The Myth of the Commuting Criminal

Research has repeatedly shown that crime doesn't necessarily accompany transit, but that lingering fear still threatens new transportation projects.

Image
Shutterstock

In the fears of many, criminals ride transit. Therefore, if a new train or bus stop comes to your neighborhood, you can expect soon afterward an upsurge in unsavory types and the danger that comes with them. Transit has long provoked these twin fears: that, on the one hand, criminals use it to gain access to new neighborhoods (and cars and purses and apartments), while on the other hand transit stations create handy new hotspots of waiting victims.

Derek Paulsen has heard variations on this argument many times, particularly in community meetings. “When it comes to that visceral association of fear,” he says, “you’re arguing a fact against an emotion.”

Crime statistics offer a notably different picture: Inside train stations, serious crimes are usually quite low, while minor crimes (like pick-pocketing) are slightly higher. Around transit stations, robberies most often occur two or three blocks away, where the watchful eyes of fellow riders dissipate into neighborhoods that may be stocked with liquor and check-cashing storefronts or vacant lots. And over time, research has concluded, new stations seldom result in more crime.

Paulsen, previously a professor of criminal justice at Eastern Kentucky University, has detailed this evidence in a new book, Crime and Planning. And all of this means that transportation agencies must learn how to design transit stops not necessarily to deter crime, but to calm widespread fears that transit and crime go together.

“It’s a different thing as a concept to say, ‘OK, well how do we plan for fear of crime?” says Paulsen, now the commissioner of planning, preservation and development for the city of Lexington. “Fear of crime is often more powerful than people think.”

As we enter what many planners hope will be a golden era of transit-oriented development, Paulsen argues that such unfounded alarm could block projects. “If you don’t want a development,” he says, “you’ll grab at any straw you can, and this will be one of those things that [transit opponents] will push to as well. I’ve seen it.”

He points, for example, to objections from suburban areas outside of cities like Atlanta, where some residents have opposed transit expansion.

“People are convinced that if you put a subway station out in the suburbs, out in Dunwoody, that criminals are going to commute from downtown out there,” he says. “Apparently they’re going to steal their TVs, get back on MARTA and go back in. But criminals just do not travel – that’s the hardest perception to get people to break.”

Criminals are actually more likely to commit crimes in areas closer to home, places that they know well. And this makes common sense: Why would you mug an old lady in an area where you don’t have a good escape plan?

That logic likely won’t go over well in emotional community meetings. But Paulsen adds that planners can reduce the opportunities for crime in the design of transit stops and stations, and maybe this idea will offer some solace to nervous neighbors and would-be transit riders.

Given that the worst crime hotspots occur several blocks away from stations, planners should prioritize not just the stations themselves, but the lighted paths pedestrians take to reach them. Surrounding land uses also have an impact on crime, and so it makes more sense to locate a bus stop in front of a grocery store than a dark alley (conversely, Paulsen says, planners may want to think about the types of businesses allowed within a few blocks of transit stations). An actual bus shelter also seems like a safer place to wait for the bus than a lonely strip of sidewalk in front of a sign.

Transportation planners tend not to think about many of these things – crime, crime prevention, fear of crime – at the design stages of a new transit project. But such details could help ease objections to transit expansion in a way that crime statistics simply cannot do.

Top image: Pan Xunbin/Shutterstock

About the Author

  • Emily Badger is a former staff writer at CityLab. Her work has previously appeared in Pacific StandardGOODThe Christian Science Monitor, and The New York Times. She lives in the Washington, D.C. area.