(This is part of an occasional series of posts on walkability. You can also jump to part 1, part 2, and part 3. Incidentally, I'm writing this at home during a snow day, which makes me think that my next walkability post should really be about snow removal.)
There's been a lot of talk lately about crime where I live. A fairly horrible and much-publicized stabbing happened in October, quite close to downtown New London and not far from where I live; there have been a couple of other incidents since then. Lots of people have said that they think twice about walking around downtown now, especially after dark. On the rare occasions when I keep late hours, I've been taking taxis even short distances rather than walking by myself through the (almost always deserted) streets.
Rebecca Solnit writes in Wanderlust: A History of Walking that most women are conditioned to avoid walking by themselves for fear of violence, and sexual violence in particular, and that this is, among other things, part of a long history of tactics to keep women confined in the home:
I was advised to stay indoors at night, to wear baggy clothes, to cover or cut my hair, to try to look like a man, to move someplace more expensive, to take taxis, to buy a car, to move in groups, to get a man to escort me—all modern versions of Greek walls and Assyrian veils, all asserting it was my responsibility to control my own and men's behavior rather than society's to ensure my freedom. I realized that many women had been so successfully socialized to know their place that they had chosen more conservative, gregarious lives without realizing why. The very desire to walk alone had been extinguished in them—but not in me.
—Rebecca Solnit, Wanderlust: A History of Walking, 241
I've been fairly fearless about walking around after dark for most of my life, even in some places where, in retrospect, I should probably have been a lot more cautious. In Chicago, as an undergrad, I probably ran a much higher risk of being mugged than in most of the other places I've lived. But I couldn't stand the university's constant warnings about how we'd all be murdered if we ventured off campus. I knew they were worried about student safety, but it smacked of fearmongering to me.
In Philadelphia, where crime does happen (albeit in much higher concentrations outside of Center City), I used to commute home from my Sunday evening reference shift via SEPTA train and bus, getting home at around 11:30. Waiting for the bus late on a Sunday evening was a little nervous-making at first, but I soon realized that if anything seemed not quite right, there was a 7-11 a block away where I could take refuge. I never had to, though. Sometimes there were other people waiting for the bus; sometimes there weren't; nobody ever made me feel threatened; and I probably spent more time worrying about my extremities getting frostbitten on the colder winter nights than about potential assailants.
I lived and worked in Philadelphia for much of 2006, and one of my greatest pleasures during that year was walking about the city. I particularly enjoyed, after an evening seminar at U Penn or Temple, returning to center city on foot, alone with my thoughts, admiring the flickering lights at a distance, seeing them draw closer, then walking among them at close quarters. The streets of Philly are full of life at all times of the day and night, and the idea that I shouldn’twalk about them did not really occur to me. Yes, of course there are crack weasels on street corners, but I have no business with them, nor they with me. And frankly I’d rather walk on a street with people on it (for whatever purpose) than one that seems desolate or empty. I agree with Rebecca Solnit about most things, but not with her view that a woman walking at night is inevitably disenfranchised by her sex, her sexuality.
I've felt the same way about most of the places I've lived in: what determines the safety of any given public space is the number of other people one is likely to encounter. Crime is less likely to happen in a place full of witnesses. I've seen Jane Jacobs' concept of "eyes on the street" in action any number of times.
But none of this is to say the fear isn't real, or that street harassment isn't a genuine and enraging problem. More eyes on the street makes the street a safer place. But the question of how to eradicate the gender-specific harassment and violence (apart from, oh, I don't know, maybe raising young men to not regard women as pieces of meat?) is a larger issue that doesn't get addressed nearly often enough, whether as an aspect of walkability or in and of itself.
Bottom line: a place isn't walkable if people are afraid to venture out of their houses. And a place still isn't walkable if only half the population can move through it without fear of being hassled, intimidated, or worse.