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”

  1. I don’t think violent crime on MAX is extremely rare in Beaverton, it just goes under-reported because the local police department rarely responds to calls for help.

  2. Also, is it any surprise that there’s blatant racism in the Portland Metro? We’re talking about a region that’s whiter than London, England, where the Aryan Nation and the Klan have made some serious inroads in the last 15 years.

  3. “Blatant racism” may be too strong a term, but the Portland Plan background data (and other data/processes) make a pretty clear case that we are concentrating poverty in parts of East Multnomah County, and concentrating poverty is a well understood sociological driver of crime.

    Diversity is increasing. Portland was 85% white when I arrived here in 1988, now it’s only 70%. Some school districts in East Portland have student populations that are ‘majority minority’.

    And Beaverton is one of the most diverse cities in the region.

  4. “Some school districts in East Portland have student populations that are ‘majority minority’.”

    The entire elementary school population of the city of Portland is almost “majority minority”:
    “45 percent of students at Portland Public Schools are minorities”

    Based on trends, it should be up to 50% in the next 10 years. (The white population in the city is increasing, but most of the increase in population of kids is of minorities, in East Portland)

  5. @ Joseph-

    “Portland Public Schools” is a name of a school district. Cities and Schools aren’t related in Oregon, although their geographies overlap significantly

  6. Scotty, since you write about public transportation, I really wish you would learn to spell “buses” correctly. “Buss” means kiss; “bus” is a transit vehicle. “Busses” means kisses. The plural of bus is buses. Look it up in a dictionary. Thanks.

  7. “I don’t think violent crime on MAX is extremely rare in Beaverton, it just goes under-reported because the local police department rarely responds to calls for help.”


    I have never seen a crime other than fare evasion and littering, in my 14 years of riding MAX at all hours of the day. Anecdotal, I know – but seriously in the modern age of 24 hour news and facebook and internet blogs and whatever – you really think *any* violent crime on MAX escapes notice?

    I bet if I go on a MAX train and trip someone it will make the news.

    I have yet to see anyone ever post a real statistic that shows there is any higher risk on a MAX train anywhere in the entire system than there is standing on a street corner in the same location.

  8. If anything, the Beaverton cop shop is overzealous (and possibly larger than it needs to be). If you know of incidents which a) occurred on MAX within the Beaverton city limits, b) were reported to the proper authorities, and c) did not receive a response from law enforcement (whether the Beaverton police or some other agency, including TriMet’s transit police), by all means, tell us.

    Regarding racism in Portland in general. Certainly, it exists. Open neo-Nazi, skinhead, or Klan-affiliated groups appear to be on the decline in recent years; there was a much bigger problem with these sorts of outfits during the 80s, before the Seraw beating (an Ethiopian immigrant was murdered by local skinheads; at which point law enforcement brought the hammer down; and a civil lawsuit by the victim’s family bankrupted a prominent local Skinhead organizer).

    I see a bigger problem, though, with suburban/rural Tea Party racism. Not all TPers (or conservatives in general) are racists, of course, and those who are are seldom open about it (and don’t join avowedly racist organizations like the Klan), but this sort of attitude definitely exists–and the election of Obama brought much of this out of the shadows.

  9. “I have yet to see anyone ever post a real statistic that shows there is any higher risk on a MAX train anywhere in the entire system…”

    >>>> I once saw a headline article in the Vancouver Columbian which stated that the crime rate on MAX was double that of the bus system. Some time later, I tried unsuccessfully to locate the article in the paper’s online archives. However, I would tend to think that it is true, given the ‘open’ nature of MAX.

  10. Double on a per-capita basis? Double overall?

    I don’t know if this is the article to you refer, but here’s a Joseph Rose article from last year on MAX crime, which was originally published in The Oregonian but picked up and published in The Columbian as well.

    This page at Portland Afoot is also useful. This editorial in the Gresham Outlook is also somewhat interesting.

  11. Nick, you left off the second half of my sentence, which changed the meaning. You quoted this:

    “I have yet to see anyone ever post a real statistic that shows there is any higher risk on a MAX train anywhere in the entire system…”

    What I wrote was this:

    “I have yet to see anyone ever post a real statistic that shows there is any higher risk on a MAX train anywhere in the entire system than there is standing on a street corner in the same location.

  12. Poverty creates crime, where ever you find poverty you will find crime.

    You will find more poverty concentrated on mass transit, ERGO, it is not unreasonable to assume that there will be a higher rate of crime on mass transit.

    The disease is poverty, a potential vector is a transit system serving areas of extreme poverty.

    The gas combustion engine is one of the great destroyers of human beings. ONE MILLION PEOPLE A YEAR ARE KILLED BY GAS POWERED VEHICLES. That is a holocaust each year. Ten’s of millions are injured and billions of dollars of property damage created.

    No matter how you cut the cake, modern living is treacherous.

  13. Not entirely correct, al. The wealthy are not immune to committing criminal acts. Greed also creates crime, and it seems to be a nearly universal part of the human condition.

  14. Not to be picky, Al, but I wouldn’t consider eHow (or other content farms) to be a reliable source for anything. There’s lots of good scholarly evidence out there on the correlation between crime and poverty, after all…

  15. Al did cite a good point and that is the high death rate associated with automobile usage. For something that results in so many deaths and serious injuries on a yearly basis, we as a human race, seem oblivious for the most part. In fact, a lot of people see reaching age 16 as a milestone in their life in that they are now legally able to get out on the road. Risk vs reward I know given the tremendous increase in mobility afforded those getting a license. But you would think that given the data, and how data-driven-decision a society we live in, that something would occur that prompted a call to action in the form of a bigger advocation for public transit (or… something?) usage to attempt to stave off this difficult to avoid epidemic (I chuckle a little at calling it an epidemic). What we find, and often the topic of a lot of blog posts on this site, are people openly hostile to public transit and in fact, calling for expansion of roadways and automobile usage as if its the right of all people. Its a difficult paradigm to disect….

  16. Whatever Scott-It’s just an article among hundreds of articles linking poverty and crime.

    The amount of carnage to humans via vehicle crashes and the total obliviousness of the culture to it is quite profound.

    While our rulers spend trillions on fictitious terrorists the real killers wander the road ways of the world.

    Human beings are not logical about anything, is that any surprise to anyone?

    The concept that we live in a free society is laughable.

    Nobody cares about transit because most Americans don’t use it.

    Even in the greenest washed city of Portland only 12% of commuters put up with transit.

    Transit is just another governmental function, and as is all governmental functions, it serves the people that run it and operate it, the citizens are not the focus, no matter what the propaganda says.

    Look at all the money that is made by all the executives and even some union members running the transit system, you tell me who transit really serves?

  17. Al,

    I’m not disagreeing with you on automobile carnage–merely suggesting that eHow is not a good source.

    As far as your suggestion that “nobody” cares about transit because only 12% of commuters “put up” with it, and that in a greenwashed city like Portland–what percentage would you consider to be successful? 20%? 25%? 33%? 50%? 75%? 100%?

    And as far as your cynicism concerning the government goes–such observations are probably just as true about the road system as about the transit system.

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