I am learning how to drive because I am tired of being harassed on the street.
I don’t know how to drive. That’s right, I live in Los Angeles County (West Whittier) and I don’t drive.
It is hard out here, especially in this corner of the County to rely on public transit. No matter how hard I try to be on time, I am always a little bit late because the bus came early, the bus came late, or the bus didn’t show up at all.
In this summer heat it’s embarrassing to arrive sweaty and parched to my meetings, most of which are located in the City of Los Angeles. The buses are air conditioned, of course, but most bus stops I wait at lack bus shelters that would protect me from the sun.
I made the decision to learn how to drive earlier this year. But I am not learning how to drive because of the heat or because the bus schedule doesn’t align properly with my life.
I am learning how to drive because I am tired of being harassed on the street and I am tired of feeling unsafe when I take up public space.
As a woman, I first realized I was a target when I was walking home from school at age 13, when I was almost kidnapped a block away from my home, the home I still live in today.
I didn’t walk for a long time after that. My best friend and her mom would pick me up every morning for the next five years to drive me to school. My dad would rarely let me walk home after tennis practice, a student government meeting, or tutoring during my high school years.
After high school, I lived car-free in the Bay Area for 10 years. Alameda County Transit (AC Transit), Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART), the Muni buses and trains in San Francisco, and my bike were my best friends.
I moved back to West Whittier four years ago. Though I had been taking public transit and taken up public space in the Bay Area for many years, things were and are different here because there are areas of the County where there are comparatively few people who walk and take transit. So when I stand alone on a corner without a bench, without a bus shelter, without proper signage, waiting for the bus I know will be showing up soon, I stand out. When I walk a few blocks from one bus stop to another for my transit connection, and I am the only woman walking, I stand out.
The levels of unwanted male attention I have experienced while I have been walking, biking or while on public transit has varied since I’ve moved back to L.A. County. I have been followed and verbally harassed in Metro stations and on trains and buses. I was physically assaulted while walking home by a stranger, and I once ran away from a man who chased me for a block while I walked in Whittier. My only escape was to run into the nearest business to protect myself, a Zumba studio that was in mid-session. I have many more experiences I can share, but I think you get the point.
If you are reading this and you are a woman, unfortunately, you can relate to most of these life experiences and those portrayed in Terra Lopez’s auditory exhibit, This is What it Feels Like [warning: strong language]. These experiences deeply frightened me and taught me that I am unsafe in the world.
Whenever I have shared some of these incidents with friends and loved ones they tell me how I need to be more careful. So then I think about how I could have been more careful. And in every single one of these instances (and those I have not discussed here), the only way I could have been more careful is if I had not been in public. Period.
During her last staff meeting before retirement, our founding Executive Director, Wendy Alfsen, reminded us that our work at California Walks is rooted in elevating inclusion by forcing us to question whether what we are working on will result in the othering or the belonging of the people we are intending to serve.
Belonging. I understand how belonging is woven into my work when I recommend crosswalk and sidewalk improvements across the state in communities that for decades have intentionally lacked proper improvements. I understand belonging as I advocate for targeted funding in low-income communities of color across L.A. County. But how can we ensure women belong and feel safe while walking and biking, while on transit, or when they are just generally living their life and sexual harassment is so ingrained in various parts of American society?
I’ve been hesitant to share these stories and to write this post because some of these experiences have been very painful. I am also afraid, like many people would be, that you are judging me for not knowing how to drive and that in fact you have missed the whole point of my blog post.
Yet, I am sharing this because I think about little girls, quiet, innocent, and brown like that 13-year-old I was once. Though I received support and concern over my physical safety (which I am eternally thankful for), I wish someone would have told me then it wasn’t my fault.
No one ever did.
From my lived experience I have learned that working towards belonging—ensuring people feel welcomed and safe in their streets, neighborhoods, and communities—is more than reducing the speed limit, adding a bike lane, and filling in a sidewalk gap. Belonging can begin to be the norm when a community is sustained by mutual respect, and it is rooted in the promise that we take care of each other.
To continue championing walking, accessibility, and mobility, California Walks will highlight some of the walking intersectionalities we’ve either experienced or observed across the state through this blog series. It is our goal to change the narrative around walking and active transportation so that it includes all of us and reflects Californian’s various realities. Previously in the series: