Kansas City is considering an ordinance to prevent people from harassing bicyclists or pedestrians in public places. If approved, the city could join a growing number of communities that are taking a legislative stance against catcalling and street harassment, a pervasive issue that’s been getting increasing attention in recent years.
The proposed measure prevents people from doing anything to threaten or intimidate someone in a wheelchair, riding a bike, or simply walking down the street. City officials see the ordinance as a public health imperative. “We’re encouraging people to walk and bike more, and they certainly ought to be allowed to do that without harassment,” Councilman John Sharp, who sponsored the legislation, recently told the Kansas City Star.
BikeWalkKC, an advocacy group in the region, is pushing hard for Sharp’s legislation, pointing out that female cyclists often feel intimidated on the road and frequently get hassled by men when they’re stopped at red lights. The Missouri Bicycle and Pedestrian Federation is hoping to eventually garner support for a statewide anti-harassment law.
Biking often intersects with gender-based street harassment; a recent survey from the advocacy group Stop Street Harassment chronicles several female bikers’ experiences with unwanted sexual attention. “In the summertime if folks have their windows open, men will stick their hands out and grope your bum as you’re biking by. That certainly happens every once in a while,” one participant recounted. Women ride bikes at much lower rates than men, and advocates say that’s partly because they don’t necessarily feel safe drawing that type of attention to themselves when they’re in public.
Last July, Los Angeles became the first city in the country to adopt a specifically bicycle-related anti-harassment law. Several other cities and states have enacted their own ordinances to crack down on catcalling — although, according to Stop Street Harassment, the 10 biggest cities in the country don’t have specific laws in place in this area.
“In general, I think laws can help set the tone for what is acceptable and unacceptable in a society and can provide an additional option for action after being harassed,” Holly Kearl, the group’s founder, told ThinkProgress via email. “But ultimately I believe the best tactics are education and story-telling… I really believe that talking to young men in a non-judgmental way and letting them hear from their peers can go a long way in ending this social problem.”
Kearl recounted a recent instance in which she spoke to 40 freshman at a university about street harassment. The students were required to write reflection papers about the event, and a football player at the school wrote that listening to stories about harassment helped him realize he was part of the problem; he and his friends frequently shouted at women on the street while driving around together. He never understood how that made women feel — and he committed to stop doing it.
Some biking groups are starting to hold workshops on combating street harassment to engage community members in this issue. Kearl’s organization is working with BikeWalkKC to plan those type of events in Kansas City this fall.