Planning student wins national APA award for paper on harassment women face in public transit

April 29, 2018

By Matthew Kredell

Quinn Wallace, a Master of Planning student at USC Price, won first place in the American Planning Association Transportation Planning Division 2018 Student Paper Competition.

Quinn Wallace grew up in Dripping Springs, Tex., a small town with a population of about 3,000, before going off to Mount Holyoke College, a small liberal arts college for women in rural Massachusetts. When she came to Los Angeles to pursue a Master of Planning degree at the USC Price School of Public Policy, it was her first extended exposure to life in a major metropolitan area.

For the most part, she found this new adventure of living on her own in a big city exciting. What she wasn’t expecting was the harassment she received when taking public transit.

The experiences prompted her to write a class paper titled “Women-Oriented Transit: Meeting Female Travelers’ Needs in Settings of Fear and Harassment,” which was recently selected for a national award from the American Planning Association as the best student paper written on transportation planning for 2018.

She is the first USC student to receive first place in the category, which the APA began in 2007. The honor comes with a $1,000 award.

“As I was writing the paper, the latest wave of the #MeToo movement flared up on social media,” Wallace said. “In winning this award, I think I really had timing on my side in addition to my own personal experiences.

“When I first moved out here and started experiencing harassment on a daily basis on transit and streets, it had an extremely profound effect on me. When someone is saying something inappropriate to you, I found myself less excited to get to know my neighborhood. I realized there’s so much more we can do in the transportation sector to pursue transportation equity.”

When words elicit fear of uncertainty

Wallace, a first-year MPL student, wrote the paper for Professor Marlon Boarnet’s course “Institutional and Policy Issues in Transportation.” Boarnet, who chairs the Department of Urban Planning and Spatial Analysis, suggested she submit the work for this competition.

“This is the first paper I ever wrote in which, after I finished it, I thought what else can I do with this; this isn’t the end,” Wallace said. “That was exciting to me.”

Wallace realizes that many of the comments she receives seem innocuous or complimentary – “You got a great smile!,” “Hey beautiful, what’s your name?,” “Where you going, doll?” – but these interactions generate a fear of the unknown.

“It’s different for everybody, but I think for me I don’t know when those comments are harmless and meant with good intention, or when they’re going to turn into following or something worse,” Wallace said. “That element of fear that underlines those experiences really taints the way you can move through public space.”

Policies to protect women

In her paper, Wallace concluded that U.S. transit operators need to move away from gender-neutral policies and adopt women-oriented transit policies to make women feel safer, target perpetrators and facilitate women’s enhanced mobility.

Wallace identified several gender-specific transit policies being utilized in other countries, including women-only carriages, increased in-person surveillance and women-oriented environmental design (improved lighting, real-time bus information to limit waiting at stops). She contended that perhaps the most effective long-term solution that transit authorities can employ to meet the needs of female riders is to hire more female employees.

“I was really pleased that she was looking at an important question that had been overlooked, and more pleased that she was doing it at a moment when there was some national attention to these issues,” Boarnet said. “The main thing that struck me about Quinn’s paper is her courage in studying the issue. It’s an issue that as recently as a year ago had been considered, incorrectly so, a fringe issue. It’s a credit to her that she dove into this issue without any hesitation.”

Personal, professional growth at Price

Wallace chose USC Price for graduate school because she wanted to have an urban experience, particularly through which to view and practice planning.

“USC Price stood out to me because it is in Los Angeles and it really engages with Los Angeles,” Wallace said. “When I moved out here and didn’t really know anybody, I had a de facto family with the Price School that has been a huge support to me in my academic, professional and personal growth.”

In addition to Boarnet’s transportation course, Wallace’s favorite class at USC Price so far has been “International Development Administration” with adjunct associate professor Rym Kaki. In May, she is taking a USC Price international lab that goes to Hong Kong. After completing her degree, she would like to go overseas, possibly to Southeast Asia, to work in planning.

“I found my appetite for planning along with my interests in international studies and development go hand in hand a lot closer than I thought they would,” Wallace said. “At the Price School, my transportation, planning and international policy classes have really represented my passions and what I plan to pursue for a career.”