End Street Harassment to Support Walking

Margaux Mennesson is communications and marketing manager for the Safe Routes to School National Partnership, a national non-profit that works to advance safe walking and bicycling to and from schools, to improve the health and wellbeing of kids of all races, income levels, and abilities, and to foster the creation of healthy communities for everyone.

“Hey baby, what’s up?”

“Is that Mount Everest or the Goodyear blimp?”

“Walk faster, you never know what can happen at night.”

There’s nothing like a creepy and unwelcome comment to turn a routine walk into a frightening and stressful experience. These are just a few of the examples of comments and catcalls that people posted on social media during International Anti-Street Harassment Week, which took place April 8-13. Every year, people from around the world bring the problem of street harassment into the spotlight by creating public art on city sidewalks, sharing their experiences on social media, and having frank conversations about why harassment is a problem.

As walking advocates, when we talk about making streets safe for walking, we often focus on infrastructure and traffic safety – building sidewalks, making sure there are safe crossings, slowing traffic down. But even with all those elements in place, walking in public can be an uncomfortable, intimidating and even dangerous experience for people who are vulnerable – particularly girls, women, youth, people of color, and the LGBTQ community. Street harassment can have a strong negative effect on people who get around on foot, by bicycle, or on public transit – and it’s a common and pervasive problem. Surveys have found that between 65 and 86 percent of women and 25 percent of men reported experiencing street harassment. That’s why it’s critical that walking and active transportation advocates address street harassment as a barrier to walking, and partner with community organizations that are working to end harassment.

As a lead organization of the Every Body Walk! Collaborative monthly theme, which focused on how walking can help build relationships, engage others, and address community concerns, we took the opportunity to explore how advocates and community partners can work together to stop street harassment and create safe, welcoming, and inclusive streets for everyone.

These unsolicited and often threatening comments and actions have an especially negative impact on students. Experiences of street harassment can cause students to miss school, and can affect readiness to learn and academic success. They can lead students to avoid convenient, affordable, and healthy ways of getting to school, discouraging walking and taking transit. And, street harassment can affect students mentally, resulting in negative self-esteem and depression.

Because street harassment can undermine the goal of getting people to make walking and biking a permanent, safe, and healthy habit, advocates have a strong vested interest in taking on street harassment. We can take action to reduce street harassment, give people tools to respond when they experience or witness harassment, and work to help youth not become harassers in the first place. Here are a few ways walking advocates can work effectively with other entities to create change:

  • Provide targeted anti-harassment workshops and trainings. These trainings can be tailored to be age- and experience-appropriate, depending on the audience.
  • Create public relations campaigns to let people know that harassing people on the street is unacceptable. Campaigns can be low-budget or professionally developed and promoted.
  • Partner with community organizations and neighborhood associations to conduct a safety and harassment walk audit. Identify hotspots of concern where harassment frequently occurs and explore solutions, such as fixing broken lights, stationing school personnel on a corner where harassment is common, or working with local businesses to train them to interrupt harassment.
  • Ask local businesses to designate themselves as a safe space. Businesses can put a sticker on their window letting the public know it’s okay to take refuge in the building to escape harassment.

We all have a role to play when it comes to reducing street harassment, giving people the tools to respond when they experience or witness harassment, and helping youth not become harassers in the first place.