Greater Greater Washington

Transit fights crime

A lot of suburban areas around the nation once (and, in some places, still) opposed building transit lines because they feared it would bring crime. We know that's bogus, but got another piece of evidence today.


Photo by alesacm on Twitter.

DCist reports that a man robbed a Wells Fargo bank on K Street this morning, then tried to get away by Red Line train. MPD asked Metro to hold the trains, and the agency promptly robbed the man of his choice of getaway vehicle.

This is an example of what was already obvious to most thinking people: transit is a less appealing mode of transit for robberies, not an invitation to commit them. Generally, the people who used (or still use) this argument against transit were (or are) white suburbs afraid of they darker-skinned people they associated (or still associate) with transit.

They warned that a rail line to a wealthy town would lead people from the scary inner city to take the train up, rob people, then speed away by train. This ignores the obvious fact that any criminal who tries to escape by transit is putting himself in a perfect container for police to close off and capture him.

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David Alpert is the founder and editor-in-chief of Greater Greater Washington. He worked as a Product Manager for Google for six years and has lived in the Boston, San Francisco, and New York metro areas in addition to Washington, DC. He now lives with his wife and daughter in Dupont Circle. 

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A friend of mine is a store manager for a national chain of crafts stores. The observation in retail is that stores closest to a limited access highway on-ramp have the greatest occurrences of robberies and shoplifters, because the assailants can quickly access the highway and cover significant ground in short time, as well as having a variety of getaway paths at subsequent exits passed on the highway.

The stigma of transit as a "getaway vehicle," is so completely misguided and rooted in ignorance. I have to actually resist commenting on online news stories about robberies in areas with no transit access "Wait, how could that happen? There is no bus service there!"

by Adam on Dec 28, 2012 2:59 pm • linkreport

Transit doesn't bring crime. Commercial development brings crime. Look at any crime map and you'll quickly see that the crime hotspots are all commercial corridors. Late night establishments in particular bring the most crime. To the extent that transit brings commercial development, there is a correlation between the two that's more than coincidence. The higher commercial activity (particularly late night) is why places like g'town and dupont actually have higher crime rates than say Brookland or Bloomingdale.

That's not to say we shouldn't have transit or commercial activity (our economy is built on it) or even late night establishments (many people enjoy them). However, we should recognize the negative externalities these produce and take steps to mitigate them.

by Falls Church on Dec 28, 2012 3:23 pm • linkreport

However, we should recognize the negative externalities these produce and take steps to mitigate them.

True but that usually boils down to trying to use zoning and other tools from it ever happening in the first place. It's an effective way to mitigate for individuals but detrimental overall.

by drumz on Dec 28, 2012 3:51 pm • linkreport

Yup, this argument came up this year on the WaPo website during discussions of the Silver Line.

by Watcher on Dec 28, 2012 4:27 pm • linkreport

Fairfax County is planning to beef up its police presence substantially in Tysons because of concerns the arrival of rail will bring about more crime. Source: Fairfax County Police to the Tysons Partnership. I wanted to avoid an argument about whether this statement has been made.

by TMT on Dec 28, 2012 4:37 pm • linkreport

TMT, but that's at least a rational response to a perceived threat. There may (or may not) be an increase in crime, specifically at one of the nations largest malls, in Tysons but at least the response is. Patrol the area with more police and not trying to prevent it from being built.

by drumz on Dec 28, 2012 4:45 pm • linkreport

@ drumz

Agreed. An increased police presence and, ultimately, an urban-style police station in Tysons will keep Tysons redevelopment on track. The County will need to beef up the McLean Police District generally. I suspect the Town of Vienna will do similarly.

by TMT on Dec 28, 2012 4:57 pm • linkreport

Would the robber have selected that Wells Fargo branch if the Red Line did not exist? That's usually the type of argument the old guard anti-transit groups use.

This is all so silly. Here, let me take a bus out to your McMansion, rob you of your 60" T.V., and then wait for my bus at the bus stop along side a busy road on the edge of your subdivision with the T.V.... said/thought no smart criminal ever.

Happy New Year to all!

by Transport. on Dec 28, 2012 5:19 pm • linkreport

I'm sure this depends on what kind of crime you're talking about. I'd bet, for example, that nuisance crimes (by which I mean everything from littering to vandalism and shoplifting) are substantially higher in areas with better transit access -- at least based on my experience in the Gallery Place area.

by Rob on Dec 28, 2012 5:47 pm • linkreport

Well, obviously, if you're going to rob a store, you're going to go to a place where stores are. I spent years working in a suburban mall in high school and college, and to this day, I can pick out a shoplifter from a mile away. They were a daily part of my life. That mall had almost NO transit access. Yes, the area's only bus line runs past it, a whopping 4x per day. The criminals were not getting there on the bus, and they weren't going there because of the bus. They were going there, by car, because they wanted to steal from stores, and that's where the stores were. Should we ban stores, to cut down on crime? That's the only blanket solution, really, as stealing from a store in an indoor mall is ALSO a risky proposition. You have to get out of the store AND the mall AND the giant parking lot without being caught. That didn't deter them. Even being so well-known as a "frequent shop-lifter" that the entire staff practically knew them by NAME didn't stop them. Even mall security obtaining a description/plate number for their car and sending an alert to the stores they hit frequently if it was spotted in the parking lot didn't deter them. Even being "banned" from stores or the entire mall didn't deter them much (they'd still give it the old college try once or twice, though after being promptly kicked out a few times they DID usually give up). I suppose some people might find it disconcerting to live near an area where petty crimes happen a little more regularly because there are stores there, but I'd wager that Tysons already has major shoplifting issues, as almost any mall in the country does.

