Safety on the Tube: reflections on a journey
I have the good fortune to live in relative safety - though I don't have to be hyper-vigilant when travelling in and out of London, I'm still alert to its dangers. I thought I'd record my behaviours and reflections whilst making that journey one evening.
My local Tube station is well-lit and there is CCTV coverage of the platforms. I pass through the ticket hall and don't see any station staff. When I reach the platform, there are no other prospective passengers and so I feel very alone. Even though it's cold, I choose to stay visible on the platform rather than head into the warmth of the waiting room. This station is one of the least used on the network and so will likely be one the first to lose its station staff when the next round of cutbacks comes - and, sadly, the 24 hour ticket machines aren’t the crime deterrent that an active stationmaster can be.
It’s cold and my train won’t arrive for 20 minutes - but I never use the dimly-lit waiting room, preferring to stay visible on the platform. While I’m on the platform, I think about my decisions leading up to that evening: clothes (not the dress I’d have worn if I was travelling alone); hiding my valuables (iPhone in my bag, black headphones as a brand misdirection); emergency cash (hidden in pocket lining, for use in case of mugging or theft); route to the station (long, uphill street rather than direct but poorly-lit alleyways).
A man with an imposing frame joins me on the platform, stopping 20 metres from me. There’s an unspoken etiquette on the Tube about travellers not standing unnecessarily close to each other if there’s enough space (a bit like the three urinals + two men convention) - and I later find that this man was adhering to that etiquette (based on his choice of exit doors). Two women appear on the platform, making the man’s presence less threatening. I hadn’t noticed feeling threatened, mind you - I only noticed relaxing slightly when the women arrived.
The train arrived and I walked along to the end of a well occupied carriage, choosing a seat backing onto to the rear wall so that I could see anyone approaching me. A couple of drunks are staggering through the carriages, shouting and generally being antisocial. I don’t feel threatened as there are others on the train - now, instead, I’m feeling a frustrated sense of social responsibility. I want to call the drunks on their behaviour, but at the same time don’t want to become their next target. I decide to start small - I break another unofficial Tube commuter rule and make eye contact with one of them, whilst making small-talk with the person sitting across from me. My next step would have been to get my phone out and pretend to make a call whilst looking at them - subtly implying I was calling the police - but it was unnecessary as the drunks moved to the next carriage and I wasn’t going to chase after them.
From this I note a few key points of reflection:
- the reassurance provided by good lighting, CCTV, public transport staff presence, glass-fronted waiting rooms, the presence of other people - a mix of deterrent effect and removal of opportunity for would-be aggressors
- the myriad of ways in which even a mild sense of threat influences a woman’s day-to-day decisions, restricting her behaviours
- the small things that women can do to stop themselves being/feeling like a target
- the power of confrontation - or simply not acting submissively - in some situations (its obviously entirely context-specific and you need to trust you’re reading the situation right)
- the small unspoken rules about behaviour on London public transport - and how non-adherence to them could be seen as a threat, or as a response to a threat. For example, if that man had stood right next to me on an empty platform, I would have been a little concerned; but I feel reassured by friendly conversation between passengers as it gives me a little faith that someone would have intervened if something had kicked off.
- the possibilities in the “creation” of an audience with your mobile phone. I know I often call my husband if I hear footsteps behind me on a deserted path at night. Despite my awareness that it (a) likely increases my chance of being mugged for my phone and (b) might make me less alert (or make the aggressor believe me to be), I do feel reassured because family or friends will know if something happens to me. What if we could build on this so that the audience would have more information - video chat, perhaps, so that an attacker wouldn’t automatically have anonymity? Or some sort of GPS activation (like Waze app) so that your loved ones can track your progress if you’re feeling threatened/they’re feeling worried?