Below the Radar Transcript

The Trip Diary: Geographies of Identity — with Lori Macdonald and Sadia Tabassum

Speakers: Steve Tornes, Lori Macdonald, Sadia Tabassum

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Steve Tornes  0:20 
Hello listeners! Welcome to The Trip Diary, a Below the Radar podcast series that examines movement in urban space. I’m Steve Tornes, with SFU’s Vancity Office of Community Engagement. In the before times, I graduated from the SFU Urban Studies Program while doing research on the Vancouver Bike Share Program and Employer-Based Transit Subsidies. Over the course of this series, we will explore how different commute modes impact daily life and why we need to think about transportation in our urban design. The Trip Dairy was recorded on the unceded territories of the Musqueam, Squamish, and Tsleil-Waututh peoples.

[Sound of Skytrain Arriving and Doors Opening]

Steve Tornes  1:14 
I commute to work on public transit. I enjoy those moments, sitting, looking out the window, watching the world slowly turn, while listening to podcasts about urban life.  When I was asked to make a mini-series, I knew I wanted to try and capture that listening experience.

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Steve Tornes  1:35 
Equity is one of, if not the most important topic, when it comes to urban planning and design. It has the potential to either uphold inequities or bridge them. Today we are going to talk with Lori Macdonald and Sadia Tabassum, two SFU Urban Studies alum who wrote their theses on the experiences of recent migrants and women of colour. I invited these guests because their research methods highlight the importance of qualitative research, about listening to participants on their own terms. I hope that our conversations about equity inform how we experience the rest of the series.

Steve Tornes  2:19 
Our first guest is Lori Macdonald. Her research method of mental mapping, with its focus on the direct experiences and memories of recent migrants to the region, asks us to re-experience learning about transit through the eyes of someone unfamiliar with our transportation system. It pushes back against the idea that our public transit system makes intuitive sense, something that we may implicitly believe if we grew up in the region. I hope that you enjoy the series.

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Steve Tornes  3:09 
Hi, and welcome aboard The Trip Diary. It's great to have you here. Lori Macdonald, can you first introduce yourself a bit?

Lori Macdonald  3:17
Sure. Thank you, Steve. I'm happy to be here. My name is Lori Macdonald. And first of all, I'm here on the unceded and stolen territories of the Squamish, Musqueam and Tsleil-Waututh. And I am a white settler here in in Vancouver, and for years I think, I've just been really thinking a lot about public transit. And, you know, I think worked really hard to make some investments in our region around public transit. Part of my experience in understanding transit in Metro Vancouver has been really advocating and lobbying for the U-Pass program, which is a subsidized transit program for post secondary students.

Steve Tornes  3:59
Thank you, Lori, you wrote an incredibly creative and thoughtful thesis. Can you please describe what your thesis, Mapping Daily Mobility in Metro Vancouver, was about?

Lori Macdonald  4:10
Sure, thank you. And I appreciate your analysis on it there. I was really lucky, first of all, I think to have Noel Dyck as a supervisor who's, he just has so much experience in in sociology and anthropology. And so, he let me have so much freedom to think about daily mobility, and how it relates to people's experiences settling in the region. And so, my thesis was about nine participants who were all on a pathway to immigration, and they were studying in the hospitality industry, and just really asking, how do they develop and acquire the skills for their daily mobility?

Lori Macdonald  4:47
I approached it originally from the idea of like, people are going to need to get to employment, and that's kind of it like, it's really just about getting from A to B. But I think what I what I found through that ethnographic fieldwork, of, you know, interviewing people and traveling with them, and having them draw out their maps of how they get around the region, was that it was so much more than just getting from A to B, and it was so much more than just getting to employment. But really, it was about the entire process of their lives taking hold and becoming anchored in Metro Vancouver around, you know, what made them happy, what draws them memories from places that they had previously lived, and just allowed them to sort of settle into the region in a way that I thought was really quite striking.

Steve Tornes  5:35 
What is mental mapping? And can you describe some of those maps for listeners?

Lori Macdonald  5:41
Sure. So mental mapping for me was the name that I gave to the process of drawing out where somebody had had been in traveling when they first arrived, and then traveling also when they had been here for multiple years. So, it was a tool that I used to get a sense of having something on paper that allowed us to both understand, you know, what their daily routines were, what their routes were, where they wanted to go, where they did go.

Steve Tornes  6:11 
Why did you go down this qualitative route of mental mapping and travelling with your participants? What do these research techniques tell you that cannot have been done by something like a transportation survey, like a trip diary?

Lori Macdonald  6:25 
Thanks, Steve. I reflected on this quite a bit that, and I still do that I feel like a qualitative approach is kind of an equity approach in general, that it seeks to understand somebody's lived experience. And it seeks to hear and see and witness their experience, kind of firsthand and learn so much more about it that you would never learn from something like as you mentioned, a trip diary. And I think part of the work I was doing was also really trying to get a sense of what is important to people and what has meaning and when thinking about the settlement process into the region. You know, what, what could I learn from people through a qualitative approach and an ethnographic approach that I wouldn't have otherwise learned by devising a survey or taking quantitative data? 

