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TTC is set to launch public-safety app in a bid to encourage reporting of incidents and overcome fear of repercussions

Randall Moore/The Globe and Mail

The subway car was crowded. As usual during evening rush hour, everyone had bunched up at the doors, including Dai Williams, a content manager for an app in Toronto.

After Ms. Williams managed to squeeze herself in, a man ran right in behind her. As she thought to herself, "Well, that's kind of a pain, nobody likes to be that close to a complete and total stranger," the man pressed against her.

As the subway car moved on, the man started whispering sexual comments into Ms. Williams's ear. While the man was telling her what he wanted to do to her, she felt him become physically aroused. Williams looked around: It appeared no one could hear what she could. She did not know what to do and started to cry.

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According to numbers obtained from the Toronto Police Service through a Freedom of Information request, the Toronto Transit Commission had 704 reports of sexual assault on its property and vehicles between 2011 and 2016. That is at least two reported incidents a week.

Ms. Williams did not report what happened to her, and police and TTC officials suspect this is the case with others, too.

"All I could think was that I was going to inconvenience so many people because it was such a jammed car," Ms. Williams recalls. "I remember thinking to myself, 'These people just want to go home.'"

In an attempt to reduce the number of incidents that are not reported, the TTC plans to launch an app later this year to make it easier to report sexual assaults and other safety incidents.

TTC spokesperson Stuart Green said the app is based on Elerts, a public-safety app used by other transit systems across North America. It will include real-time two-way communication with an operator, an anonymous reporting option and a "store and forward" feature if cellular or WiFi signals are weak.

The app will also be accompanied by an awareness campaign.

"The campaign will be very bold, will draw attention to real incidents that happen on our system and send a message of zero tolerance for any form of harassment or assault," Mr. Green said in an e-mail. "The campaign will educate customers on the channels available to help them report an incident, with the app being only one of them and, of course, the newest."

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Among the procedures the TTC already has for those in situations similar to that of Ms. Williams are cameras, emergency alarms, designated waiting areas and campaigns about safety and security.

Toronto police note that their data include only reported incidents on TTC property and vehicles and "may not capture all incidents." As a result, "these values may, in fact, be much lower than the actual incidence of these occurrences."

According to the Centre for Research and Education on Violence Against Women and Children at the University of Western Ontario, barriers to reporting assaults include the fear of repercussions and of not being believed. For Ms. Williams, one barrier to reporting her assault was social.

"As a woman, you're just kind of conditioned to be considerate of others and you don't want to be a quote-unquote 'drama queen,'" she said. "So you just think, let's just let these people live their lives, why bother anyone?

"Nobody was reacting, so I figured it wasn't a big deal. Perhaps I was just making it all up in my head and I should just let people go home and go about their business."

Aside from the misconceptions and social stigma that discourage people from reporting sexual assault, Ms. Williams noted the unique hurdles on the transit system itself.

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"They have the emergency stops, but what if you can't reach them because of where you are on the train or if you have some sort of physical impediment?" Ms. Williams said. "If you can't get access to that, the only option is to call someone, but you can't because there's no WiFi or service."

In May, 2016, Hillary Di Menna, a freelance journalist, was persistently sexually harassed on the TTC before she managed to call her partner for help.

She was on Line 2 heading east after attending Reclaim Your Voice, an event for survivors of gender-based violence. Ms. Di Menna was sitting and talking with a friend when she noticed a man watching them. When her friend got off at her own stop, Ms. Di Menna shifted to the inward-facing window seat. The man sat down beside her. He started asking about her shaving habits, commenting on her looks and asking about her sisters and where they hung out. Ms. Di Menna thought to herself, "All right, just sit, get through the train ride. He's saying things, but just get to where you need to go."

As the questions continued, Ms. Di Menna looked around to see if anyone realized what was happening. She locked eyes with a woman who was watching her, but she did not respond. She looked over to a security guard on his way to or from work, and he looked down.

Feeling alone and scared, Ms. Di Menna got off the subway three stops ahead of her own. The man followed her, asking more questions. She thought she had lost him and got back on the train, but he followed her again.

Finally, at the end of the line, Ms. Di Menna got off, with the man closely at her side. She glanced at the train driver to make sure he had seen them, so there would be witness in case the incident escalated. She left the station, running outside into a grocery store, leaving the man behind, and called her partner.

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"I think with the subway specifically, it's also such a microcosm, it's such an example of the broader picture," Ms. Di Menna said. "If you ever want to examine a society, you have all these different people in the subway, functioning as an example of how society works. When no one was doing anything and I was in a position where I felt unsafe to even press the strip, I was like, 'Wow, this is really an example of rape culture.'"

Both Ms. Di Menna and Ms. Williams believe the TTC needs to do more to make it easier to report sexual assault or harassment on the system.

Ms. Di Menna sees the advantage of a phone line similar to the Crisis Link lines that are incorporated into phones at track level in each station. Instead of connecting to a mental-health professional, the phone lines would connect a person who is feeling vulnerable or has experienced sexual assault to someone who is trained to handle it.

But training TTC employees is not the only solution; the issue needs to be tackled at a societal level, Ms. Di Menna said.

Linda Frempong, safety co-ordinator for the Metropolitan Action Committee on Public Violence Against Women and Children, agrees cultural change is needed, through new policies, training and staff procedures, involving all stakeholders, be they staff, management or commuters.

The Edmonton Transit System (ETS) launched a zero-tolerance campaign in 2015, encouraging people to report harassment. The campaign included posters on light-rail transit vehicles and buses and the removal of warnings on emergency alarms that discourage people from misusing them.

The ETS aimed to spread the notion of what is and is not okay, a message Chuck Van Deel Piepers, director of safety and security at the ETS, articulated as: "This isn't acceptable in your work, why would you do it on a bus? It's not acceptable at the pool, why would you do it on the train?"

When asked what other transit systems could learn from Edmonton's model, Mr. Van Deel Piepers affirmed the need for a community-based goal.

"Every transit organization should have the same objective as we do: Making it a safe, reliable ride for our customers. It's about how we all contribute to a healthy, safe community. We're a huge piece of that."

The Toronto Transit Commission is investing in signalling upgrades that will hopefully see them able to run subway trains closer together.
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