The safety of women taxi drivers: perspectives from behind the wheel
As part of our series on eliminating violence against women and girls in our cities produced in collaboration with the Huairou Commission, Jacqueline Leavitt meets with women taxi drivers in San Francisco and Chicago to learn how they deal with safety risks on the public streets.
"Oh, my gosh, it's a woman driver!" Women who drive hear this a lot. The United States Census Bureau reports that of the 390,000 taxi and limousine drivers in 2010, women numbered only 5,616. New York City, the country's largest concentration with 46,000 taxi drivers, includes about 170 or 0.3% women.
While taxi driving is considered one of the most dangerous jobs in the world, in many cities, the safety of women drivers is overshadowed by concern for the safety of women passengers. Yet women drivers are on the streets 12 to 14 hours a day, six days a week, in a work environment where women encounter sexual harassment if not physical assault. And in many cities, the safety of women drivers is overshadowed by concern for the safety of women passengers.
Fear for safety alone does not explain the smaller numbers of women drivers in the US. The women who choose the job treat the safety risks matter-of-factly, expecting them as part of the job. Rather, compared to Southeast Asia and the Middle East where "women driving women" is gaining traction, the sexual harassment women drivers face in western society reveals a localised culture of violent behaviour and language as well as economic attacks that prevent women in the US from even thinking about getting a "hack" license.
Unlike outsiders who imagine that driving in the daytime must be preferable, most prefer working nights when they can earn more and face less frustration, and traffic is not as bad. One told us, "I had just gotten to the point where I couldn't deal with the traffic anymore ... I was just over days."
Becoming a cab driver
The taxi driving industry is filled with half-truths about drivers being their own boss and setting their own schedule. The driver gets into the business because he or she needs to find a job that has an immediate payoff and minimal entry requirements — getting a commercial license, passing a drug test, taking a written test, and paying fees. At one time, drivers were employees with health benefits, a grievance procedure, pensions, and vacation time, and they received a defined percentage of the fares — a situation still found in Las Vegas, and in some other countries. In most parts of the US the driver leases a cab and the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) considers her an independent contractor. This means she has none of the rights of a typical employee. The high costs of purchasing taxicabs exclude women who are poor to begin with, due to the burden of car payments with high interest rates. Exceptions exist; in San Francisco, the city "grandmothered" in older drivers when the medallion system was adopted as a means of regulating the number of cabs on the street. The high cost of medallions in New York City — $750,000 and up in 2011 — is prohibitive for most.
Once in, the cab is a far from ideal workplace for women or men. Drivers sit a long time in a confined space and tend to remain in uncomfortable positions when they snatch time for sleep. Health studies report that high percentages suffer from lower back pains. Twisting to collect fares and picking up luggage frequently leads to shoulder injuries. They don't get bathroom breaks and risk losing fares if they leave queues outside hotels or taxi stands. Women drivers face greater problems. Yannie Chan writes for HK Knows Hong Kong and quotes one who says: "Did you know that some public toilets are only for men?"
Drivers' perspectives in San Francisco and Chicago
Finding a woman driver for a research study is far from easy. After a study of 300 drivers in the City of Los Angeles failed to reach any women, a handful of women drivers were located in San Francisco and Chicago. Some were retired, two work in suburban Chicago. One woman is an immigrant. A few had older children but drove when their kids were younger. Two were married to taxi drivers whose shifts hardly allowed them to see each other. Their friends and boyfriends are usually in the taxi driving community and this familiarity becomes an entry point. Like men, women who become drivers think of it as temporary, especially if unemployed, between jobs, or wanting to change jobs from bartending or office work. One woman when asked about retiring said "I would but I'm 59 years old and I don't know who would hire me for anything."
We asked about safety issues and if they were sexually assaulted or harassed. Women drivers report experiencing sexual solicitations or sexist comments or are mistaken for prostitutes. They know about high homicide rates among drivers. Women who drive taxis speak knowingly about ways to protect themselves from attacks. It may not be failsafe but they carry mace, hair spray, or a knife, depend on a cell phone or open connections to dispatchers, and rely on cameras mounted in the cabs and geographic positioning systems (GPS) to pinpoint their locations. Unlike outsiders who imagine that driving in the daytime must be preferable, most prefer working nights when they can earn more and face less frustration, and traffic is not as bad. One told us, "I had just gotten to the point where I couldn't deal with the traffic anymore … I was just over days." She dismissed anyone who thought about physically assaulting her and laughingly said, "I pity the fool."