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Steve Tornes  7:19 
What are guardrails? And how does that affect people who plan their routes?

Lori Macdonald  7:24 
So, guardrails are a term I think I stumbled across as I was writing this thesis. Coming back to your topic there of the mental map, like what is a mental map? I think a guardrail is something that lives in a mental map. And it exists as a physical navigation tool. And so, one of the ones that I was thinking about was one of the participants worked downtown and got lost and you know, like this one person was like getting lost was sort of anxiety inducing for them and so they called a friend on video chat and was like, you know, like, you just need to find that one particular trash bin, that trash bin is the way you orient yourself back to getting to work. So that is one guardrail. And so, I kind of saw them as these like handholds of familiarity that would allow people to make their way and like develop the memory that also helps them develop the confidence. And through that memory and confidence of knowing how to travel.

Lori Macdonald  8:31 
I really saw that development as people explained, kind of a five-year timeline of arriving here and not having that that knowledge and then developing it through experience. Now, I also used a couple other terms that were a little different than guardrails, they were a concept of a social anchor or a foothold. And it's again, it's kind of recognizing that our mobile lives are pervasive. They're not just, like transportation isn't another place, it's the world that we live in. And so, the foothold is that like sense of comfort along the way, or the kind of the memories or something that provides a positive sense of like familiarity, because I really did see that with the confidence and the comfort of people using the transit system and the transportation network, that that was what provided people with a sense of calm and a I think, a sense of home that this was like their new place, where they were going to live and that it was comfortable to them.

Steve Tornes  9:38
You drew upon the work of Amit and Knowles, who view navigation skill as, quote “finding a way through the physicality of the world that demands deep knowledge, close attention, and the capacity for invention when things don't work in expected ways.” End quote. Can you explain that more? What does it look like? And what does navigation skill look like for different people?

Lori Macdonald  10:05 
Yeah, thanks. I think that navigation for different people was very different from what I found in the research, some people had a sense of confidence and carefreeness about being able to just fumble out onto the SkyTrain, and not know which way it was going. Not know if they were going to end up in Production Way when they should have gotten off at Columbia Station, and they were trying to get to Surrey. And that the navigational skills that they had were about really just kind of making a mistake and improvising and figuring out how to correct their mistake and getting back on track. So that was sort of one approach. 

Lori Macdonald  10:49
And then additionally, other people had had really different experiences. So, some people might have been much more anxious about how they were going to get to work on time. And, you know, also perhaps they didn't have a data plan. And so, navigation for them was about planning their route at home when they had access to the internet and taking a series of screenshots and, you know, clicking them off as they as they went and finding themselves in a steamy bus where they couldn't actually see out the window, you know, and needing to, to clear off the window and find the one Superstore that they knew meant, it was time for their stop, next. But I think part of that navigation was that it is not an easy task. I think, sometimes we take it for granted, if we if we know, and have lived in a place that we have, you know, grown up in, and I know it well, but that it's an accumulation, and it takes a bit of time. And it takes perhaps more thinking and resources than we might originally think about.

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Steve Tornes  11:55
Just to go back a bit, when you talked about how people brought their experiences from like the country that they were at before coming to Vancouver, one thing that reminded me of, that I found that I really enjoyed about your thesis, was, one of the participants, she said that when she was travelling with her sister, she always made sure to get off at Waterfront Station because she loved the building so much.

Lori Macdonald  12:21
I did think about you, multiple times, as I kind of reread it this week is that it talks about North Vancouver a lot. And it talks about the shift of getting over to North Vancouver and you know, I think yeah, it's that subjective quality, I think around tastes and desires and kind of aspirations. That comes back to your question about why qualitative research, but exactly, somebody chooses a route because they really like the Waterfront Station, and it's like a moment of beauty and joy in their life. And same thing with other routes. It's like, there's probably a lot of research about why people take particular routes like, is it faster? Is it you know, often is it cheaper or faster? And I think this, my research show that it's not always that. It's like, are you going to going to get a chance to see the Fraser River from the SkyTrain because somebody really loved to see the view? Or is the route that you take, going to give you that nostalgia of a winding road that you remember from India? Again, like that's why somebody likes a route. So yeah, I think there was a lot to learn there about how, I think it's not just transportation, it's kind of like a fabric of, of living in a city.

Steve Tornes  13:42 
I think you really captured why I like your thesis so much, not because it was a had a lot of North Vancouver in it. But because it really pushed us back against the urban planning mentality of how to move people in the quickest, most efficient manner between A and B. So how do people relate to different forms of transportation, for example, what was different for newcomers when it came to SkyTrain versus Seabus versus bus?

