Crime cars and crime roads

The statistics are staggering.

  • According to a study conducted in the 1990s over a six-year period, over 200 Americans were killed and over 12,000 injured were documented in over ten thousand road rage incidents. These statistics only count documented road rage incidents, where a police report and/or insurance claim was filed; countless other instances of vehicular aggression occur every day on our highways that don’t result in a collision or other major incident.
  • The city of Portland, likewise, has seen an epidemic of drive-by shootings.
  • These incidents, in which a vehicle was used to assault someone (or to assist in the commission of an assault), exclude the vast number of other crimes involving motor vehicles, such as robbers’ use of getaway cars, child predators’ use of windowless vans, and the tremendous amount of contraband that gets smuggled each and every year on our nation’s highways.
  • And lets not forget: motor vehicles, and their contents, are frequently the target of thieves themselves.

What to do about this rash of criminal behavior? Obviously, this criminal epidemic is the fault of roads and automobiles. If we stopped spending our hard-earned taxpayer dollars on “crime roads” and encouraging people to drive “crime cars”, perhaps this reign of terror would cease.

If you are now shaking your head and muttering to yourself “what a profoundly stupid argument”, you’d be absolutely correct.

But such arguments are frequently made earnestly and with a straight face, when the subject is busses and trains instead of cars and trucks.
The great double standard

In the vast majority of circumstances, there seems to be a wide understanding among the public, that general public goods and inanimate objects aren’t responsible for their misuse. Shopping malls aren’t responsible for shoplifting. “Guns don’t kill people, people kill people” is a well-known slogan particularly popular with conservatives. We don’t shut down the banking system because crooks might try and launder money there, or disconnect houses from the power grid because someone was caught growing pot in the attic. Al Capone’s Louisville slugger wasn’t responsible for the fact that he bashed some lowlife’s head in with it in The Untouchables. The state DMV, the highway department, and the municipal public works departments that build our roads aren’t held responsible for drive-bys or road rage incidents.

Public transit shouldn’t be treated any differently when some miscreant abuses it or its facilities. It’s a public good. The overwhelming majority of its users are law-abiding citizens who mind their own business. That it occasionally is used by thugs doesn’t turn it into a “public bad”, any more than road-rage incidents cancel out the usefulness of highways. (There are good reasons to oppose highway construction; but hotheaded drivers aren’t one of them).

Transit seemingly is unique in society, as it’s one place where people from all walks of life come together and share a common (and frequently combined) space. On the bus or train on any given day, you’ll find businessmen, families with children, homeless people, senior citizens, teenagers, drunks, tatted-up twentysomethings–and of many different races and backgrounds. In many other aspects of life, people can choose to segregate themselves with those they feel comfortable around; living in a particular neigbhorhood, sending their kids to a particular school, etc. But transit, FTMP, is an integrated experience. Some people find this disconcerting, others downright threatening.

The same, though, is true of the roads–we don’t have different highways for different types of people. However, the differences among us are far less noticeable when we’re all locked in moving metal boxes, so it may bother some people less–until they cut off the wrong person on the freeway. But as noted, when road-rage incidents do occur, we seem to write them off more readily–we don’t declare that the highways are inherently unsafe, or make unreasonable demands of the authorities such as doubling the size of the highway patrol.

Transit as “cancer”

The arguments I’m objecting to in this post aren’t arguments complaining about inadequate security on TriMet. A good argument can be made that TriMet can and should do more to secure its facilities (more on that below); and that the specifically, the agency’s decision to react to the recession by scaling back fare inspection in 2009-2011 was a poor choice.

The arguments I’m reacting to instead are the arguments, popular in right-wing media (and among some commentators who should know better), that public transit is inherently dangerous, including to those other than its patrons. In other words, the “crime train” argument–the notion that building MAX to Milwaukie or Vancouver will cause hordes of criminals from Portland’s rougher neighborhoods to take the train to these gentle communities to pillage and burn. Many anti-CRC arguments from the ‘Couv seem to regard the Columbia River as a giant moat, protecting the fair citizens of Vancouver from Portland’s underclass, as if the city’s troublemakers don’t know how to drive or ride the bus. Often (not always) such arguments are grounded in little more than blatant racism.

This is kind of like blaming the body’s circulatory system for the spread of cancer, as malignant cells routinely spread through blood and lymphatic vessels to metastasize elsewhere.

