Faculty Research: Sexual Harassment on Public Transit

Students waiting to take the VTA in downtown San Jose.

Students waiting to take the VTA in downtown San Jose.

“I was riding the metro alone on a Sunday morning, and as I turned the corner, there was a man masturbating. I was scared and ran away,” recalls Asha Weinstein Agrawal of an incident she encountered as a college student during a vacation in Paris two decades ago.

The Professor of Urban and Regional Planning and the Director of Mineta Transportation Institute (MTI) National Transportation Finance Center Agrawal says although she didn’t talk about it then, there’s a need today to start conversations around sexual harassment and recognize behaviors and patterns that women who use public transit witness all over the world.

Over the last three years, almost two-thirds (63 percent) of SJSU students had experienced some form of harassment while using the bus or train, according to the recent MTI-sponsored research study titled “Crime and Harassment on Public Transportation: A Survey of SJSU Students Set in International Context.”

Agrawal’s team includes UCLA Professor Anastasia Loukaitou-Sideris, one of the global project leaders who put together the original survey, Assistant Professor of Mathematics and Statistics Cristina Tortora and Yajing Hu, now a senior scientist at Abbott, who worked as a data analytics intern with the team. The SJSU survey asked essentially the same questions as the global study: “Does sexual harassment happen to you? Are you worried? Have you ever reported? Does fear of harassment change the way you use transit?”

The survey found that public transit harassment is not unique to San Jose State students. Agrawal’s team worked on data collected from a random sample of 891 SJSU students. With that many voices woven in, the SJSU narrative mirrors typical concerns that students around the world expressed when the same survey was administered in 18 cities across six continents, including San Jose, Los Angeles, Vancouver and Mexico City in North America, Bogota, Sao Paolo and Rio Claro in South America, London, Paris, Milan, Lisbon, Stockholm, and Huddinge in Europe, Tokyo, Guangzhou and Manila in Asia, Lagos in Africa and Melbourne in Australia.

Although fear of harassment binds all respondents together across demographics, Agrawal has a guess about the underlying reasons behind why SJSU students were less likely to feel “always” or “often” safe after dark on the bus or on the train, compared to students in the other cities in the global study. She points to downtown San Jose’s features after dark—mostly empty streets and transit vehicles. The responses could easily vary in European and Asian cities that have considerable activity on the streets after dark. In addition, relatively high proportions of university students don’t have the luxury of driving private cars. Compared to the population at large, students more frequently use public transit, especially in the United States.

Agrawal says abuse on public transit is not new. Having studied the transportation of 1890s America as part of her doctoral research, she saw that women feared sexual harassment on public transit then, too. “Nice women didn’t want to ride the street cars because they would get groped or harassed” was a common refrain in the articles she remembers reading during her dissertation writing days. There is new attention on the topic of sexual offense today as part of the MeToo movement, but it’s been happening all around the world ever since there was public transit, she adds.

As Agrawal argues, that train of thought is still what stops some women from using public transit. Women throughout history have found themselves at society’s margins, as have older adults, vulnerable people and those who identify as LGBTQ, whose fear of harassment has influenced their participation in broader society.

Transit trips are not limited to vehicle settings. Rather, they are multi-phased activities, including riding on vehicles, waiting at transit stops or walking/biking to and from those points. The survey looked at the transit experience in these three areas as well. “Besides asking for experiences on the bus or on the train, we also asked about while you’re waiting, either at the bus stop or the train stop, and also the access journey,” says Agrawal. These environments are not controlled by transit operators, but offer perspectives on choices a rider may make about using transit. The goal of the survey was to understand how safety concerns affect their choice of transit.

With so many students taking public transit every day, Agrawal wondered if there would be a correlation between the amount of harassment and number of complaints filed. “Unfortunately, that’s not the case,” she says. “People often think it’s so commonplace that there’s no point reporting, or that even if they do, it hardly yields results,” which in turn leads to a feeling of helplessness in victims.

Harassment is largely perceived to be a woman’s issue. Men’s experiences don’t often make it to the headlines. The SJSU survey revealed that 40 percent of men experienced sexual assault on buses or trains, expanding the conversation beyond gender identities.

Agrawal is hopeful that the results of the survey could be a starting point for transit operators to consider certain measures that can proactively address the issues. She says transit operators—and others— who’ve built apps for commuters to report graffiti and broken lights could consider adding a category of language that would make sexual harassment reporting easier, “thus making it more obvious that there is a problem.”