Lori Macdonald  14:10 
Thanks. I think I titled some of the ways that people learn to travel in the region, As Along The Line, and what I what I meant by that was that the SkyTrain was such a popular form of transportation and people really loved it. And it had a sense of ease that like, you know, as my thesis work grappled with the idea of like, do people need to feel comfortable and confident in their ability to travel around a region to feel content and happy as they settle into the area. And the SkyTrain was just a really big checkmark, I think on that confidence and the ease because it was, you know, people love the view. They love how simple it is. They love how fast it is, the stations were easy to find. And people were like, I never, I never take the bus, I avoid the bus at all costs, because it's complicated. And so, I think part of that relationship that you're talking about, is that people with language barriers, in my research struggled with the bus. And that was that they didn't understand the weekly schedules versus the weekend schedules. They often didn't understand some of the signage. They didn't understand what the difference was between the night bus and when it switched to night bus.

Lori Macdonald  15:36
And I know that that's something that's changed since I did the research, that there's been more signage and understanding on how to use the night bus. But there was some negative feedback about the bus. People just sometimes generally thought that it was kind of time consuming. And not everybody loved the idea of the sort of stop and go nature of it.

Steve Tornes  16:01
You mentioned a few different things. The confusing nature that buses can be if English is not your first language, the changing in schedules with like weekdays, weekends, night buses, and as well, like previous perspectives of the safety of buses. Do you have any policy recommendations that TransLink or municipalities could do to help make buses more welcoming for newcomers?

Lori Macdonald  18:01
Yeah, well, like I mean, I think I have a couple policy recommendations. And some of them just go to the data collection. And I'm not sure how, if this has changed or not, but when I did my thesis, the regional trip diary didn't collect travel pattern behavior on the weekends. And so, the people who were in my study, were working in the service and hospitality industry, with weekend shifts, holiday shifts, late night shifts, really early morning shifts. And so that doesn't really speak to your question on the buses themselves. But it does speak to the sort of need to collect data on who's riding the buses on the weekends. Yeah, I mean, I think generally, there's a lack of understanding about the national scope of public transit. And so that's also not necessarily to your question about just busing, so we can come back to it, but the national scope and the potential for federal oversight and identification of the real importance about public transit as a component of settlement into a new urban area, I think, I would love to see federal interest and federal funding, and federal care and attention. Because I think what this research showed, and what much research has shown is that, you know, people with lower incomes are really transit dependent. And it's more common that when you don't have access to the resources for personal vehicle that you're getting around on public transit. 

Lori Macdonald  18:01
I think there's many great settlement services and agencies in the region, and I don't know the extent to which they offer orientation services to newcomers. But I think that is a really great opportunity for investment in making the buses feel both comfortable and kind of understandable. And it really speaks to the idea that, and what I kind of learned in the research, is that travel is a real social experience. That was a surprise to me that I hadn't really thought about, because I didn't see it in a lot of the other literature around the, for the network of learning, that people are part of. And so, they learn how to be comfortable with the bus system when a friend shows them or when a friend tells them about something or when somebody takes them on a trip to sort of pass that barrier of uncertainty.

Lori Macdonald  18:52 
And so, I think one of my recommendations is just to really invest and bolster in both, officially the way that somebody who can have access to some support for learning how to use the system. But then also, like, people felt comfortable on the system because the person opened the door for them, or the bus driver was really friendly and let them off when they didn't have a stop because, you know, like they were on a night bus, they didn't realize they had didn't have a stop. So, part of it is also just like to one another, it's that the collective nature of being out in the world is it really provided a sense of welcoming and kind of belonging for people who were new when somebody showed them how to use the compass machine at the at the SkyTrain station, or when somebody told them about how their different routes work.

Lori Macdonald  19:45 
The settlement experience is very mobile, and it includes temporary employment and temporary housing, and a lot of shifting and so to take away the cost factor from those equations, I think is dignified, and it is a justice approach to supporting people arriving in this region. And I had stumbled across the Fresh Voices Report, which is a youth report on immigrants and refugees coming into Metro Vancouver. And they call for the same thing, which is free transit for immigrants and refugees. And absolutely, I love it. And I mean, you know, Steve, I would obviously go further than that. And I would say, my dream, and my sort of utopian vision is that transit access is free. And we're able to, you know, rebuild that transit system, post pandemic, provide people with sustainable options, get cars off the road. So, I would, I would go to the wall on that one, and continue to advocate for, for free transit.

Steve Tornes  20:52
What is the process whereby people first start developing their routes? How did people learn about new routes and expand their transportation network?

Lori Macdonald  21:02 
Learning new routes is quite dependent on where to go and where they need to go are some of the basic requirements of a transit system. So how did they get to their job? How do they get to where they need to buy groceries? What is the route to school? And so those ones, you know, I think we're quite expected. They were things like Google Maps. And there's a suite of transit apps that people used. And so, whether that was, I'm going to probably forget them all. But basic mobile apps, primarily Google Maps, and, you know, that was, that was definitely part of it. What I saw was that people really shared a lot of information about where the other places are, that somebody who's new here would want to go. And so, whether that was through seeing their friends' stories, or posts on social media and Instagram, you know, it's probably closed now, but seeing Quarry Rock in Deep Cove, or seeing Buntzen Lake, Belcarra, the Tulip Festival in Abbotsford.

