Are women-only SkyTrain cars the answer to sexual harassment on transit?

The real solution is for men to stop sexually assaulting and harassing women, activists say

    1 of 3 2 of 3

      Adding women-only cars to the SkyTrain would send a clear message to men that they bear responsibility for sexual harassment and assault, according to a Vancouver women’s rights activist.

      However, Irene Tsepnopoulos-Elhaimer, executive director of Women Against Violence Against Women Rape Crisis Centre, told the Georgia Straight that she believes women-only rapid-transit cars are probably a “last resort”.

      “I think it would be a really important message when we think about the backlash that women get when they try to identify that it’s male violence that is at issue,” Tsepnopoulos-Elhaimer said by phone. “It’s about males changing their behaviour and the way that they think about women.”

      Tsepnopoulos-Elhaimer spoke to the Straight a few days after two Simon Fraser University students launched a website to share stories of gender-based harassment from public-transit riders in Metro Vancouver. Gender, sexuality, and women’s studies undergrads Alexa Dredge and Katie Nordgren hope their Harassment on TransLink site will lead to the regional transportation authority and the City of Vancouver taking action to make the transit system safer.

      Women-only SkyTrain cars are one option that TransLink could conceivably consider.

      In cities in Brazil, Egypt, Indonesia, Mexico, Japan, and other countries, women-only rapid-transit and commuter-rail cars have been introduced as a way to counter groping and sexual harassment. Typically, one car per train—distinguished by signage and pink colouring—is designated for the exclusive use of women. Some cities also have women-only buses.

      Women-only train cars are found in Japan.
      Wikimedia Commons

      A TransLink representative sent the Straight an email stating that the authority has not looked at the possibility of adding women-only cars to the SkyTrain. The email outlined a number of the "safety features" on the SkyTrain and buses, including surveillance cameras.

      Tsepnopoulos-Elhaimer called the existence of women-only subway cars a “sad commentary” about society.

      “If that’s what’s working for women, you can’t fault them for that,” Tsepnopoulos-Elhaimer said. “Because the question is: when will men change, and how are we supposed to live in this society until men do? And is that the kind of education that will spur men to make changes?”

      Dredge, a 23-year-old North Vancouver resident, suggested women-only cars could lead to a backlash—and even more aggressive behaviour—from men angry about being excluded from those spaces.

      “I’m not sure we would get behind that entirely, because it would be nice if women didn’t feel like they had to have a space that was only designated to them in order to feel safe,” the SFU student told the Straight by phone. “It would nice if there could be completely equal civic engagement and sense of community and sense of place, without having to create a segregated place for women.”

      Metro Vancouver Transit Police have responded to the launch of the Harassment on TransLink site by saying they plan to kick off in December a campaign to combat sexual assault on transit.

      On September 23, a man groped a woman in an elevator at the 22nd Street SkyTrain station, according to an October 23 news release from the New Westminster Police Department.

      A women-only car sign in Tokyo.
      Ian Fisher

      Hilla Kerner, a spokesperson for Vancouver Rape Relief and Women’s Shelter, told the Straight that she has “mixed feelings” about the idea of women-only SkyTrain cars.

      On one hand, Kerner noted that women-only spaces—such as rape crisis centres and transition houses—have proven to be “very, very effective” at keeping women safe.

      “When women get a women-only space, of course they are safer,” Kerner said by phone. “Men have no access to those spaces, so they are free from attack.”

      But Kerner cautioned that “public refusal to hold men accountable” for sexual assault means women-only cars could backfire on some women.

      “I suspect that, if a woman is attacked on the regular SkyTrain, she will blamed for not using the women-only train,” Kerner said.

      According to Tsepnopoulos-Elhaimer, women-only cars aren’t the real solution anyway. After all, men would still sexually harass women on the street after they exit the SkyTrain, she noted.

      “Life is more than just a subway ride,” Tsepnopoulos-Elhaimer said. “It’s about how we experience being women in rape culture.”



      Miranda Nelson

      Oct 25, 2013 at 1:18pm

      "After all, men would still sexually harass women on the street after they exit the SkyTrain, she noted."

      Not to mention on the bus. I've been sexually assaulted on buses in Vancouver, not on the train. I ride buses 95 percent of the time. There's no way you could have a women-only bus.

      As has been stated, the only way for this to truly end is for people to STOP HARASSING WOMEN. I don't know why this is such a difficult concept!

      0 0Rating: 0


      Oct 25, 2013 at 1:56pm

      Men who attack women need to stop doing this. Parents of boys need to teach their children about respect for all people. Women need to empower themselves and learn self-defence. Parents teach your girls to be strong, independent people. Society needs to change in a big way. Women only cars would be insulting and I would never ride in one.

      0 0Rating: 0


      Oct 25, 2013 at 1:57pm

      As a female, I think this would be a big stretch to combat sexual harassment on public transportation. I've been groped and I've had men rub up against me while on both the bus and skytrain. I think they need to look at other solutions before doing something as dramatic as this. You know there will be those people that believe female only trains/buses are sexist or discriminating against the male population but if these are the measures that need to be taken to combat sexually harassment then so be it. Bus driver, transit security and fellow commuters can play a huge role to help combat sexual harassment but nowadays NO ONE helps anyone.It's pathetic and females (even some males) shouldn't be living in fear and worried about being touched inappropriately while using public transportation.

