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Light rail costs too much, does too little

Light Rail Stations Magnet for Crime

Jun 13


Add two more costs to the exhorbitant price of light-rail transit: crime, and the cost of preventing such crime. Portland’s TriMet transit agency is spending $560,000 dollars adding security cameras to five light-rail stations — that’s $112,000 per station.

“Crime activity,” says the Gresham police chief, “has increased in the areas along the platforms.” This is hardly news. A decade ago, the Milwaukie police chief told me that police throughout the Portland area knew that the opening of a light-rail station would be followed by an increase in property crime in the vicinity.

Add this to another pair of utopian planning ideas — urban-growth boundaries and transit-oriented development — and you have one more receipe for disaster. Portland’s urban-growth boundary drove up the price of single-family homes, so young families began to gentrify Portland’s low-income neighborhoods. This pushed Section 8 renters out of those neighborhoods, and many of them ended up in transit-oriented developments that yuppies avoided like the plague.

The result was an increase in both property and violent crime both near and on the light rail. I recently met a woman who lives right on the light-rail line to Portland. She told me she rides transit to work, but she prefers to take the bus over light rail because of all the thugs who ride the rail lines.

This is the opposite of the way it is supposed to be. According to social conservative (but fiscal liberal) Paul Weyrich, “People don’t want to ride buses.”

By “people,” Weyrich means “people who have choices.” Buses are for those who are too poor, too young, too old, or too disabled to drive. Rail transit is for getting middle-class automobile owners out of their cars.

On October 27, 1997, the Oregonian reported a gang war over who was going to control drug traffic on the west side light-rail line that was then under construction. In 2002, the Portland Trubine noted that light rail had become a convenient place for drug trafficking.

There have also been many reports of violent crime on or near light-rail cars. Last October, when I was out of town and off the Internet for a few days, I logged on and received a flurry of emails about a radio report “that the guy who was stabbed at a Max station was named Randal O’Toole.” Fortunately for me, it turned out to be someone named Randall Toole.

These are not isolated examples. Crime data collected for the National Transit Database (but not published with that database) reveal that light-rail trains and station areas are subject to far more crime, per passenger mile, than any other form of transit. I’ve posted the 2002-2004 data on line, which show that light rail has about three times as many aggravated assaults than buses, about four times as many auto thefts from park-and-ride stations as heavy rail, and five times as many robberies as heavy rail. The only form of transit that comes close is trolley buses, which are only found in four or five cities, but light rail beats trolley buses in almost every category as well.

When light rail is on the ballot, its proponents somehow forget to mention that riders are more likely to be robbed, beaten, and stabbed than users of other transit modes. When people who have a choice discover this, they are going to keep driving.


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Reprinted from The Antiplanner