Lori Macdonald  22:09 
Some of the places that people, you know, share on social media, those, the development of that kind of inspiration to travel, and then also the means and how to do it was really, amongst friends and amongst social networks. And it was about, you know, if somebody knew that a friend was coming to town, then they would want to show them around and take them. Or if it was about getting to Harrison Hot Springs, it was like, you know, car sharing, or ride sharing or taking somebody who had access to a vehicle.

Lori Macdonald  22:45 
And so, yeah, I think it's like, again, sort of cumulative approach and stepping one's toe a little bit further into the area of the unknown, because people did have that sense of uncertainty and confusion, and, you know, fear, I think about getting lost and fear about not knowing how to get home. And so, some of that was, was about, you know, talking to friends and it was through a social network that I hadn't really thought about too much before doing the research.

Lori Macdonald  23:15
Which maybe, let me share one story if I can share one story. So, one of the ones that I thought was funny was that, you know, to your question, there's someone's like, “Oh, I heard that Maple Ridge is really beautiful. Maybe I can go to Maple Ridge,” and one of the participants got dropped off in Maple Ridge, from a friend who was on their way to Alberta, and then couldn't access data on their phone and was basically stranded in Maple Ridge. And so, they call a taxi, the taxi picked them up and was, you know, this participant also was like, and the taxi driver was really nice, like to save me money, the taxi driver just suggested that I get dropped off at a Skytrain station. And then the taxi driver also drew me a map of how to get home. So that kind of like support and care, I thought was really, really striking and really lovely. It's a kind of a shared struggle for people. And maybe there's a sense of understanding because you know, you've been in that situation, so you're willing to help somebody else out so that they don't have to kind of have that struggle alone.

Steve Tornes  24:22
My last question for you, is there anything that I didn't ask that you also want to add to the conversation here?

Lori Macdonald  24:25 
After I did my thesis, is I did something called the Dignity Institute with Dr. Destiny Thomas in the Thrivance Group. And they do a lot of work around, they've developed a dignity quotient. And some of that is a spin off from a public health approach to understanding well being, and subjective well being. And I think that there's still a lot of really great work that can happen. Looking at transit and understanding how it provides people with that sense of dignity when they are settling in a new region. And I'm, you know, for this example, I'm speaking to people who are newcomers, and how a relief of the suffering of a tough transit system can be something that supports them systemically, and how, you know, one of Dr. Thomas's quotients, in their dignity quotient, is a sense of home. And so, I've been thinking a lot about a sense of home for people and how being able to go wherever they want, whether that means just like taking a bus to sit by a river. Those things are really important. And I think that they are what I would aim for in a transportation system that was supportive.

Lori Macdonald  25:45
Well, thank you, Steve. It's been a pleasure. And yeah, it's been a while since we've talked about this. So, I really appreciate it. And I appreciate hearing your questions, because I know we've had these conversations before, so it's great to come back to.

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Steve Tornes  26:10 
I had never met Sadia Tabassum before, but I thought her thesis title, Embodied Fear, Perceived Safety and Transit-Based Mobility Among Women of Colour in Metro Vancouver, was so intriguing, I messaged her for an advance copy before it got published.

Steve Tornes  26:27
It was a fantastic read and I wanted to discuss her research more because it pushes back against the idea of universal experiences. If there are only some things that we can know by experiencing them, then how can we research it, how can we know something. Often social scientists quantify those experiences. How safe do you feel on transit, between 1 and 5. Sadia takes another route, one which emphasizes that those experiences can only be understood on their own terms. Body mapping allows for storytelling, and while the researcher themselves can never truly be taken out of the narrative, it is rare for me to read research which centres women of colour so well, letting them, as much as possible, tell and share their own stories.

Steve Tornes  27:18 
Thanks so much for being here and welcome aboard the Trip Diary. It is great to have you here, Sadia Tabassum. Can you first introduce yourself a bit?

Sadia Tabassum  27:27 
Sure. Thank you, Steve for having me. I like to think of myself as an artist and an innovator. But mostly, I'm an avid listener and a storyteller. And I love stories because the power that they have. And I think I do a much better job when I write, or I paint to tell my stories than when I speak. But here we are. 

Sadia Tabassum  27:50
So, I'm speaking to you currently from Dhaka in Bangladesh, which is where I grew up. My background is in architecture, which I studied in upstate New York. And since then, I've worked basically in various roles within the construction industry, in the US, in Bangladesh, as well as in Vancouver briefly while I was there. So most recently, my work was with the mass rapid transit project here in Dhaka, which is the first elevated light rail system here. And it's currently under construction. But I did that briefly before leaving and going to Vancouver to join the Urban Studies program there at SFU. So, yeah, that's me in a nutshell. I've always been passionate about cities, and about equity and social justice. And my current projects are about promoting equity in transportation planning and implementation here in Dhaka.

Steve Tornes  28:48
Sadia, your thesis: Embodied Fear, Perceived Safety and Transit-Based Mobility Among Women of Colour in Metro Vancouver, really impacted me, I loved your use of body mapping and what it means to connect the body and identity to transportation. So first, let me say congratulations Sadia, on your successful thesis defense. And second, can you describe what your thesis was about?

