The Livable Communities Coalition

Working to improve Atlanta's quality of life through smart growth

Anti-transit myth #8: Transit increases crime

Excerpted from Moving Minds: Conservatives and Public Transportation by Paul M. Weyrich and William S. Lind.

Myth 8: Transit brings crime into a community.

Quite rightly, Americans fear crime and want to do everything they can to keep it away from their families, homes and neighborhoods. Needless to say, the danger of crime is too good a theme for transit critics to ignore. But this myth is a bit different from the others, because it is local people who usually raise the issue. They do so honestly, because they are scared.

A 1997 Transportation Research Board study, “Improving Transit Security,” states, “The dimensions of transit crime in the United States are not currently subject to reliable assessment…Only recently have efforts begun to compile a national database.”

However, the data on crime on transit is better, so let’s take a look at it first. The TRB study, “Improving Transit Security,” goes on to say that:

Data that are available, using Uniform Crime Report (UCR) classifications, suggest that transit crime is of a less serious nature although serious crime does occur regularly. Disorderly conduct, public drunkenness, fare evasion, theft,, and simple assaults appear to be the five most frequently occurring offenses…As would be expected, serious and violent crime is more characteristic of larger transit systems, measured both by statistical incidence and crime per passenger trip.

Both of these basic facts given here are almost certainly relevant to the rail transit line proposed for your community. First, serious and violent crime is less likely than statistical averages might suggest, because most of that kind of crime occurs in the biggest cities.

Second, most of the crime your system may face will be of a “less serious nature.” What, exactly, does that mean? Another study, the “Transit Security Handbook,” dated 1998, gives a detailed answer. That study states, “Quality-of-life and property crimes account for 93 percent of all crimes on [rail transit systems]. Violent crime occurs relatively infrequently, accounting for only 6.6 percent of all [rail system] crime.”

In 1993, a survey of San Diego Trolley riders found an interesting difference between the perceptions of those who actually use the trolley and those who do not.

This suggests that, at least in San Diego, the issue of crime on board light rail is a problem of perception rather than a reality. In summary, serious crime on rail transit systems is uncommon. This is true even on light rail systems such as Los Angeles’ Blue Line, which goes through several neighborhoods with high crime rates.

What about our second question? Does rail transit bring crime into a community? Here, unfortunately, the data situation is worse. We know of no studies done on a nationwide basis.

The transit authority responsible for the light rail line in San Jose, California, [however] noted in a short study that:

Records compiled by Valley Transportation Authority pertaining to light rail accidents and crime statistics support the conclusion that safety and security in neighborhoods are not significantly affected by implementation.

What can we conclude from all this? In our view, the conclusion is clear: Rail transit can create a crime problem, both on-board and in neighboring communities, but it need not do so.

Unfortunately, in today’s America, any new development can bring crime. It should not surprise that rail transit can do so. A carefully designed program to stop crime before it starts should be part of the planning for the rail line itself.

We have devoted considerable length to the question of rail transit bring crime because, as conservatives, we take crime seriously. We would oppose any development in our neighborhoods that would bring more crime, and we would expect you to do the same.  Rail transit need not, if planning includes security issues from the outset.

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