You can read all about the typical quality of life reasons for expanding mass transit in this week’s AIArchitect (shorter commute times, walkable neighborhoods, cleaner air)--and the participants at this week’s AIA/AIA DC transportation forum came up with a good many. Here’s an unexpected one that should cause us all to stop and think about the supreme influence people’s built environment has on their behavior and the way they interact with others: At the forum, Mindy Reiser, a sociologist who has studied public infrastructure issues, asked the panelists if they had heard of a study done in Bogota, Colombia, that showed that the installation of better mass transit reduced crime rates.
In fact, a report by the Institute for Transportation and Development Policy states that after the installation of the TransMilenio bus rapid transit system in 2000, violent crime dropped by 50 percent in the city. (Also, traffic fatalities dropped by 30 percent, commute times dropped by 32 percent, and noise pollution decreased by 30 percent.) Bus rapid transit systems shuttle people across cities by using dedicated bus lanes that regular traffic is not allowed on. They’re typically considered to be a less expensive option for cities that can’t afford light or heavy rail systems.
To be sure: There is no reason to believe that a 50 percent drop in crime rates was caused only by the addition of better mass transit. It’s quite possible that, in a politically unstable and poor nation like Colombia, there was a lot of low hanging fruit to be picked in terms of crime once Bogota committed to any wide-scale civic development program. I’d have to assume that mass transit wasn’t the only civic investment going on at the time that might decrease crime. But what if these same researchers could isolate the addition of mass transit as dropping crime by only 5 percent? It’s 10 times less than the original figure, but, were it an American city, a lot of mayors, police chiefs, and city council members would be thanking architects, engineers, and planners for getting to keep their jobs.
The argument for how mass transit might decrease crime goes like this: Cities with good public transit systems can be developed more densely and are likely to create more active, vibrant neighborhoods where it’s tough to steal away a moment alone and mug someone. Crimes tend to happen in isolation, separation, and darkness, not amongst crowds coming and going. It’s essentially Jane Jacob’s “eyes on the street” theory.
Back in the Dark Age of the American City (most of the latter half of the 20th century) mass transit systems like subways were often used as graffiti-stained ciphers for the failure of urbanism—dark , steaming arterial tunnels that transported the wickedness, anonymity, and inhumanity of failed neighborhoods.
I use a mass transit system every day, and I can’t really relate to that. Some mass transit systems are better than others, but to date I probably see people behave better below ground than I have above ground. In Washington, the Metro has very strict rules on not eating or drinking while in the system. In three years, I have never seen someone so much as eat a french fry on a train. And besides, there are few things as fundamentally democratic, and thus good for increasing the social trust that makes crimes less likely, as making everyone in the community (this means K St. lobbyists with their initials on their cufflinks, Hispanic construction workers with crusted concrete on their boots, and me) endure interminable delays in confined and stuffy space.