Sadia Tabassum  29:14 
Sure, I would love to. So yes, it was about exploring how women of colour experience the public transit system in relation to their perceptions of safety while they're occupying the transit system, and their fear of harassment or violence. So, I essentially interviewed remotely five students at SFU. And they all identified as women of colour, who are completely reliant on public transit for getting around within Metro Vancouver. And the novelty I guess, with the study that I conducted, was the methodology. And the way I used qualitative methods in combination with this exercise, that's called the body map storytelling exercise. And I facilitated that exercise in order to understand how participants described the way that their bodies were facing challenges in their urban mobilities using public transit. So, we can we can obviously talk more about the methods and what that entailed. But it was a very, very rewarding process for me as a student researcher, and just a very, very insightful project to be a part of.

Steve Tornes  30:36 
So here, body mapping is something which people visually draw out, for our listeners would you be able to describe what a typical body map would look like?

Sadia Tabassum  30:47
Sure, yeah. So, Body Map Storytelling is an exercise where a person draws an image on a sheet of paper by hand. And in their drawing, they tried to describe their views and their thoughts and emotions, about themselves and the rest of the world. So, this image that they're creating is their body map. And typically, there's a facilitator who gives prompts or asks questions, which the participant responds to, by drawing or writing. And once they're body maps are drawn, the participant is asked to speak about what they drew and why. And essentially to share their stories with others using the body map as a point of reference. So that's the storytelling component of exercise. 

Sadia Tabassum  31:37 
Now, as a research method, this really allows a person to draw upon their sensory experiences, which I think is such a cool aspect of auto-ethnography or research that explores ethnographical things. But basically, when people are drawing things that they've seen, heard, touched, so they're drawing upon their sensory experiences, they're not necessarily doing it in a way that a traditional recount of these experiences would, would sort of entail. So, it's like saying, like, Steve, can you please describe what happened when you were at that bus stop. So, the way that you might describe that experience, verbally, would be would be probably chronological based on the way you might have experienced them. Or in some other ways structured by the person asking you the question even, or the platform on which you're sharing that response, or in many ways, it might be constricted by those things. 

Sadia Tabassum  32:40 
But when a person is just allowed to draw that experience, things often surface that even that person might not have necessarily realized at the time. And through the process of actually speaking about their drawing later on, this has been seen through studies that use this method, that people start really seeing themselves not only as like a biological entity that is exposed to the senses of hearing and sight and smell, but also as a social being those lives in a community and is therefore exposed to the social norms and the prejudices and inequities within that society. So, they start to reveal these realizations about themselves and their bodies by participating in this exercise. So, I think that's where there's a real value in methods like this that are alternative and up-and-coming. 

Steve Tornes  33:39 
I feel like your body mapping research lends itself particularly well to this topic of equity and transportation. Is there something about this research method that lets you learn from the subject differently from say, quantitative. You have talked about a lot about why this works so well as a qualitative method, but can you explain why makes it different from a more like survey-based research?

Sadia Tabassum  34:03
Right. Well, when I think of quantitative data, I'm thinking about a survey that would kind of ask for a person to report on things like their age, or race, gender, sexual orientation, etc. And then it would also perhaps ask for other things like if I if I were to essentially structure my research, using quantitative methods, I might have been asking for these terms, because I'm looking for a relationship between mobility and race and safety, and these kinds of topics. So, if I were to structure a questionnaire like that, see, it's like, I'm getting hung up on the thought itself of how crazy that would be. Because I'm essentially asking the participant to not only make the connection between their race and gender, with the prejudices and the stereotypes that they're often facing, or the way that they're being discriminated against, or the harassment that they're facing on transit, I'm not only asking them to make those connections on their own, with sort of guidance on what that would mean for this study or for them. I'm also taking them away, I'm removing them from the outcomes of this process of the study itself.

Sadia Tabassum  35:28 
So having a quantitative method, it really detaches a participant from what they are contributing to a study or a research project. And in contrast, a qualitative method allows the participant to feel a lot more part of the research process, a lot more a part of, or in charge of the research design or where it's going. Because they're able to almost direct the way that it's going to go, or what questions I'm going to ask after would be just shared with me. So, it's really led by the participant, which I think is the right way to move forward, especially when we're trying to find out how we can make cities better for everyone.

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Steve Tornes  36:15
What is mobility justice and what does it mean to look at it, and this is a quote, "through the scale of the human body"?

Sadia Tabassum  36:25 
Thank you for asking me that. So, I'm going to start by referencing a collective, which is a gathering of people, and they're based in the US and they really do a bunch of work around the issues of mobility justice. So, they define themselves as a multiracial collective that really centers the lived experiences of marginalized communities to address mobility justice and equity. So, what they define mobility justice, is the intersectional unsafety and attacks that people from marginalized groups experience in public spaces, such as streets, transit systems, and the governance processes that lay claim to regulate those spaces.

Sadia Tabassum  37:13 
So yeah, by marginalized groups, they're referring to bodily features, that that sets different individuals apart. So, things like their race, or people with disabilities, trans people, queer people, women, and the elderly. So, these are all bodily aspects or aspects of one's identity that are based on bodily features that that I mentioned. And or, at least they impact the human body and are displayed in the human body. 

