Nearly 70% of women in Tokyo back single-sex train cars, survey finds

by Machel Reid and Beh Lih Yi

Thomson Reuters Foundation

Women in Tokyo strongly favor having single-sex train cars on public transport, according to a poll of five of the world’s biggest commuter cities released Thursday, despite such policies facing growing criticism.

A Thomson Reuters Foundation survey of 1,000 female travelers in Tokyo, London, New York City, Cairo and Mexico City found less than half supported women-only sections on trains and buses to boost safety.

But nearly 70 percent of women in Tokyo backed the single-sex carriages introduced in the city in 2000 to combat a phenomenon commonly known as chikan, or groping, on trains. More than half of women surveyed in the city said safety was their top transport concern, but seven in 10 were confident they could now travel without being subjected to sexual harassment or violence.

Women in Cairo and Mexico City also said safety was their biggest concern about using public and private transport, and 60 percent and 55 percent respectively said women-only sections on trains and buses would improve safety.

But less than 30 percent of women were in favor of women-only carriages in New York and London, where the time and cost of travel were seen as more pressing issues than safety.

The poll, supported by Uber, comes as cities around the world increasingly bolster efforts to ensure women have safe, efficient transport to give them full and equal opportunities for jobs and education.

“You can protect yourself in a women-only car and there is less chance of you being harassed,” Chihiro Asahi, a 22-year-old university student, said outside Shibuya Station.

The policy, however, has prompted protests domestically and debates globally, with experts saying it promotes segregation rather than tackling the root cause.

“At best, women-only facilities provide only a momentary respite. Segregation does not stop sexual violence,” said Washington-based anti-harassment expert Marty Langelan.

“The ethical response to violence is to stop the aggressors, not segregate the victims,” added the author of “Back Off: How to Confront and Stop Sexual Harassment and Harassers.”

Tokyo has been struggling to stop sexual harassment on trains, where police figures found more than two-thirds of 1,750 groping or molestation cases reported in the city in 2017 took place on trains or in stations.

Women-only carriages provide female passengers with a “peace of mind,” said a spokeswoman for the Tokyo Metropolitan Government, which runs one of the capital’s two main subway networks.

But the policy has been criticized, including by a group of men who boarded a women-only carriage this year to protest what they called a discriminatory practice.

Some men have claimed they were falsely accused of groping, putting them at risk of losing their jobs, and sought out protection such as signing up for insurance which offers legal services in such situations.

Shigeya Sugimoto from the Small Amount & Short-Term Insurance Association of Japan, an industry group, said there has been a spike in demand for such insurance products since their introduction in 2015.

Transportation expert James Leather from the Manila-based Asian Development Bank argued other measures should be in place to ensure safe journeys for women, such as extra security personnel or well-lit stations.

Transport for London policy manager Mandy McGregor said there are no plans to introduce single-sex carriages in the British capital, despite some public debate.

“What we need to do is focus on the men’s behavior. It’s a minority of men doing this so our focus is on catching them rather than asking women to do something different,” she said.

Student Guadalupe Ortiz Dominguez in Mexico City, which was ranked as having the most dangerous transport system by the poll, said women-only carriages are not the answer.

“I don’t think women-only carriages make a difference because everyone, including men, gets on them at rush hour and at night,” said Dominguez, who spends 90 minutes a day on the metro.

“It also doesn’t deal with the problem.”