Published monthly, MPC’s Talking Transit provides updates about transit-related activities around the world. Read In the Loop for the latest transportation headlines.
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In a select number of American cities like Chicago, transit is a fact of life—something that the rich and poor or the black and white can agree on. In some well-to-do areas, in fact, transit commuters are actually wealthier than their driving peers. But in many parts of the country, transit is perceived as the option of last resort, the service you rely on if and only if you truly cannot get access to a car.
For many, that perception is driven by the fear that transit is dangerous and that access to transit breeds crime. It is a fear perpetuated by people like Bernhard Goetz, who made national news for shooting four people who were trying to mug him—a situation that confirmed the sense among many that not just the criminals but also the supposed victims could be violent on transit.
A recent study by TransitCenter showed that people would be more likely to use transit if they felt safer at stops—and they cared more about this issue than things like access to wifi, comfortable seats, parking or hours of operation. The popular perception that transit is unsafe is in many cases wrong; some studies suggest that transit access actually reduces crime.
Yet making people feel comfortable throughout their journeys is an important issue that plays a big role in determining whether or not a transit system is effective in attracting riders, even in big cities like Chicago. As I will discuss below, there is significant evidence that crime and perceptions of crime reduce transit use and encourage people to drive instead. Building transit ridership—one of the main goals of the Metropolitan Planning Council (MPC) and our metropolitan planning organization—will not be accomplished without understanding and responding to related issues that affect it, such as crime rates.
Transportation modeling rarely considers crime in its analysis
Metropolitan planning organizations like the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning develop a complex model to understand how people move throughout the region. The model is essential for estimating how population growth or land use changes will alter demand, or how a new transportation project will change peoples’ use of the system. Regional models are generally based on estimates of what type and how many trips people take, though the agency is working to develop a more advanced regional model that incorporates socioeconomic characteristics.
MPC’s TOD Calculator takes a similar tack, estimating transit rides of inhabitants and workers in hypothetical developments based on the commuting habits of similar people in similar neighborhoods. This approach is useful, particularly when it comes to understanding the impact of new construction on the transportation system. One major benefit of transit-oriented development (TOD) is that numerous studies have demonstrated that people living and working close to transit stations use buses and trains more frequently than their peers who live farther from stops.
Crime rates, however, are rarely incorporated into transportation demand models. There are several likely reasons for this. One, transportation demand models should not be—and probably cannot be—expected to perfectly represent the world around them. No simulation will even equal reality, and adding additional variables does not necessarily make a model more effective. Two, estimates of transportation use are frequently way off, suggesting that the models need plenty of refinement even with the more basic data points they are currently relying on. Three, we do not yet have a full understanding of the interaction between crime rates and the transportation system.
But we do know enough to say that crime is impacting the way people are interacting with the transportation system.
Crime does have major impacts on transit use
A recently released study from the Mineta Transportation Institute by Christopher Ferrell, Shishir Mathur and Bruce Appleyard examined how people travel to and from stations along the BART rapid transit system in the San Francisco Bay Area. The study found that high crime levels in areas near stations discouraged transit use, walking and biking. They suggest that this is especially true in terms of the way that people get to stations.
In lower crime areas, people might be more willing to take a bus or walk to a rail station, while in higher crime areas, they would be more likely to drive. This suggests that higher crime areas may have lower-than-otherwise expected transit ridership rates.
The scholar who has delved deepest into this subject is University of California-Los Angeles professor Anastasia Loukaitou-Sideris. Loukaitou-Sideris has published several studies, some with colleagues and others alone, documenting how crime affects peoples’ understanding of the environment around them and their willingness to take transit.
With several of her colleagues, she also found that crime on transit was correlated with crime in the surrounding areas, and that vulnerable populations, such as women, were most likely to suffer because of high crime rates.
These conditions provide support for the idea that finding ways to reduce crime not only improves peoples’ day-to-day life, but it may encourage them to take public transportation. If they are not afraid of waiting for a bus or a train at an empty station, they may be willing to give up their private vehicles in a way they currently could not imagine.
Public policy responses to fear of crime on transit
Public transportation has many determinants of success, many of which have little to do with crime. Indeed, evidence suggests that high ridership on a city’s transit system has much more to do with dense population than crime rates (Chicago has much higher transit use than Seattle, for example, despite much higher crime rates). But crime remains a considerable concern to a large share of transit riders, and it is something that must be addressed to encourage more people to ride buses and trains.
In some cases, there are technological palliatives that can address fear of crime. The creation of the transit tracker program in Chicago—which provides up-to-date information about when the next buses and trains are arriving—allowed schools in high-crime areas to encourage their students to avoid standing at bus stops for long periods of time.
Other approaches, such as riding in the front of the bus or putting smart phones away, may give people the sense that they can avoid being a victim of property crime.
But neither better technology nor “acting smart” on transit solves the crime problem, and you can’t help but wonder whether these interventions are inadequate to convince people fearful of riding transit to do so.
In a 1996 study, Loukaitou-Sideris found that bus stops suffering from high crime rates lacked “defensible space,” or places where people feel like they can protect themselves from others. She recommended that bus stops include widened sidewalks and that “paraphernalia” such as signs and poles be eliminated to avoid blocking pedestrians. She also noticed that high-crime stops often suffered from negative environmental land uses, such as pawn shops, vacant buildings or parking lots. In other studies, Loukaitou-Sideris and colleagues found that well-lit paths, good maintenance and elimination of graffiti could be effective in reducing both crime and perceptions of insecurity.
From the perspective of encouraging transit use, minimizing crime—or at least the perception of it—must be a priority. One way to do that should be to identify investments in the areas surrounding rail stations and bus stops that will make people feel more comfortable and expand the “defensible space.” By doing so, our transit agencies will be able to grow ridership and improve residents’ quality of life.
Similarly, investment in transit-oriented development in areas directly around stations—a major priority of the Metropolitan Planning Council—can help enliven the transit rider’s experience and help reduce the perception of insecurity by encouraging street life, adding light and ensuring active land uses.