Sadia Tabassum  37:41
So, this this collective called the Untokening, they discuss mobility justice, or, sorry, the lack of mobility, justice, to include the policing against black bodies and the persecution and incarceration of undocumented families. And they also include gender-based harassment and violence and racism, as parts of the mobility in justices that are occurring around the world, and things that are maybe a little, I guess, relevant right now, things like, when a person is having to go to work, you know, they're forced to move, or they're forced to go to work despite being sick, or someone's not able to be safe at home, or getting priced out of your neighborhood. Or if you have to travel two hours each way on public transit, just to get to your place of work, because you can't afford to live closer to your workplace, these are all falling within the realm of mobility justice. Because these things mean that a person is not really able to freely and independently navigate their cities, for whatever many reasons, right, because of threats to their safety, because they're just not being able to, they don't have the access to the resources or the ability to make those kinds of decisions.

Sadia Tabassum  38:59 
So as far as the bodily scale is concerned, that's really what my research focused on. So, the first part, I was describing where there is a bodily feature, or an aspect of the human body, such as someone's race, or ethnicity, or even gender, things like that, that are displayed on the human body. And when people face prejudices or discrimination, or even harassment or violence, that are based around those bodily features that essentially inhibit them from navigating urban public spaces. That's what I'm really calling an obstacle to mobility justice at the bodily scale.

Steve Tornes  39:47 
What are geographies of fear?

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Sadia Tabassum  39:51 
So, geographies of fear is an academic concept that's used to better understand and discuss gender-based violence and harassment. But I want to discuss how it's actually a very real thing. And it's more like a map that is maintained and updated mentally by almost all women. And it's much more than just an abstract concept. So, in short, a lot of women who are living and working in urban regions by themselves, they don't have cars, and they rely on public transit to go pretty much anywhere. Because it still remains, despite options like Uber or taxis, it still remains the cheapest and the fastest way to get around on a regular basis. Now, a lot of studies show that women, particularly women of colour, face more harassment and violence, based on their gender and race, while navigating public spaces in cities.

Sadia Tabassum  40:50 
So, for women who are living in these spaces, they have to continue to use public transit despite being more afraid for their safety, or knowing that they're more likely to be targets of harassment or violence. And in order to do this, they develop a lot of coping strategies because it's not really possible to just avoid an entire physical space, or an entire bus stop or as train station, if it falls within your route. So, in order to continue to occupy spaces, where they either themselves, personally have faced harassment or violence, or places where they know someone else who have faced it, women begin to associate features of those spaces with their fear of harassment or with perceptions of safety. So instead of associating an entire space or a piece of infrastructure with their fear, and just avoiding that space entirely, having things like, you know, observing things like signs of maintenance, or the presence of lighting, or signs of substance abuse. Identifying features of a space based on factors like this really allows people, and especially women of colour in this context, to determine for themselves how safe they feel in that space, and how fearful they have to be for that for their safety. And their fear essentially takes on a geographical aspect. And that's really where these mental maps start to form where these geographies of fear start to occur.

Sadia Tabassum  42:30
Based on the outcomes of my study, where I asked participants if they had any direct recommendations for planners, or policymakers, a lot of the suggestions they gave me was really based around hearing more stories from women of colour. So really, the first step is that we have to talk to individuals that we're identifying as women of colour, or visible minority women, and just clumping together all of their experiences under one category. Because when we label a person, as a visible minority, or a person of colour, we really not taking into account how their nationality or their different race or ethnicities in relation to their gender and age, and all of these other factors, how those things all play together, and impact them and their mobilities, for example, or their lived experiences in any context.

Sadia Tabassum  43:31 
So, the first recommendation would be to really break down the way we are collecting our data about who is safe, where and how, because we need to start asking people not just based on what we think they are, which is of the visible minority group. But really starting to break down what we mean by these terms. Another thing would be breaking down the way we conceive of a universal transit user. So, this one type of individual whose safety is based on a certain set of things, that would be another thing that we really need to consider. And one of one of the things that I personally found as the researcher was, there's really a big gap in terms of the way we try to understand the experience of migrant women in particular. And they often don't rely on any alternative methods or anything that really explores and pushes the boundaries of knowledge. So, we really need to start using more and more alternative methods and start asking, not just who is safe or are our city safer, but who is it safe for and who feels less safe as a consequence of the policies and planning decisions that are being undertaken in the city.

