Women Avoid Walking Due to Fear of Assault, Survey Says

A global survey shows that women around the world overwhelmingly cite fear of assault as the top reason for avoiding walking.

2 minute read

July 21, 2021, 8:00 AM PDT

By Diana Ionescu @aworkoffiction


Woman Walking London

Alexandre Godreau alexandre_godreau [CC0] / Wikimedia Commons

"In a new survey conducted by two Columbia University researchers and published by Leading Cities, people of all genders from 12 countries (including the U.S.) were asked about how safe — or unsafe — they felt while walking in their communities, and how the features of their built environments impacted their perceptions," reports Kea Wilson. Women-identified respondents overwhelmingly cited the fear of sexual assault as the top reason they "always" or "very frequently" choose to avoid walking to their destinations. "Of the small sample of gender non-binary people who responded to the survey, sexual assault also ranked as a top concern. But zero men who responded to the survey said the same."

For urban planners, this research has powerful implications that should influence the way we design streets and cities. "But the researchers behind the paper said that theirs is one of the first attempts to actually quantify just how deeply pervasive (and sometimes deeply inhibiting) fears of violence really are among women and enbies who walk — something which the predominantly male practitioners who shape the street environment don’t always fully appreciate."

Sethi underscores that those fears themselves are often just as big a barrier to women’s mobility as the actual violence and abuse women experience in the street realm. But in many communities, crime prevention strategies don’t prioritize creating environments that feel comprehensively safe — for instance, by cultivating inviting, walkable neighborhoods with lots of other pedestrians around — instead favoring isolated enforcement and prevention strategies at discrete points where crimes have already occurred, or are likely to.

"Interestingly, the features of the built environment that women say would make them feel safer while walking, like active street fronts and wide sidewalks, are not substantially different than what other genders want out of their roadways, too." The study's authors "say the survey provides more than enough evidence that the perspectives of women of diverse backgrounds needed to be better represented in the planning process, particularly in decision-making roles. And when they’re finally heard, cities may be surprised by how many people of all genders start walking for transportation."

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