The facts of the matter, though, are different:

  • Criminal behavior tends to be a neighborhood phenomenon. Delinquents will frequently cause problems in their own neighborhoods and/or adjoining ones; but wayward teenagers from Rockwood don’t go traveling to Council Crest looking for trouble. In general, in places where the streets are unsafe, the transit (and roads) may be unsafe. Out in Beaverton, violent crime on MAX is extremely rare, for instance.
  • Many delinquents (and many more professional criminals), are perfectly able to drive and either have access to a car, or the means and motive to steal one. The notion that crime can be quarantined by withdrawing (or not building) public transit is simply laughable. In many cases, reducing transit options will most severely impact the law-abiding poor, who need it to get to their jobs–with the perverse result that more and more people are driven into the underbelly of society.
  • A similar argument applies to the bus system. One unusual aspect about transit and political culture in Portland is that the bus system (particularly those bus lines which avoid bad neighborhoods) is often viewed as safer than MAX. In many cities, it’s the reverse, as it’s assumed that the bus system is the province of the poor and downtrodden, and rail systems are constructed (often passing over or ignoring poor neighborhoods) to serve the transit needs of “nice” middle-class commuters for whom driving is not a realistic option.

In short, the notion that residents of Milwaukie or Vancouver or Tigard need to be concerned about rapid-transit lines suddenly enabling crooks to come visit their towns, is rubbish. If someone in Felony Flats wanted to go burgle a house in Hillsboro, he’d have plenty of ways to get their besides the train. But chances are, a burglar in Felony Flats will find a house on his own street to rob, and burglaries that occur in Hillsboro are committed by criminals who live in Hillsboro.

Recent scholarship on the issue also debunks the notion that adding mass transit causes an increase in crime. According to The Atlantic, a recent study in the Journal of Urban Affairs (abstract; full report is behind a paywall unfortunately) suggests the opposite. In addition, conservative writers Paul M. Weyrich and William S. Lind. debunk this notion in their book Moving Minds: Conservatives and Public Transit (excerpt here). And a study in Brazil indicated that violent crime dropped 50% after the installation of the TransMilenio BRT system.

The security issue

If transit critics making these sorts of argument do have a point, it’s on the issue of security. While incidents on transit seem to be overreported, they do occur, and they do contribute to a negative perception of the system. The good news is that transit-related crime frequent is less serious than other types of crime as a whole. One study notes:

The majority of the incidents represent less serious crime and incivilities. A survey of 45 transit agencies showed that 22% (or 8,000 cases) of all reported incidents were of serious nature. Of the serious crime only 2,700 cases were violent (TCRP, 1997). The vast majority of the less serious incidents involve vandalism, disorderly conduct, public drunkenness, theft, and harassment. These affect and intimidate other transit patrons (TCRP, 1997), but tend to be underreported. Robberies, assaults, and batteries represent the majority of the reported serious crime (TCRP, 1997).

As noted above, after the Great Recession (and other factors) made budget cuts necessary in the past several years, one of TriMet’s responses was to scale back its fare-inspection activities. TriMet uses the proof-of-payment system on MAX. Many critics of the agency refer to the PoP system as the “honor system”–and while this is technically not correct (an honor system would be a system without any fare enforcement at all), the relative lack of fare inspections made it close enough. Fare evasion on MAX went up, and if you believe the “broken windows theory” of law enforcement, a failure to prevent fare-jumping will lead to breakdown of other social norms, such as restraints on violent or disorderly conduct. This (along with the sequestering of the operator in an enclosed cabin) doubtless contributes to the “MAX is unsafe” meme; whereas bus drivers check fares of those who board, and are in a better position to observe any misbehavior aboard the much smaller vehicle.

TriMet’s recent upgrading of its number of fare inspectors, and its lower tolerance for fare evasion, is welcome news. The proposed switch to electronic ticketing in some form, possibly within the decade, should further improve the situation, both by improving the reliability of fare vending (fewer opportunities to use the “broken ticket machine” excuse) and the speed of inspection operations. TriMet GM Neil McFarlane has also discussed plans to better secure some of the suburban stations, possibly including the installation of fare gates to keep unticketed individuals off platforms and discourage loitering.

One interesting aspect of TriMet is its status as a standalone government agency. Unlike most ODOT and municipal public works departments, which are part of a large general-purpose government that also provides police services, particularly traffic enforcement (and where both the transportation and police functions are funded, more or less, from a common revenue stream managed by a common set of elected officials), TriMet is separate–and thus largely responsible for providing its own security. TriMet does not pay any taxes to the municipalities it operates within–nor do municipal governments pay the transit payroll tax for public employees. It has its own transit police force consisting of 62 sworn officers, along with numerous other non-sworn security guards and fare inspectors.

Agencies from other departments, along with fire and EMS personnel, do respond to incidents on TriMet and/or ride on or secure the lines; but in general, municipal police agencies tend to regard TriMet security is outside the scope of their mission, and some (the Clackamas County sheriff’s department seems to be a notable example) like to complain about TriMet diverting their officers from other duties. I don’t recall OSP or any local law enforcement agencies objecting to a new road on the grounds that it will swamp their patrol divisions.

22 Responses to Crime cars and crime roads