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DISPATCH FROM MEXICO CITY

Women-only buses make welcome detour around unwanted attentions

March 12, 2008|Ken Ellingwood | Times Staff Writer

MEXICO CITY — Maria del Carmen Hernandez endures a nearly two-hour bus ride to her job cleaning a law office on the far side of town. Once her labors are done, she has the same slog home.

It's a withering drill, through smog and traffic and the mind-numbing repetition of countless stops and starts. But on this day, at least, Hernandez can rest assured that the rigors of her trip won't include being groped.

The 48-year-old Mexico City commuter is among thousands of women who have begun crisscrossing the capital aboard public buses that exclude men.

The women-only bus service, launched in January, is the city's answer to a long-standing complaint among Mexican women that in the sardine-can confines of buses and subways, some men simply will not keep their hands to themselves.

"It's not normal, but it's frequent," and she has experienced unwelcome touching numerous times while riding public transportation, Hernandez said. The best protection, she said, is to try to grab a seat next to the window to avoid contact with male riders crowding the aisle.

"They know it's offensive," she said, "but they do what they want to do."

Not on this bus.

Hernandez relaxed in the back, next to the window (habits die hard), as the city bus, distinguished by the pink "Ladies Only" sign on the windshield, rumbled past the shade trees of the majestic Paseo de la Reforma and along grittier stretches as it neared its terminus in a lower-middle-class neighborhood called La Villa.

At several stops, men clambered aboard, apparently unaware of the sign. But they retreated after the driver told them that this bus was for women only.

Among the passengers, there was no gloating or tittering at seeing men turned away, just the quiet satisfaction that this ride was theirs alone.

"At last they do us justice," said Sara Plata, 54, who was headed home from her job in a day-care center.

Plata said the loutish behavior of some men on Mexico City's public transit, which includes a sprawling subway, buses and a network of more than 20,000 privately owned vans known as micros, wasn't limited to wandering hands.

"They speak in ugly words or they don't give up their seat for senior citizens," she said.

The all-women buses tend to be less crowded, passengers said, and the attitude is more polite. During this ride, a middle-aged woman rose to offer her seat to an elderly passenger who had boarded.

"We can sit down. On the other one, no," Hernandez observed.

That tranquil air is just what officials were aiming for when they decided Mexico City would join Tokyo, Rio de Janeiro and Cairo by setting aside public transit spaces exclusively for women.

The service has expanded since its inauguration here to include 55 of the city's 1,300 buses, with two dozen more on the way. By the end of the month, restricted buses will be running on one-fourth of the 88 routes. So far, the buses have had 400,000 riders, said Ariadna Montiel, the bus system's director. The price of a ticket, about 20 cents, is the same as on the regular buses.

Montiel said the idea came up after passenger surveys confirmed women's dismay over groping -- a phenomenon with which she was personally familiar. She recalled that as an architecture student in the 1990s, she would decide what to wear based on whether she planned to ride public transportation. Skirts were a bad choice for the crowded buses or subway, where men might ogle or reach, she said.

"I think every woman has experienced something like this on public transportation at one time or another," she said.

Mexico City's subway designates certain cars for women, children and the elderly, who board along a restricted portion of the platform during peak times. Officials say that has worked well. But providing segregated seating on buses was impractical, Montiel said, so officials decided to set aside entire buses for women. They travel the same routes as the other buses, but less often.

The arrangement has generated grousing from some men among the city's 850,000 daily bus passengers who say the women-only service is unfair.

"There are some who say it's discrimination," said Victor Luna, 36, who was driving the women's bus the other day. "They say, 'In what article of the constitution does this appear?' "

But plenty of men in male-dominated Mexican society empathize with women, who make up one-fifth of total riders.

"Because of the fault of Mexican culture, it's necessary," Andres Meza, 30, said of the buses, right after being turned away from one. "Unfortunately, there are a lot of men who behave this way."

But even some of its supporters concede that the service skirts deeper issues that beset relations between the sexes in Mexico.

"They can help by providing a service like this," said Mitzi Hernandez, 27, a customer-service representative who was riding the women's bus for the second time. "But to change a person's mentality? No."

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ken.ellingwood@latimes.com

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