Steve Tornes  45:02
Even though all your participants were women, you also note that black women have a unique experience compared to other women of colour. Carrying on with this conversation that we're having, how does this unique experience manifest itself in the context of transportation

Sadia Tabassum  45:20 
In transportation, it is similar to other urban public spaces, I think black women's experiences are significantly different, even compared to other women of colour, simply because of the dynamic that that currently exists in the current political climate between black people and black communities, and law enforcement, you know, specifically law enforcement authorities. And that's not to say that, you know, the types of racism that black people encounter in society in general is obviously very different from the types of injustices that other people have counts that people of colour are facing. But in transit spaces, specifically, because we think of transit spaces, not really as a space, we think of it as an in-between place where there's really no fixed point of authority or anyone to decide. It's almost seen as a place where, if something unjust were to occur, it's not really the fault of the transit system, or the place that's around an individual. But really, often it falls upon the transit user, or the black woman in this situation, to feel guilty or shameful for not having taken a certain amount of steps or precautions to avoid that situation. So, when we talk about black women's experiences on transit, I think it comes back to their relationship with transit police, as well as how black women and black communities in general encounter significantly different and, you know, extreme forms of discrimination overall.

Steve Tornes  47:07
So, you've talked about this one a little bit. But I do want to ask the question, in case there's more you want to add. Why are some women of colour not reporting incidents of harassment and violent crime while taking transit? And what does that say to the relationship between police and transportation?

Sadia Tabassum  47:26
Well, a lot of the women that I interviewed for my study, when I say a lot of them, all of them, really, they described their avoidance of the police, starting with, first of all, not knowing sometimes whether some of their experiences counted as harassment or assault, or basically whether the legal terms of harassment or assault could be used to describe what had just happened to them. So, since they often didn't clearly delineate and categorize their own experiences, the mental block that that was created for themselves was, if I approached, if I even was able to track down a police officer at the right time, who was able to help me, can I explain this to them where they take me seriously because there haven't been any physical injuries, for example, or there's no clear signs of an attack. And so that's the first concern whether or not they're going to be taken seriously. And the second is, what's going to be, what's the outcome. 

Sadia Tabassum  48:29
So just filing a report is, is often not the end of the process. If you are the person who was the direct target, or the victim of an incident of harassment or assault, you have to, first of all, make sure you're in a space where the attacker is not able to see you approaching the police, and therefore aggravate the attacker even further. And then you have to find the words in that position, have the have all of your words together after just having been assaulted, to put into words, what has just happened to you, to a person who is probably not going to believe you because there's no clear evidence. And then you have to do a series of follow ups with the report you filed and the incident. You know, there's a bunch of paperwork that follows this. And it's really not a clear or a short process with any clear outcomes. So, in terms of people's avoidance of the police, this is what I found in, you know, the responses that I got from the participants in my study.

Steve Tornes  49:33
What's a safety checklist and what are some examples?

Sadia Tabassum  49:39 
So, the term, safety checklist, was actually used by a participant like she used that term, specifically, when I asked her to describe how she prepares for a commute that's based entirely on public transit in Vancouver. So, the others, they described the steps that they take, such as things like just planning their commute, at the right time. So just making sure all of their daily activities line up in such a way that they're able to time their commute exactly when and where they want it to be in order to avoid an unsafe environment. Or just packing light and wearing the right kinds of shoes, carrying things like keys and, you know, mundane objects that they can carry on, you know, on their body.

Sadia Tabassum  50:30
So, things like this, a lot of the other participants, they describe these as part of their day to day routines. And they didn't really associate these steps with their safety, not at all with their race or gender. But some of them they didn't even really associate with their safety. It was just part of what they did in order to get ready to go out and take the bus to work or train to school. So, in after describing these steps they all shared how maintaining these checklists can cause a lot of stress. And it can actually take a toll on their emotional and mental health. And incorporating them into their daily routines can create behaviors and patterns of mobility that they repeat over time, that can, in the long term, negatively impact the way they view themselves, as well as how they view their own position in the world in relation to other people. So, these checklists are items that they described as very necessary for them to feel safer as things that they have to get done, but also as things that really change them and make them feel, you know, the stress of taking on this another set of things that we have to do, another coping strategy.

Steve Tornes  51:52 
If I remember the, at one point, in your thesis, you mentioned that the top thing on the list for all your participants was, as well making sure that women are that they were not out at late at night in an unfamiliar location when it came to transiting.

Sadia Tabassum  52:08
Right, which, which was the point about timing their commutes down to the last second if they can and just micromanaging their trip as much as possible, which is obviously not possible in many situations, because buses aren't always on time. And, you know, bus and train schedules are often not exactly lining up. So, it's this constant struggle to make sure you leave long enough from, you know, you have enough time to get to the bus stop. But also, you don't leave. So far ahead of time that you have to wait, there in a dark and deserted bus stop. So, it's this constant conflict of when do I start my walk from this space to go to that space that I know is potentially unsafe?

Steve Tornes  52:54 
Another part of the checklist I remember was, some of the participants also brought headphones. Could you describe why they brought headphones?

Sadia Tabassum  53:03
Sure, in terms of headphones, a couple people mentioned that they like to have just one headphone, you know, in their ear, and have the other one, and not plugged in because they it's doing several things at the same time. One, it's signaling to people that they're not really interested in communicating. So, they tend to do that as a sort of a gesture that shows that I'm not really here to talk and I don't want to engage.