When you have women being gang raped in the streets and on public transit the way we've been hearing about, that's a pretty clear sign that any public space is far worse than segregated--it's a men's space that women occasionally venture into, and entirely at their own risk. To respond by creating public women-only spaces is definitely not a permanent solution, but it is a helpful measure under these circumstances.
Above all, the cab as workplace is highly dependent on women's relational skills and their belief in the ability to read people. One woman forcefully said, "You don't get an address, you don't take them." Another response sheds light on the why behind the propositioning. After telling us "there's a little bit of stigma attached. [Passengers] objectify you, driving a cab — [like] anyone [in] service, like cutting hair, bartending — we are on the very bottom." Passengers may feel a surge of power in the relative anonymity of a darkened cab. Acting as if they are in a private space, separated by a shield or not, the cab is a breeding ground for personal fantasies. Another driver told us that she was propositioned when younger but now "I stopped dying my hair, getting too expensive." The ways in which older women are often ignored in other jobs, such as by not getting promoted or being fired, may have the unintended consequence of protecting older women in this job.
One woman used shaming as protection: "Some asshole, talking to me coming on to me, he had said he had a girlfriend, I tell people I am married although I am not." Her backup plan was her Bluetooth "so a person on the other end hears what is going down." On a long drive to an outer San Francisco suburb, she maintained an open line when a drunken passenger proposed to pay her with drugs. She told him: "You've got the wrong cab driver. I'm clean. You have two options. You can run out there and get me my money in five minutes or I'm going to call the police and you explain to your neighbours why you have police outside." She explained: "I knew for a fact that the guy didn't want police there." He got the money and wound up hugging me." To a drunk flirting with her, she said, "You don't kiss the cab driver, you pay the cab driver."
Acting to protect women drivers
Taxis in the US are largely a public utility that use public thoroughfares paid for by public dollars. Yet there is little public outrage about the conditions that women or men drivers encounter. As early as 1973, women around the world organised Take Back the Night: women marched through the pornography district in San Francisco, and in New York City they blocked traffic to call attention to violence in the images used by the recording industry. It's hard to imagine women drivers staging something similar today. In Chicago, a young woman led the drivers on a one-day strike but then left the business. Today organising is more likely to focus on corporations who run the taxi fleets, wield political influence through donations, and treat drivers poorly, or on government regulations or police treatment.
The experience of start-up Pink Taxis in Delhi and Mumbai and online forums in Qatar, Kuwait, Bahrain, Oman, and the United Arab Emirates shed a different light on women drivers. For Pink Taxis, pink appears in the name, as the colour of the cab, its parking spots around the city, the shirts the drivers wears, or the kerchief around their necks. Not defensive about belonging to a "pink ghetto", women drivers ask how else they can distinguish themselves to potential customers. They are proud to be learning new skills, earning money, providing greater safety for women passengers, and of being brave enough to withstand the stares of others. Muslim women who cannot accept rides from men who are not related by marriage or blood can be mobile and use the resources of a city.
One Reddit respondent captures the bitter truth: "When you have women being gang raped in the streets and on public transit the way we've been hearing about, that's a pretty clear sign that any public space is far worse than segregated — it's a men's space that women occasionally venture into, and entirely at their own risk. If women's bodies are treated like public property as soon as they go outside, it means that they are not seen as true citizens with the same right to go about their business in public spaces … To respond by creating public women-only spaces is definitely not a permanent solution, but it is a helpful measure under these circumstances. You could also see it as a step towards the goal of a desegregated public sphere because it allows women to be in public, period. "Separate but equal" is ultimately bullshit, but "enter at your own risk" is terrifying."
Also chilling is that women in countries like the United States feel restricted from taking jobs such as taxi driving. Yes, the pay is low, the hours are long, and women are still responsible for children and the household. But if we want a violence-free society, women must be able to move freely into public places and this includes demanding changes to the ways they are treated if they choose to earn money driving.