by Ms. D on Dec 28, 2012 6:52 pm • linkreport

Plus, I was once entering DCUSA when a guy who had just shoplifted a bunch of CDs (how very 90's of him!) was chased out and tackled in the street by REAL police officers. If only the mall cops were actually trained to apprehend real criminals! More urban/dense areas usually have higher REAL police presence, and they're SO much better at deterring criminals than some sparsely-deployed rent-a-cops who don't have as much authority/training. I think most people would be SHOCKED by the amount of shoplifting, quick-change thievery, and other crimes happening in their cute little suburban shopping centers...and most of the criminals get away with it, and just keep doing it over and over again.

by Ms. D on Dec 28, 2012 7:01 pm • linkreport

@drumz: True but that usually boils down to trying to use zoning and other tools from it ever happening in the first place.

Yeah, trying to stop transit and the associated development is a bad idea because its needed for economic growth. A rational mitigation strategy is an increased police presence as TMT noted above regarding Tysons.

In DC, Chief Lanier has been asking for more police and Gray supports that request but the Council shot it down. Only Tommy Wells supported it and understands that gentrification increases (not decreases) the need for police.

Chief Lanier explains:

Lanier keeps a binder stuffed with numbers on 14 areas considered the District’s up-and-coming shopping and residential hubs, including the Southwest Waterfront and City Center along New York Avenue NW.

She’s preparing a five-year plan to detail how she intends to police those neighborhoods in the future.

Today, her attention runs toward areas that include H Street in Northeast and Columbia Heights and the U Street corridor in Northwest. On H Street, residents had long complained of rampant drug dealing and prostitution. Redevelopment has brought new businesses, residents and visitors, but also more street robberies and late-night nuisance crime.

by Falls Church on Dec 28, 2012 7:07 pm • linkreport

I'm not entirely sold on the idea that it's really *more* police presence. It is *more* police, but not necessarily more police *per capita.* If the population grows, I can see more police being a reasonable thing. But is it really more police per resident? I'm not sure that's the case. Yes, if more residents are moving in or expected to move in, it makes sense to add more police, but I'd really like to see the number of police per capita over time. AFAIK, DC's police force has been growing, but at nowhere near the pace of the overall population, all while crime is going down. Perhaps the rate of growth for the police force is too low, but even increasing it slightly wouldn't match the rate of population growth.

by Ms. D on Dec 28, 2012 8:09 pm • linkreport

NRA logic: Transit does not bring crime, people bring crime.

by Jasper on Dec 29, 2012 12:07 pm • linkreport

Jut out of curiosity what research and analysis shows the affect of transit on crime?

by Fitz on Dec 29, 2012 12:17 pm • linkreport

I don't see how you could use Gallery Place as an example of transit bringing nuisance crimes. Gallery place is (a) in the heart of downtown DC (b) full of people (c) full of stores (d) very close to many major destinations (e.g. Verizon Ctr). Transit made (b)-(d) possible, but I believe the crime is a result of (a)-(d), not transit per se.

by SJE on Dec 29, 2012 12:35 pm • linkreport

But transit isn't a bad choice if you are planning to steal a car, see pentagon city, jussayin

by Dan on Dec 29, 2012 1:09 pm • linkreport

Another goal of the Fairfax County police will be to make rail passengers, as well as Tysons residents and workers to "feel safe" riding the Silver Line and walking around Tysons. IMO, this is quite important to the successful transformation of Tysons.

by TMT on Dec 30, 2012 9:47 am • linkreport

A MoCo police officer told our HOA that, on the few occasions when the Silver Spring metro station has been shut down over the weekend for track work (not single tracking, but a complete shut down), there were basically no nuisance crimes in the downtown Silver Spring area (thefts from vehicles, fights, etc.) in contrast to basically every other weekend.

by John on Dec 30, 2012 10:17 am • linkreport

I do think that transit does attract some nuisance crimes. For example, there can be a lot of car break-ins in transit parking lots - just as there are in any large parking lot, anywhere. And if you bring a ton more foot traffic to an area, yes there will be a small increase in crime.

BUT - crime is also affected by property values. If transit attracts a lot of new higher-income residents and shops oriented towards higher-income shoppers, then that presumably lowers crime too.

by Marc on Dec 30, 2012 10:50 am • linkreport

Agree, but there was that unfortunate assault on a couple exiting from a nightclub in Wheaton, shortly after the Red Line opened, and the attackers got there by Metro. It led to the closing of the club and a general decline in the nightlife in Wheaton for a long time. I live nearby and use the Wheaton Metro almost daily, and this was a terrible tragedy.

by arthur on Dec 30, 2012 11:04 am • linkreport

If the robber took Metro to rob the bank, I'd say your conclusion is wrong.

by Jason on Dec 31, 2012 5:11 pm • linkreport

The Americans WIth Disabilities Act fights crime too
http://www.arlnow.com/2012/11/07/crime-report-man-in-wheelchair-robs-cvs/

by Kolohe on Jan 1, 2013 1:17 pm • linkreport

That mentality is flawed indeed. Every time a wealthy Hispanic or White neighborhood gets all up in arms about a proposed rail line through their neighborhood, I shake my head. Why would someone involved in a crime choose to take transit? They're just asking to get arrested immediately. It doesn't make sense.

by Kevin on Jan 1, 2013 8:07 pm • linkreport

@Jason

Sure but then how would the robber get home?

by Jeremy on Jan 2, 2013 12:13 am • linkreport

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