Immigrant Heritage Month: Karl Cheng

During Immigrant Heritage Month, San Jose State University will be telling stories of our students, faculty, staff and alumni who have unique and inspiring immigrant narratives to share. In addition, we will be highlighting our research, scholarship and creative activities that enhance our understanding of immigration and the contributions of immigrant populations to the fabric of SJSU’s campus community and society at large.

Karl Cheng, '19 Business with a concentration in corporate accounting and finance, immigrated from the Philippines to California with his family.

Karl Cheng, ’19 Business with a concentration in corporate accounting and finance, immigrated from the Philippines to California with his family.

Karl Cheng, ’19 Business with a concentration in corporate accounting and finance wrote to us to share the following story:

I am an immigrant from the Philippines. I arrived here when I was 13 to Los Angeles and I have lived half my life in this country. With my immigrant story, I have found strength within myself and appreciation of my fellow immigrants who have moved to the States for greener pastures. I am armored with a sense of adventure and growth. I am living in Orlando, Florida to start a college program in Walt Disney World and I am hoping for success in this place. I went to San Jose State from Los Angeles with the same push for adventure and I can proudly say that I have achieved what I hoped for in the Bay Area, to finish my degree in two years. Thanks to San Jose for teaching me to find strength and value in diversity. I will always apply what I learned beyond the College of Business towards my professional journey and personal growth.

Spartans, reach out to us at communications@sjsu.edu if you would like to share your immigrant heritage stories.

Lucas College and Graduate School of Business Launches Dean’s Fellowship

As part of the Lucas College and Graduate School of Business Dean's Fellowship, two MBA students are working with city and nonprofit partners this spring.

As part of the Lucas College and Graduate School of Business Dean’s Fellowship, two MBA students are working with city and nonprofit partners this spring. Photo by David Schmitz

When Madhumitha Sarveswaran was accepted into the MBA program at the Lucas College and Graduate School of Business, she was interested in finding ways to promote holistic growth in society. She attended the Economic Summit in 2018 when city officials discussed some of the challenges facing the region. When the Lucas College and Graduate School of Business Dean’s Fellowship program was announced this spring in partnership with the City of San Jose Mayor’s Office, she was excited to apply for it as a chance to work on solutions for some of those issues.

During the pilot semester, the Dean’s Fellowship program partnered with San Jose Public Library (SJPL) Works, ICA Fund Good Jobs, a nonprofit that helps develop small businesses, the city’s Office of Economic Development, and the Mayor’s Office. The students are particularly focused on helping small businesses in East San Jose.

“In a classroom, everyone comes up with ideas and wants to test and see if those ideas work,” Sarveswaran said. “When you develop an idea in the classroom you have all the ideal conditions. How do you scale it or how do you find out if it might be impractical?”

For Sarveswaran, who will complete her MBA in May 2019, and Lori Okamoto, who will complete her MBA in August 2019, the fellowship was that opportunity to explore ideas with real-world conditions.

“My favorite part of this internship thus far has been learning about small businesses in San Jose,” Okamoto said. “I am not originally from the Bay Area so most of this information is new to me. I think learning about small business displacement has really helped me broaden my knowledge of this area.”

Sarveswaran said she has appreciated the opportunity to network with professionals from city departments, nonprofits and businesses.

“We attended a BusinessOwnerSpace.com meeting and it was eyeopener that there were 17 other organizations that offer services to help small businesses scale or deal with issues of funding,” she said. “There are so many things out there, but how do we help them bridge the gap?”

Through the fellowship the students have been researching small business community needs through secondary and primary research that includes data review and analysis as well as direct outreach.

“I applied to this fellowship in order to gain more business-related knowledge and then have a chance to apply this in real-world situations,” said Okamoto, who said the program allows her to connect her undergraduate degree in sociology to her MBA work. “In the future, I hope to get into business operations or business data analytics, as both these jobs require understanding and analyzing data.”

As an international student from India, Sarveswaran said she would encourage other international students to apply for the fellowship in the future.

“I never thought this experience would be so big,” she said. “Everything you do is actually impacting somebody and it is something that will stand out for you in your career.”

After completing her MBA this spring, she plans to complete a course on project management and will take a job in that field. The fellowship has offered her plenty of experience in that arena, from time tracking, assigning tasks and managing deliverables, as well as the market research and survey work.