      0 0Rating: 0


      Oct 25, 2013 at 2:00pm

      This is a stupid idea. I don't understand how anyone could consider this feasible or appropriate. It sounds like five idiots who don't take transit got together and drank grain alcohol until they could all agree on the worst idea.

      Women: Be alert, be aware of your surroundings, and don't be afraid to make a scene if some creep is harassing you and there's a bus full of people witnessing it.

      Men: Don't harass women, and if you witness it, use the macho shit if you have to and show the dirtbag that their behavior is not acceptable.


      Oct 25, 2013 at 2:13pm

      Wow, this is a definite no.

      Segregating women to a special 'protective car' implies that half of our population is unable to protect themselves and is in a constant state of victimization. We are not in a situation where women cannot travel from A to B safely on a consistent basis. Are there incidents that can be prevented? Sure. How about late night drop offs to a direct address? Sure. Increased security after certain hours? Sure. Public information campaign that emphasizes speaking up on transit? Sure. A website allowing transit riders to quickly use their smartphones to find a walking partner? No problem.

      Women only cars for the skytrain? Christ, no. Creates a structural acknowledgement of women as being 'victims' and requiring constant protection. In this country we have strong women who stand on equal footing, socially and legally, with men. A move like this is very much opposite to this reality and removes the emphasis on people to speak up and protect their neighbours in society. It also creates a fundamental tier system in our transit, even if the tiers are theoretically equal. "When my wife rides the transits, she only rides in the women only car!" We're past this.

      There are so many better options before this. Wow.

      Jane Eaton Hamilton

      Oct 25, 2013 at 2:33pm

      If this does happen, please, please, please don't make the women's cars pink.

      0 0Rating: 0

      Absolutely terrible idea

      Oct 25, 2013 at 2:35pm

      Segregation is a terrible idea. All this will do is send the message "While they are in the train they are off limits, when they come out it's fair game".

      How about Transit Cops actually doing something? A larger presence on the actual trains at night?

      0 0Rating: 0


      Oct 25, 2013 at 2:38pm

      I am a male and have been sexually assaulted by a group of late 30-early 40 year old females who smelled like they had been drinking all day. They made many sexual comments and one of them came over and slapped me on my ass. I felt very uncomfortable, but I am a very small, soft spoken person, so I just took it and left the train asap.

      This article makes me happy to see that we are attacking this issue head on, and including all people who get harrassed regardless of gender.....


      Oct 25, 2013 at 2:48pm

      This proposed solution highlights a reality on transit. Children are few and far between. How would it work with preteens/teens of a different gender than their accompanying parent? If we made transit more family-friendly, we'd see better behaviour on the part of boors (at least during day/early evening) IMO. I know that I've witnessed the burliest f-bombing construction workers clean up their language when they notice a kid nearby.

      0 0Rating: 0

      Hank Lewis

      Oct 25, 2013 at 2:58pm

      I don't know where or when these harassing behaviours are happening on the Skytrain in the Metro Vancouver area, I don't doubt what any of the women are saying about being groped or rubbed against, I don't think they are "misunderstanding" a crowded transit car where people are packed like sardines vs. an inappropriate touch. I just personally have not witnessed it.

      The fact that it is happening has me, as a man, disgusted with my own gender. Sitting next to a woman on a train isn't a sexual invitation, nor is a casual conversation on public transit. What I really do not understand is how anyone can ignore when someone has behaved aggressively and inappropriately towards a female passenger, and won't at least SAY SOMETHING--say this is NOT COOL. Say you saw them do this and are reporting them to the driver or transit police. How come no other men and women who see this behaviour are stepping up to help out their fellow passengers? If something like this would have happened on the bus or subway "back in the day" and according to my grandmother, it did, women usually kept hat-pins handy to jab the creeps and if other people saw a creep, they'd surround him and either get a cop or throw his arse off the bus/train, often while it was moving. The fact that the general public would NOT stand for this was a huge deterrent from creepy behaviour.

      However now, nobody wants to step up, everyone's afraid the creepazoid has bear mace or a gun or a knife and nobody wants to get involved. Men who would otherwise be chivalrous and defend the harassed woman shrink back because they'd be viewed as sexist for even wanting to defend her. Women who'd defend their fellow women shrink back because they are concerned that the creep would switch targets. In any case, the creeps are being allowed to win by virtue of the drivers, the other riders and even the transit cops being concerned about everything else other than rider safety and comfort, their own safety and not wanting to get involved. Shows how selfish and self-absorbed we are as a society and people folks.

      I'm no tough guy, but if I EVER witnessed a dude doing that to a woman, I'd loudly shout HEY YOU PERVERT! LEAVE THAT WOMAN ALONE! HEY EVERYONE LOOK--A PERVERT IS HARASSING A FELLOW RIDER! GET HIM OUTTA HERE!!! I'd hit the alarm and make the biggest ruckus I could.