Philip Mcleod

The McLeod Report - London, Ontario

A regular commentary on civic affairs in London, Canada by journalist Philip McLeod.

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Transit under the gender lens

LATEST REPORT #1,089: “There’s nothing like the power of angry women to make things happen,” said an attendee at a meeting on the future of public transit this week. In this case the women weren’t so angry but they did offer a consistent – and different – point of view about how the transit systems should be shaped for the future.

Wednesday, March 25, 2015 – London Ontario

What do you hear when you use the gender lens to talk, say, about public transit?

Well you might hear from a young mother who hates riding the bus when it’s crowded because she can’t easily get to the exit pushing her stroller. She wishes buses were designed with more space up front or there was a system to alert the driver this passenger needs time to exit.

You might hear from a senior, now disabled after her bike was hit by a car, who has trouble standing for even short periods. Recently, though, a London Transit bus driver ordered her to give up her seat so space could be created for a passenger in a wheelchair.

You might hear from the mother of a teenager who watched, while on a crowded bus, a man grope the young female passenger jammed against him. Because of the press of people there was nothing the young girl could do to get away.

Or you might hear this astonishing, although ultimately triumphant story, about a male passenger sitting in the back of a crowded bus who began masturbating in front of several shocked school girls. First a much older woman stood up and moved in front of the students. Then several more joined her and before long they had shamed the man right off the bus. To applause from fellow passengers.

“There’s nothing like the power of angry women to make things happen,” said the woman who told that story. 

While creating its new strategic plan last month city council had a couple of debates over using the term ‘gender lens’ in place of the more familiar ‘equity lens’. Ultimately gender lens prevailed, for the very good reason sometimes issues needed to be viewed or heard through a specific set of eyes and ears.

Monday night at City Hall there was a public meeting to talk about Shift, the city’s 21st century handle for an environmental assessment of routes and designs for a new rapid transit system. 

Shift implies a different way of thinking about moving people, Ed Soldo, the city’s director of roads and transportation, pointed out to the meeting. He wants us to ‘shift’ our thinking about public transit.

Gender lens implies a different way of listening to people. In this case, the Shift meeting was organized in cooperation with Women in Politics, which is, as you might guess, “a citizen-led initiative working to engage and increase the participation of women with politics,” according to their website

Mr. Soldo and Kelly Paleczny, the London Transit general manager, are meeting with groups of all kinds this month and next as they begin scooping out a new transit public system. 

About 35 people showed up for Monday’s meeting, four of whom (myself included) were men. The rest were women of various ages and backgrounds from teens to seniors, most of them at least occasional users of London Transit, some regular. 

They didn’t come to complain. They were there to offer their suggestions for improvements to London’s public transportation systems. And they did. Crowded buses figured high on their list. Their chief concerns are around safety and convenience. 

For example, transit stops need to be in well-lit areas where there are people. Access paths to transit stops need to be cleared in all weather conditions. Shelters should have lights, perhaps even heat, and there should be far more of them. Stops should be at intersections, not partway down the street. Coach seating should be inward facing, rather than theatre style, because “it’s scary to be caught in the inside seat.” There should be a second transit employee on crowded buses to pay attention to what goes on near the back.

Whether rapid transit means fast buses (as London Transit proposes) or light rail (as some city officials suggest) is immaterial, the women said. Far more important is frequent service. Or as one working mother put it: “If my kid gets sick at school I can’t get home in time from the other side of town if the bus runs only every 30 minutes and it takes me an hour to get there.”

Or if you miss the bus, or it goes right on past because it’s full, and that makes you late for day care where they charge a penalty past a certain deadline – that’s another reason why transit often doesn’t work. 

They liked the idea of rapid transit to get quickly across the city, with feeder service at each end. Signage at transit stops to direct you to certain locations would be helpful. Bicycle lockers downtown are needed for passengers who bike to a transit stop and ride the bus to work. 

Oh yes, and perhaps better subsidies for seniors, the disabled and unemployed.

Mr. Soldo said later the suggestions from Monday’s meeting weren’t what he expected, but certainly what he wanted. 

“Our goal is to get different perspectives,” he said of the Shift campaign which so far has met with more than 4,200 people. “Ninety per cent of the things we hear we know, but there are nuances that come through, more related to design of the system than where it should go. 

“With this group, the whole issue about where we would stop is of some debate. Kind of made me think where we stop has to be a location where there is activity so there is safety in numbers. Safety is a really big issue for women and that includes design of the station, frequency and reliability of the service and internal safety.”

Would that have been as clear without the gender lens?

Quite possibly not.