Reuters

Some public transportation systems are using classical music to deter criminals — but does it work?

Last week the Minneapolis Star-Tribune reported that transit officials have started to play Beethoven, Bach, Mozart, Strauss and Handel at the Lake Street light rail station in an effort to dissuade criminal behavior.

The "classical music strategy" began last summer after complaints that the station had become "a haven for rowdy teens and vagrants." The idea is that potential criminals find classical music so detestable that they won't hang around the station long enough to realize their criminal potential:

"If it encourages some people to wander away because it's not their favorite type of music, I guess that's okay," said Acting Transit Police Chief A.J. Olson.

Silly as that sounds, Minneapolis isn't alone on this one. The city was inspired by a similar effort in Portland, which began to broadcast classical at a MAX station in late 2010. Oregon lawmakers liked the tactic so much that they proposed a bill [PDF] that would require light rail stations in high-crime areas to play classical music as long as they remain open. (It's been trapped in committee since June.)

In fact, a long line of cities have implemented the classical music strategy in more or less the same fashion. The Atlanta transit system, MARTA, pumped Handel through its speakers a few years back. Transport for London, which runs the Tube system, expanded its broadcast of Mozart, Vivaldi, Handel, and others to dozens of stations after a successful pilot run in 2003.

The list goes on. In the late 1990s Toronto played Chopin at its Kennedy subway station. And New York City introduced classical into the Port Authority earlier in the decade — prompting even one police officer to concede to the Times: "Sometimes, I want to shoot the speakers."

Residents of many cities, particularly small ones, often harbor a misguided fear that public transit stations serve as criminal hotspots. In fact, the latest research suggests that public transportation may even decrease crime in an urban area. At the very least there appears to be no clear connection between the two.

Having said that, crimes do occur in public transit stations, so it's reasonable for cities to consider ways — particularly low-cost ways — to prevent more of them. And some of the numbers are encouraging. In London, according to reports, robberies dropped by a third, staff assaults by a quarter, and vandalism by 37 percent within 18 months of its 2003 pilot program.

While those figures say nothing of causality, they remain a positive trend. But elsewhere the numbers are less convincing. Portland experienced a roughly 40 percent drop in police calls during its test run in late 2010, but as PolitiFact Oregon points out, service calls are not the same thing as crime. Until someone performs a more controlled test, cities may have to content themselves with pleasant correlations. 

Still the theory behind the idea is a strong one. It reaches back to the famous "broken window" experiment in psychology — named for how quickly cars get stripped when a window is shattered — and the notion that a culture of order and maintenance dissuades reckless and criminal behavior.

Malcolm Gladwell invoked this theory as part of his "tipping point" argument, pointing out that after New York City made efforts to clean subway cars of graffiti and crack down on minor offenses like fare evasion in the 1980s and '90s, transit felonies fell by more than half:

Why was the Transit Authority so intent on removing graffiti from every car and cracking down on the people who leaped over turnstiles without paying? Because those two "trivial" problems were thought to be tipping points—broken windows—that invited far more serious crimes.

So maybe classical music in transit stations is another tipping point, and maybe it's little more than white noise. Which leads to the most rational reason for attempting such programs: Pascal's wager, which basically says that people have much more to gain from believing in God than they stand to lose from not. In Handel's wager, what riders might gain from classical music being played at transit stations — pleasant listening, possibly less crime, and maybe even functional loud speakers — seems much greater than what they might lose, which, in the case of Minneapolis at least, amounts to roughly $150 in royalty-free recordings.

Photo credit: Brendan McDermid/Reuters

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