I have met many a visitor who has asked me if New York City’s subways are safe. My initial response is always “yes,” but then I add that it depends on where you are, what time it is, and of course, whether you’re a woman or a man. The good thing about New York City is that I can answer my question with confidence because there is plenty of data on which stations are the most crime ridden. How would you answer this question, however, in countries where crime stats are not available and/or open to the public?
The Mexico City subway, which began operating in September 1969, is one of the world’s most extensive and widely used subway systems. It has 111 miles of tracks (compared to NYC’s 232), 4.41 million users a day (NYC has 4.53) and boasts one of the cheapest ticket prices in the world, at 5 pesos for a single-ride (roughly $0.32). However, the Mexico City subway has had so many instances of sexual abuse against women, that in 2008 the Sistema de Transporte Colectivo (STC) began implementing women and children-only subway cars on certain lines during rush hours. The problem is that we don’t have data that tells us whether or not the policy has helped alleviate the issue.
The policy applies to 7 (1, 3, 7, 8, 9, A, and B) of the 12 Mexico City subway lines, ones that serve the most dangerous parts of the surrounding “Estado de Mexico,” where sexual abuse is rampant.
In theory, the guards at each of the 102 designated stations would put up separations on the platforms under “Women and Children only” signs. They would then not allow men onto those platforms or on the reserved cars until rush hours are over (6 a.m. to 9 a.m. and 6 p.m. to 9 p.m.). In practice, however, these policies are not always enforced. According to Anne Martinez, a French student living in Mexico, the exclusive train cars are sometimes enforced in the morning at one station, but not at the next, rendering the entire effort inadequate.
Another addition to the subway system in 2008 was the creation of five “attention modules,” or booths, at specific stations where women could report instances of sexual abuse. The stations are supervised by Inmujeres CDMX, the National Institute of Women, which is dedicated to promoting gender equality and protecting women against violence.
Javier Garciadiego, an NYU Wagner Master of Urban Planning student from Mexico City, explains however that though there has been a rise in reports of sexual abuse in the subway system since the creation of these modules, there is no way to know whether the policies are failing. “Of course, now they have a place to complain,” he said, “before they had to go to a police station.” Whether the separation has reduced sexual abuse on subways therefore can’t be determined since there is no prior data to refer to.
While in Mexico this January, I spoke to a subway guard who seemed doubtful that the separation was actually helping, despite the newly installed surveillance cameras and the added police officers in the stations. In fact, there is at least one case of a man wearing a disguise in order to access the female-only wagons and harass women.
There is also general skepticism about the concept behind the policy. “I like the policy because the mixed wagons are quieter and I can read.” Adds Garciadiego, “But I am not sure if separating men and women is something we should be proud of.”
The attempt by the STC to protect women from sexual abuse sounds like a good idea in practice, but the lack of oversight and after-the-fact assessment and evaluation of such a policy prevents us from knowing whether or not it has achieved its goal.