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Safety for women and girls is key when designing active travel schemes

Initial findings from new research from AtkinsRéalis suggest that the full impact and benefits of active travel schemes may not be realised if potential users do not feel comfortable and safe to use them

Kelly Cary and Adrienne Mathews
03 July 2024


Well-planned, designed, and operated active travel schemes can provide a range of community benefits, including economic, environmental, social, and health and wellbeing benefits.

Whilst, encouragingly, inclusive travel is now coming to the forefront of many transport policies and plans and often includes physical accessibility or access to information on a service, it rarely considers the user’s perception of safety to access or use that scheme.

Filling in the gaps

While there is plenty of research that informs our understanding of the general trends in the perception of safety, we don’t have a clear picture of how perceptions change in different environments. 

Kelly Cary and Adrienne Mathews co-authored AtkinsRéalis’s Getting Home Safely initiative. Hear more on this topic at the Active City Conference in Leicester on 17th July

We also don’t know how different factors or features impact the perception of safety and comfort, and how various groups are affected by the time of day. 

A research study from AtkinsRéalis launched in early 2024 sought insights from a broad demographic of users by asking about factors affecting feelings of safety and comfort whilst travelling in different environments.

The survey aimed to fill these data gaps by understanding perceptions of personal safety in different settings and what measures enhance perceptions of personal safety. 

This research built on our Getting Home Safely approach and subsequent audit tool focussing on women’s safety in streets and public spaces, as well as our Queer Mobility research, which explored issues of personal safety on public transport within the LGBT+ community. 

Notable findings

Over 850 responses were received, and initial analysis found that people’s perception of safety is affected by time of day.

Most respondents stated they felt safe in each setting/transport mode investigated during daylight hours; however, there was a considerable change in respondent’s perception of safety across all public spaces and transport settings and services in the hours of darkness. There was also a significant difference noted between men and women respondents in the hours of darkness, confirming that men and women experience places, spaces, and transport services differently.

Features that enhance respondent’s perception of personal safety varied by environment, with staff presence deemed an important factor on public transport. Respondents also highlighted the importance of good maintenance and cleanliness in enhancing their perceptions of personal safety in public spaces.

Crucially, yet perhaps unsurprisingly, based on existing research, most women respondents reported changing their travel behaviour because of personal safety concerns. 

Changes ranged from altering their travel time to not using certain routes and simply not travelling in the hours of darkness unless absolutely necessary, suggesting that personal safety needs to be a key consideration in the planning and design of transport projects.

Why we must listen to users

Several existing studies have indicated that fear of crime impacts and restricts mobility choices in terms of timing, mode, destination, and route for women, with other evidence suggesting the same is true for those identifying as LGBT+ . Personal safety concerns also have been shown to limit women’s access to opportunities, including employment, education, socialisation, and leisure activities.   

So, we know that our perception of safety affects our travel behaviours and that some groups are more greatly affected than others.

Recent research has also found that:


Our preliminary research findings highlight that fear of crime and harassment impacts people’s decisions to use public space and the local transport network. 

Our results also emphasise the importance of paying closer attention to comfort and perception of personal safety when designing inclusive and accessible transport options. Failure to do so may affect whether and how people use the transport options available, and therefore may restrict their means of accessing jobs, social networks, and other opportunities, which in turn can impact physical health, consumer spending, and the local economy. 

As advocated by our Getting Home Safety initiative, the key to improving personal safety is to consider a journey in its entirety, and avoid treating travel stages and modes in isolation, as this simply doesn’t reflect our user experiences.

We need a people-centred approach to active travel planning and provision, informed by an understanding of people’s needs, behaviours, and perceptions. Only then will we create welcoming travel options to support modal shift, and realise our ambition for economic, environmental, social, and health and wellbeing benefits for all. 

Kelly Cary and Adrienne Mathews co-authored AtkinsRéalis’s Getting Home Safely initiative. Hear more on this topic at the Active City Conference in Leicester on 17th July. The full findings of our Getting Home Safely Research will be published in Summer 2024.

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