Myriad different factors make the New York City subway a very gross place, chief among them the outsized possibility that—especially if you identify or present as a woman—some skeevy stranger will eventually masturbate at you. Psychological implications aside, sexual harassment comes with a financial cost; a "pink tax" on transportation as women pay more for safer ways to get from point A to point B.
Pink taxes are the added fees tacked onto "for women" products: The way a razor costs more when marketed to women than it does when tailored to men, for example. Researchers at the NYU Rudin Center for transportation did not set out with the specific intention of examining the public transit pink tax in their new survey. Rather, as Sarah Kaufman—the Rudin Center's associate director, an adjunct assistant professor in urban planning, and one of the survey's authors—told Gothamist, they wanted to explore how the types of behaviors addressed by the #MeToo movement "play out on a day-to-day basis on public transportation."
What they found, however, is that some New York women could be paying as much as $1,200 extra every year in order to move safely around the city.
Researchers successfully surveyed a total of 547 people, 52 percent of whom identified as women (by which the authors mean cis and trans women, as well as femmes). Of those respondents, 75 percent said they had experienced harassment and/or theft on public transportation, versus 47 percent of male participants. The majority (86 percent) of harassment incidents occurred within the subway system, and 54 percent of women respondents worried about harassment compared to 20 percent of men. Those safety concerns drove 42 percent of participants toward for-hire vehicles (Uber, Lyft) for late night travel, while 16 percent opted for taxis and 15 percent stuck with public transportation. Notably, over three quarters of people who used taxis and people who called cars identified as women.
The costs of those services add up: Women reported spending an additional $26 to $50 per month in transit costs compared to men's $0, both when they try to avoid harassment on subways and buses, and when they assume duties that require extra trips, like dropping off and picking up school-aged kids and taking elderly dependents to appointments. For women who check both boxes (just trying to get to work without being groped, thanks, and caretaking), that could mean as much as $100 in added monthly expenses men don't have to deal with.
But "the bleakest finding," according to Kaufman, "was that only 12 percent reported harassment," 88 percent declining to say anything because the presumed authorities could not or would not do anything about it. Those who did report were often given frustrating answers like "we can't help you because the train in question already left the station." One woman, who did not participate in the survey, told Kaufman that on one occasion when she did speak up and the MTA stopped the train to find the perpetrator, she felt guilty for delaying thousands of passengers en route to work. "There's a kind of damned if you do, damned if you don't aspect to reporting harassment," Kaufman said.
It's important to note that the survey's respondent pool ended up being pretty homogeneous: A helpful City Council member, Helen Rosenthal, sent the survey link out to her district, inadvertently skewing the sample in a clear direction. Most participants were white, highly educated, and residents of the Upper West Side, suggesting that they might have more disposable income to spend on alternate transit methods. People who can't afford to call a car or hail a taxi "have to kind of live with [harassment]," Kaufman says. "They have to take public transportation regardless of what happened the day before."
"That is traumatic for a lot of people," she continued, "but it's also a question of how are we making it possible for women to participate in the economy. How are we letting women participate in the economy if we can't guarantee their safety?"
Emphasizing that this survey serves as a starting point, and that future studies will require a more diverse sample, Kaufman suggested a few preliminary fixes: Station more MTA personnel on platforms to make reporting easier, especially for people who feel uncomfortable taking complaints to the police; install cameras in train cars; and bolster communication lines throughout the trains. That plan, of course, requires money—something the MTA simply doesn't have.
We contacted the transit authority for comment on the fiscal possibilities, and how the agency might address the flagrant sexual harassment problem in its transit system. Here's what MTA Managing Director Veronique Hakim had to say:
"We work hard to make the subway system safe for all of our customers and measures like a campaign to promote the reporting of sexual crime, lighting and security camera upgrades, more station personnel on platforms and mezzanines, more NYPD officers in stations and on trains, and systemwide cellular, WiFi and Help Point capability, all contribute to safety improvements for women and everyone."
Ultimately, though, the MTA could pour as many hypothetical funds into surveillance and reporting avenues as it wants—the agency's ability to correct the trend remains limited, because the problem lies with people who choose to harass their fellow commuters. So, to them I say: Keep it in your pants, keep your paws to yourself, and let us all get to work unmolested.