reached where I was staying. I feel lucky to have survived, which is wrong because that's like a resigned acceptance of violence against women.”
“I’ve been catcalled and verbally harassed more times than I can remember.”
“I was once followed by a car that drove slowly alongside me until I stepped inside a local shop which thankfully was open late.”
“I’ve had the feeling of being followed a number of times. When it happens I phone a friend or go into a local shop for a few minutes.”
Q6. What environmental or social changes would you like to see to help more people feel safer when outdoors and alone after dark?
“Better lighting on both streets and traffic-free paths.”
“Reliable bus services and safe bus stops with good visibility.”
“Increased community support presence with a zero-tolerance attitude towards harassment.”
“Improved on-road walking and cycling provision, such as pavements next to protected cycle lanes. Bringing everyone together in one space would mean we could look out for one another better after dark.”
“Public service training to educate us all on how to safely step in and support someone who’s alone and in trouble.”
“More thriving local high streets with businesses keeping longer opening hours, as you see on the continent. It keeps more people out and about in the evening.”
“Better mental health and social care provision for men and boys, specifically to address the root causes of their violence towards women.”
“Social change. As young girls, we’re constantly told that our streets are not safe for us and that we shouldn’t walk alone at night because we’ll be putting ourselves at risk. We hear endless tips on how to stay safe after dark and we celebrate new streetlights. But none of this guarantees our safety. For us to really feel safer, society needs to address why too many people feel that violence against women and physically vulnerable people is acceptable. Because I should not be made to feel irresponsible simply for being out on my own after dark.”