Reuters

Opponents say stations bring an unsavory element to a neighborhood. But according to a new study, that's just not the case

Last month the small city of Troy, Michigan, earned some national attention when its local leaders terminated plans for a transit center several years in the making. Troy Mayor Janice Daniels - who somehow kept her job despite posting a strong anti-gay slur on Facebook, and who's back in the news for another intolerant remark - objected to the transit center on the grounds that she didn't want to accept $8.5 million in federal funding that would go toward its construction.

But the Tea Party mayor's fiscal ideology wasn't the only reason behind the decision to cancel the Troy transit center. There was also a strong fear among local residents that the 24-hour building would become a criminal hangout. One city councilman worried it would be a "place where people who don't have another place to go hang out," according to the Detroit News.

Jeff Wattrick of MLive, who has followed the story closely, reported that one of Daniels's "key allies" in the transit center fight was a man who once referred to mass transit as a "mugger mover" in a tweet.

The fear that crime follows transit - or worse, that transit breeds crime - is a common one. The general public is often quick to assign causality whenever a crime takes place in or around a transit station. Anecdotal theories are many: transit stations attract city criminals to a new population of victims; criminals can linger at public stations freely without suspicion; travelers may not be familiar with their surroundings and therefore susceptible to crimes. But the empirical studies are few, and many of those that do exist have found no transit-crime connection.

A new report in the December issue of the Journal of Urban Affairs goes a step further and suggests that not only do transit stations fail to increase crime - they may even impede it. For the study, a trio of researchers from the University of North Carolina at Charlotte analyzed data of criminal activity that occurred within a half mile of stations on the Blue line of LYNX [PDF], Charlotte's light rail system. They evaluated monthly trends in the data from 1998, before the line existing, through its announcement in September 2000 and its completion in November 2007, all the way up to 2009. As points of comparison, they also looked at crimes in the station areas of two other proposed light rail lines in Charlotte that were never built, as well as criminal trends in the city at large.

The results of their analysis offer no reason to perpetuate "mugger mover" mythology. Crime near light rail stations dropped following the announcement of the line's creation, and while it increased slightly during the 7 years before the rail's completion, it then fell off again after operation began. After the announcement of the Blue line stations, larceny in those areas dropped by three crimes a month (or roughly 25 percent), burglaries fell one per month (26 percent) and robbery dropped by an average of half a crime per month (32 percent). Compared to proposed lines that were never built, the drop-off after the announcement of the Blue line stations is clear:

On the whole, the data suggest some validity to the idea that crime actually decreases with transit operation. After all, light rail attracts private investment to stations, which often results in general economic improvements to an area. Transit stations are also usually equipped with security cameras or even a small police presence to deter crime. And public infrastructure investments to transit areas, such as street lights, can increase public safety as well.

The researchers conclude that their evidence "dispels public perceptions that LRT may breed or encourage criminal activity in these neighborhoods":

While controlling for overall crime trends in the city utilizing two control transit corridors, our analyses indicate that the announcement of rail transit actually leads to a decrease in property crimes. Once the stations open, the crime decrease is maintained, and does not return to preannouncement levels. This dispels rail transit opponents’ notion that light rail "breeds crime." In fact, we offer counter evidence that suggests light rail may actually "impede crime." This could be due to public and private decisions to invest along rail transit corridors, which gentrifies surrounding neighborhoods and may decrease criminal activity. This has important policy implications for metropolitan areas that are considering light rail or light rail extensions. Fear of increased crime around stations appears unsubstantiated by this study.

Perhaps someone should send Mayor Daniels a copy.

Thanks to study authors Stephen Billings and Suzanne Leland for providing a copy of the full report.

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