More on Light-Rail Transit Crime

A brawl involving 100 to 150 people shut down Portland’s eastside light-rail line last Friday night. This naturally raises the question, “What is the relationship between light rail and crime?” Portlanders are beginning to wonder as one part of the city, informally known as Felony Flats, is suffering a crime wave.

Felony Flats is in southeast Portland near the 162nd Avenue Station on the Gresham-to-Portland light-rail line. It is reputed to have the city’s “highest density of drug labs and ex-convict residents.”

Local residents have asked police to beef up patrols — something they promised to do just a few weeks ago. But now police say there is little likelihood of increasing patrols in the area any time soon.

“The MAX has been a living nightmare for us,” says a police sargeant. “I would not ride it at night — and I’m armed all the time. There are massive fights, guns displayed, stabbings, people being threatened and bullied.” The police officer added that they expect the problems to get worse as a new light-rail line is extended to Clackamas Town Center, the region’s largest shopping mall.

Transit officials responded that “it’s a safe transit system” because they have video cameras aboard every light-rail car. Yes, and Portlanders have been treated to a long succession of grainy videotapes on the news depicting people being beaten and robbed by unrecognizable assailants.

Light rail is far more susceptible to crime than buses. National Federal Transit Administration data for 2004 indicate that, per passenger mile, light rail is involved with more than 3 times as many aggravated assaults, 26 times as many burgleries, 7 times as many rapes, and 10 times as many robberies as buses. The numbers for 2002 and 2003 are similar.

One reason why buses are safer is that the bus driver is in the same compartment as the passengers and acts as a moderating influence on passenger behavior. Light-rail drivers have their own secure compartments safe from passengers trying to hijack their trains, ask for directions, or get help from muggers.

Light rail is also associated with property crime near rail stations. The chief of police in one of Portland’s suburbs told me that they are very aware that, every time a new light-rail station opens, burgleries, vandalism, and similar crimes increase in that neighborhood. One reason may be that transit agencies run rail lines far more frequently than buses, and that frequency allows juveniles (who commit most such crimes) a fast ride away from the scene of their activities.

One thing that hasn’t been mentioned much in the Portland debate, and may be considered unmentionable, is the effect of gentrification on crime patterns. Many low-income people, particularly blacks, were once located in North and part of Northeast Portland. But as the urban-growth boundary made suburban housing unaffordable, people seeking affordable housing purchased and refurbished rental properties.

This pushed the low-income people out in a diaspora that was documented by the Coalition for a Livable Future (which, ironically, is a smart-growth group). Unfortunately, their report, Displacement:The Dismantling of a Community—A Report on the Effects of Rising Housing Costs on Lower-Income Residents of the Portland Region, is no longer available on line, perhaps because smart-growth groups don’t want to publicize how their policies have hurt low-income families.

The report compared incomes and poverty rates between 1989 and 1995, a period of rapidly rising housing prices in Portland. It found a huge increase in average incomes and housing prices in North Portland, while poverty rates increased in many outer neighborhoods, especially in parts of Southeast Portland such as the area that has come to be known as Felony Flats.

Gentrification isn’t necessarily bad, but the families living in North Portland before 1989 had a network of support services including churches and antipoverty groups. Now that those families are dispersed to many other areas, that support network has a much more difficult time helping those families.

Meanwhile, the city has subsidized high-density housing near light-rail stations, and many low-income families are living in these housing complexes. In some cases, it might not be too soon to call these apartments “slums.”

So thanks to Portland’s housing policies, we have a concentration of poverty along a transit line that is especially susceptible to crime anyway. Meanwhile, the police department has suffered budget cuts so that the city can continue subsidizing rail transit and high-density real-estate developements. Should anyone be surprised at the result?


6 thoughts on “More on Light-Rail Transit Crime

  1. Tad Winiecki

    This story makes me sad for two reasons – one is the high cost of crime (sin) and its effect on transport; the other is the extremely long time lag before planners and politicians realize their mistakes and change their approach to transport investment.
    Economists have very good tools now for doing rational, scientific evaluations. Engineers use engineering economy and value engineering techniques to optimize systems. Sociologists, ecologists, economists and other scientists have done a reasonably good job of counting the external costs of transport. Randall, you, Tom Rubin, Mel Zucker, Wendell Cox and others have contributed greatly to this education effort but perhaps money still talks louder than words.
    Of course I believe my Higherway system design would solve many of the problems we have now but it would create some new ones and people have a great fear of the unknown. There are also many wrong ways to implement a good new technology.

  2. Anthony

    “Felony Flats” is the area in lower southeast, south of Foster, and west of 92nd Avenue. I believe it has something to do with the high rate of property crimes, and its been called that since the 80’s.

    The residents out here have named the stretch in question the “eleven mile project,” and encompasses an large area between 102nd and Rockwood within five blocks of the MAX line. Much of the development is highly subsidized ‘affordable’ apartment complexes, with an occasional gas station, convince store, or payday loan shop.

    Since MAX is intended to get suburban middle-class white folk out of their cars, it makes no sense to have any stops within this area– at least after dark.

  3. msetty

    I agree with Randal that TriMet and the Portland Police Bureau need to be doing more to control the bad guys who have for various reasons concentrated around “Felony Flats” around that notorious MAX station. On the other hand, I would not blame transit for the entire situation, as Randal seems to do apparently for propaganda effect.

    I also take Randal’s interpretation of figures about LRT-related crime, compared to buses, with a big grain of salt. Due to the way crime statistics are reported in the NTD, a lot of the “bus” crime at bus stops probably shows up in general city crime statistics as cities typically “own” sidewalks where bus stops are located, not as activity on “transit-owned” property, unlike LRT and other sorts of rail with lots of “transit-owned” facilities.

    If anything, it is far easier to deal with bad guys not waiting for a transit vehicle through trespassing enforcement on “transit property” than on public sidewalks, where the “right of free passage” exists at anytime for anyone. These sort of important details are almost always lost in discussions with those of an economically conservative “free market” bent.

    In terms of law enforcement presence, TriMet leaves something to be desired, with only 9 sworn police officers and about 30 fare inspectors. The BART Police Department has about 150 sworn personnel for 340,000 daily riders, versus 39 cops and fare inspectors for 110,000+/- daily riders on MAX and the Streetcar. Even if one adjusts for the fact that BART average trip lengths are twice that on MAX, TriMet rail comes up only about at 50% of the presence on BART. TriMet needs to bite the bullet on this one and hire sufficient on-board personnel to improve safety and security.

  4. sleblanc

    Would you please share the website address where you got the FTA data for 2004 that indicates that light rail is involved with more than 3 times as many aggravated assaults?

    I downloaded the Excel spreadsheet, but it would be helpful to get the document from the source. This is the kind of data that any neighborhood/businesses adjacent to a proposed light rail line would like to access, prior to the corridor being selected. Thank you!!!

  5. The Antiplanner Post author


    Unfortunately, the FTA stopped including these data in the National Transit Database after 2001. You can download the data for 2001 and before from the National Transit Database web site (

    An associate of the Antiplanner obtained the data for 2002, 2003, and 2004 directly from the FTA. The first 22 or 23 rows of each sheet of the worksheet linked above includes data straight from the FTA. I think my associate added the passenger miles (taken from one of the other tables in the National Transit Database) and the remaining rows are calculations based on the previous rows.

  6. Pingback: Is Portland Light Rail a Success? » The Antiplanner

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