Anna Ledo was on a 7 bus along Noriega Street heading to work around 4:30 p.m. on Oct. 18 when she saw a man acting strangely.
“I noticed he was taking pictures of me,” Ledo said.
The man, who she said looked to be between 50 and 60 years old, was taking pictures of her legs.
“I got really mad when it happened,” she said. “After the anger, I started to feel bad. I was doubting myself, wondering why he was doing that.”
Ledo is just one of an unknown number of people to be sexually harassed or assaulted on Muni due to a reluctance to report it, according to experts.
An analysis of complaints retrieved through a public records request to the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency shows that 53 people complained of sexual harassment or assault between January 2015 and September 2023.
One complaint from August 2015 claims a group of males boarded a train at Church and 24th streets and began sexually assaulting a girl under 18 years of age before slapping her, stealing her phone and chasing her off the train.
In July 2017, a rider reported that another passenger on the 33 bus along Geary Boulevard told their 6-year-old daughter to wait until she was 15 to start giving "blow jobs."
In June 2021, a rider complained that a man and a woman boarded the L-Taraval train at Market and Hyde streets and took drugs before having sex and then getting off the train at Taraval Street and 19th Avenue.
About 28% of the complaints alleged sexual harassment or assault at the hands of Muni operators.
But despite the comparatively low number of reports, experts and research suggest the total is likely a substantial undercount.
Ledo said she told the man to stop and he got off the bus shortly after. But she didn’t go to the police.
“I didn’t know if it would be worth it,” she said. “I don’t know if anything’s going to happen. I don’t know if it’s considered an assault or a harassment.”
Ledo posted about the incident on Nextdoor and said that while many of the comments were supportive, others blamed her for provoking the man who photographed her.
“There were also people saying, ‘You shouldn’t sit like that with your legs; it’s provocative.' But it’s not my fault,” Ledo said. “This is so common. It’s just another day of being a woman.”
Public transit expert Amy Thomson was not surprised to hear about Ledo’s reluctance to go to the police.
“I think that is emblematic of how underreported it is,” said Amy Thomson, who works on transportation policy at the think tank Transform. “When you ask people if they reported [harassment], it’s more likely to be women and especially women of color [that don’t report it].”
A 2018 report from the New York University Rudin Center for Transportation found that among 547 respondents, 88% of those who experienced harassment did not report it.
The SFMTA has also acknowledged that sexual harassment and assault on public transit are often underreported.
Ledo’s experience comes as public safety is a top concern among Bay Area transit riders and as ridership still struggles to recover to pre-pandemic levels.
In September, 477,230 people rode Muni, 65% of the ridership total during the same month in 2019, and a 2022 Bay Area Council poll found 36% of 1,000 respondents said personal safety concerns prevented them from taking public transit more frequently.
After her experience on Muni, Ledo said she wished the driver had intervened.
“They could stop the bus until the police comes,” Ledo said.
Thomson said brighter lighting, more frequent service and bystander intervention training are good ways to prevent harassment and bring riders back to public transit.
The transit agency is already working to improve lighting in some metro stations and has installed solar-powered lights at bus stops. The SFMTA also recently completed major infrastructure projects to improve transit service, but their effectiveness has been questioned.
The transit agency also pointed to several initiatives aimed at curtailing sexual harassment and assault on Muni.
SFMTA spokesperson Stephen Chun said the agency is running an anti-harassment “Munisafe” campaign with posters in buses and metro cars prohibiting gender-based harassment and assault, including sexual harassment and assault.
The SFMTA also runs the Safety Equity Initiative, which seeks to create a safer environment for all Muni riders and SFMTA staff through data collection, community and multilingual outreach and education.
The transit agency said it has mandatory training programs, including Harassment Prevention for Employees, Equitable, Fair and Respect in the Workplace and PaCT. Operators receive these trainings upon hire and/or will typically receive refresher training on an annual or biannual basis, according to Chun.
“The SFMTA is committed to providing excellent customer service for our customers and building strong ties with our external partners and the communities we serve,” Chun said. “Our operators take pride in delivering Muni service, being a positive influence in city culture and an integral part of the everyday lives of the people of San Francisco.”
TWU Local 250a, the union for Muni drivers, was contacted for comment but did not respond by publication time.
Garrett Leahy can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org