Sadia Tabassum  53:30
The other effect it has is it helps them feel enclosed, in sort of a private space within the overall public space of that transit vehicle, which is the SkyTrain or the bus. So, they're creating a little space for themselves where only they are able to hear something or respond to someone that they might be talking to. And in that process, they're feeling more enclosed and more safe. So, in different ways, just the simple act of having a headphone, even if you're not listening to anything can impact their perceptions of safety.

Steve Tornes  54:08 
A lot of the questions I've asked have been about fear and discrimination. But you also talked about how women of colour also give each other support. You write, quote, "all participants also said that seeing other women, especially other women of colour in an unsafe transit space, makes them feel less fearful of harassment or violence, especially when they are traveling alone." End quote. What are the ways in which women of colour give each other support? And are there any planning or policy implications of this?

Sadia Tabassum  54:40
So, from speaking to the participants, and from being a woman of colour myself, and from doing the, you know, the legwork for the literature review for this project. My major takeaway, something I've learned in this process has been, just the presence of another woman in an unsafe public space can achieve a lot in terms of how other people in that space feel. Because it signals that the fact that there is a woman occupying that space means it's not barred to that individual. And that could signal that more women can potentially occupy that space.

Sadia Tabassum  55:23 
So as a woman of colour, that feeling is just intensified many fold, when women of colour are going out with other women of colour, and they're just enjoying the nightlife in the city, or using the transit system late at night, just seeing other women of colour around them, gives them this invisible sense of support that they're finding in each other.

Sadia Tabassum  55:48 
Now, what this means for planning and policymaking is that, well, first of all, we have to acknowledge that this source of support exists. And not only identify where it's happening, and how it occurs, but also to start to create more and more spaces where women of colour are able to provide this sort of support for each other. And I think when we begin to better understand these nuances, in their behavior and their perceptions of safety, we can start to create those spaces where they are able to be there for each other and, you know, be that source of support.

Steve Tornes  56:32
So, my last question is there anything that I didn't ask you about that you think the listeners should know? 

Sadia Tabassum  56:39 
Sure, I think I'm gonna just harp on about, like, the one or two things that I want any listener or any reader of the report I wrote to take away from any kind of discussion like this, which is, we have to start adjusting these core beliefs and mindsets that that everyone seems to have accepted about things like safety. What does that mean, when we say safety and well being? And when we're talking about these terms, and throwing them around? What does it really mean for different people? So that's, that's really one of the major takeaways. So, for the transportation planning and implementation processes in Vancouver, or elsewhere, really, thinking about what it means for a person to be safe, or to feel safe, can be so many different things based on who we're asking. And who's listening, who they're speaking to, how safe they feel, and sharing confidently what they really feel. So, there's a lot of these things we have to really just break down. So that's the major one, is, instead of assuming that we're creating a safer space, by following best practices, or based on existing studies, we really need to re-evaluate what safety means now currently in our current climate.

Sadia Tabassum  58:05
And, again, the last point I will mention is this disturbing term, which is a woman of colour, or a visible minority. Because and this is what I want to end on, which is, I don't see myself as a woman of colour, because I grew up in a country that's not predominantly white, and I don't perceive of my own race as relative to a white person. So, when I was in Canada, sure, on the census reports, I might have been a visible minority woman, but that's is not how I see myself. And I know that to be true for countless women out there living in urban regions in Canada, and using the transit systems there. So, there's this disconnect between how people see themselves, and how their experiences are reflected on the national scale in terms of the data that's being generated. So, the takeaway here is to not just assume that all visible minority women, or all marginalized groups even are experiencing the same things or the same kinds of injustices. And instead to speak to the people in these communities, or who identify as people from marginalized groups, to ask them what they think about these things, and then go from there.

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Steve Tornes  59:42
This concludes our first episode. I hope that as we continue with the series, we critically think about transportation and its role in the region. I thought it was interesting that both Lori and Sadia, when giving recommendations, talked about the need for a sense of belonging and support in public transportation spaces. It is a reminder that if public transportation is not inclusive, if it is not welcoming, then it will not be used and its benefits will not be equally shared.

Steve Tornes  1:00:13
Thank you, Lori Macdonald, Sadia Tabassum, all their research participants, and to you, listeners, for joining me on this equity commute, the first instalment of The Trip Diary mini-series. This episode is roughly one hour and two minutes. This is the same time it takes to go from Brentwood Town Center to Richmond center, taking the number 25 Bus connecting at King Edward station and then heading south on the Canada line. I hope you enjoyed the commute.

Steve Tornes  1:00:46
Below the Radar is a knowledge democracy podcast created by SFU’s Vancity Office of Community Engagement. 

Steve Tornes  1:00:54
A special thanks to the team that created this series: Paige Smith, Melissa Roach, Kathy Feng, Alyha Bardi, and Alex Masse. Original Music by Alex Masse. Sound design, editing and mixing by Paige Smith and Kathy Feng. Series artwork by Kathy Feng. Many hands make Lightwork. It has been a joy to work with all of you on this project. Head to the show notes to read up on some of the initiatives and examples mentioned in this episode. Stay tuned for the next instalment of this series coming out on July 12th.

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Transcript auto-generated by and edited by the Below the Radar team.
July 05, 2022

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