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 CommunityÃ¢â‚¬â€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?