“Text me when you get home.”
Those are the most common parting words for most women after a social gathering. For me, the phrase started in college when saying goodbye to friends in, let’s just say less than safe, neighborhoods or parking areas. Today, I have noticed that I and other women say it no matter the time of day or unsavoriness of the locale. It has become a habit for many women. Why? Because getting home is often frightening and dangerous.
Risky conditions have become so ingrained into how we operate in public places that we barely notice our preparations for them. A place that gives many women anxiety when they are alone is parking lots. This fear is not unfounded. The FBI reports parking areas as the third most common site of murders and assaults in the United States, following personal residences and alleys or sidewalks. In 2019, six percent of violent crimes occurred in a parking lot or garage. The U.S. Department of Justice reported that one of every four rapes takes place in a public area or in a parking garage. It’s worth noting that this DOJ stat is from 1994. Why? Maybe it’s because fewer than 40 percent of the women who experience violence seek help of any sort, according to recent United Nation numbers. There’s a lack of data because women don’t always speak up due to victim shaming, among other reasons.
Women are naturally easier to target in parking garages. Keeping to generalities because there are always exceptions, women are smaller in stature. Women are overwhelmingly the main target of sexual assault, which is almost exclusively perpetrated by men. Women can be easy targets for theft since they often have their hands full of packages or bags, or children, or a purse and a cell phone (the lack of pocket space available in women’s clothing is a popular gripe). Women are less likely to own a gun (one in five vs three in five for men).
Think about how you decide where to park at a shopping center. Some go for the closest spot to their destination. Some park at a distance to protect their doors from dings and give easier access to car seats. Some avoid spots next to cars that look like their drivers don’t pay attention. Some go for specially marked spots for handicap accessible or veterans, employees, or another distinction.
The way I pick a parking spot is a little different. Yes, I too, like the extra space because I love my car and I don’t want someone to enthusiastically open their door into it, but the first thing I look for are overhead lights. That way the area around my car is well lit, making it a deterrent to those with malicious intentions as well as acting as a landmark to quickly find my car. Next up, I always back into a space allowing for a quick getaway. I also avoid parking next to large vehicles that could provide a hiding spot. Once I’m inside, I lock the car the moment the door closes and I, of course, check the back seat because of a horror story I heard when I was a kid. At this point, I do all of this subconsciously. This sad reality is often forgotten by men who rarely have the same experience.
Preparation is key to being safe. A quick online search for how to be safe in parking lots and garages lists many of the habits that were, fortunately, instilled in me at an early age. Other tips to be safe in these spaces include walking with others, having keys in hand to open doors quickly, being aware of the situation, and listening to intuition. These are all valid things to do but they all put 100 percent of the burden on the individual. None of the suggestions are about how to create a safe environment but instead how to accept the risk and make the best out of a dangerous situation.
The good news is that now technology is rampantly available to make these very common yet very dangerous places safer. We have high definition video with AI-enabled detection of abnormalities which can immediately alert security teams. We have access management systems that keep restricted parking lots secure. We have apps that connect everyone from property managers to security teams informed in case of an emergency. However, getting people to actually use these options may be the result of adding a new dimension to security thinking.
It’s time to boost the urgency of making parking areas safer for everyone. Safety is, of course, a priority in public spaces and parking lots and garages are no exception. However, the requirements for a space to be safe need to be updated and include various perspectives. What is safe for the average man in a large sedan may not be safe for the typical woman in a minivan or a sportscar. What counts as adequate security measures during a busy Saturday afternoon are not appropriate for 2 AM on a Tuesday morning. Having emergency call boxes around does make an environment feel safer, but cell phones are the first thing a potential victim is going to reach for. Do they know what number to call?
Safety in 2021 looks different than it did 20 years ago and the systems and processes that were “enough” back then aren’t anymore. Aggressors operate differently and potential victims are more distracted than ever, making the preferred level of situational awareness far from reality. As we go back to public spaces, safety discussions need to be more focused on how tech can help make all of us feel safe. The majority of the architects, civil engineers, property managers, and security advisors are men. There is nothing inherently wrong with that but we need to make sure that safety decisions are made with the most vulnerable people in mind. We might never get rid of the useful but unfortunate phrase “text me when you get home.” But with a bit more thought to how to make our buildings and parking lots safer, we can hopefully help relieve some of the well-founded fear that many women have about simply walking to their car.
Join me for an upcoming webinar where I ask experts about how they are using technology to make retail establishments safer for everyone.