Monday, August 29, 2011

Bike trails and crime - The Pinellas Trail

"The homeless man said he believes the trail ought to be closed at night for safety." That's an ominous quote from an unlikely source. It regards a new bike trail winding through a rough part of Seattle called The Jungle.

Concerns about crime near bike trails are not new. Beyond Seattle they have surfaced in Los Angeles, and Virginia Beach.

The takeaway message? There are ways to master bike trail design and ways to botch it.

This blog has shown how proper analysis and design can humanize and insulate urban designs, from ATMs and street furniture to lighting and trails.

Last month I spent time in St. Petersburg, Florida on the Pinellas Trail. It is an award-winning bike/jogging/walking trail that runs 40 miles from Tarpon Springs and Clearwater to St. Petersburg. The trail is 20 years old and I was impressed at the extent, quality, and resources the community invested in making this work.

Along the Pinellas trail you find art, bike shops, and bus stops located nearby for walkers who decide to bus home. Pinellas encourages vendor concessions and adjacent parks with places for wedding photos. In CPTED these are called activity generators.

Parts of it run through downtown St Petersburg, where some crimes do occur. For example about a dozen robberies are reported each year, mostly teens stealing from other teens (but not always).

Consider that a quarter million residents in St Petersburg experience over 1,000 robberies each year, and crime on Pinellas Trail seems remarkably low.

The day I visited there were walkers, joggers and bikers. It has an emergency response system and fairly strict rules (no alcohol, daytime only operation, no headphones permitted while biking).

Here's the question: Do municipalities demand a proper crime analysis, safety consultation and CPTED review before they construct bike/jogging/walking trails? If SafeGrowth planning was part of municipal development, that question would be irrelevant.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Riot nights, city lights

Depressed from riot news, I silence static from clueless TV pundits by tuning down the volume. Just watching images it seems the worst violence and looting happens at night. Biased news reporting perhaps? I wonder how street lighting impacts the locations of violence and looting? Can we use that knowledge for prevention?

There are online clues. There is a problem-oriented guide for police on improved street lighting.

That guide is less about tactical design and more about analysis, evaluation, and public support (all valuable, especially for police). It lists 8 US studies in which half show no impact and 3 UK studies that show more promise. There are 2 examples of police-led lighting improvements, one of which cut thefts from cars from 27 to 4.

For urban designers and developers looking for specifics you'll find more tactical designs in the ICA guidebook for professionals, CPTED and Lighting: reducing crime, improving security by Randy Atlas.

In addition to diagrams, photometric maps, and site photos, Atlas provides details on perimeter lighting, new technologies like LEDs, lighting controls, and the IESNA lighting guidelines for minimum lighting levels.

LEDs to the rescue

According to The Atlantic magazine, the yellowish glare of sodium street lighting may be fading forever in favor of low-energy, white LEDs and crime had nothing to do with it. Energy saving and the recession did.

There has been an explosion of LED (light emitting diode) technology. Cities like Seattle and Pittsburg have been racing to install LEDs. LA will replace 140,000 of the city’s 209,000 streetlights with LEDs.

I have blogged on lighting and crime before, especially in Toronto, Oakland, and Los Angeles.

Now Arlington, Virginia is replacing 4,200 high pressure sodium street lights with LEDs. Apparently they may switch out all 12,000 street lights to cut costs.

According to the LA Times, LED technology still has glitches. No matter. The Great Recession is charting our future in ways we don't expect.

For better or worse, street light LEDs are on our horizon.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Just a matter of time

An easy prediction following urban riots: authorities will blame anarchists and ne'er-do-wells for criminal behavior. Normal citizens, so goes the myth, would never do such a thing. (Sometimes they may be right. The Battle of Seattle in 2000 comes to mind.)

In truth, riots emerge from many causes, like middle-class blowouts following sporting championships. Vancouver's recent hockey riot comes to mind. One Vancouverite deludes herself, "this isn't the real Vancouver!"

Of course it is! Two championship losses, two Vancouver riots! Says one normal person caught rioting in Vancouver, "the riot would continue happening with or without me, so I might as well get my adrenaline fix." That's no criminal or anarchist talking.

In criminology I was once told it is too simple to blame poverty as a cause of crime because the eradication of poverty would eradicate crime. I have since learned ignoring poverty and deprivation is misguided for both crime and riots. Recent riots didn't break out in Beverly Hills, Greenwich, or Hampstead. They broke out in the poorest, most deprived, neighborhoods with the highest crime: Tottenham (UK), Villiers-le-Bel (France), Cairo, and Tripoli.

True, some criminals may seize on urban mayhem to loot and pillage. We must not let their opportunism distract us. Also, some short-term tactics might work, like tampering with rioters cell-phone planning. We must not let tactics for secondary factors distract us.

Neighborhood capacity-building in communities must be the goal of economic policy. Political power that concentrates at the top and ignores local capacity-building cannot last. That is one message of recent riots.

Here's another: Festering poverty and neighborhood deprivation dries up community branches of goodwill, what Hobbes and Rousseau called the social contract. Silencing people through unfair economic conditions or political repression splays those branches into a tinderbox. A recent NY Times article describes that tinderbox - people in "an uprising fighting for an accessible future."

Igniting that tinderbox is not a matter of youth acting like a jackass on speed. It is not a matter of crime. It is a matter of time. We should not be surprised.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Some trails are happy ones...

No doubt considerable fear exists on the streets of London after this week's riots. Whole books are written on urban crime and fear. What about rural places far from urban mayhem? The Gabriola Island murders from last blog suggest rural crimes too ferment fears of public places like nature trails.

This is ironic. Parks and trails are statistically far safer than bars at closing time or inside homes when domestic strife turns violent. Study after study tell us public trails are safe, such as Tod Schneider's article on bike trails back in 2000.

Yet those are urban studies. Research has yet to examine rural nature trails and crime. CPTED was born, after all, in the city.

I was recently interviewed by a horticulture magazine about trees and crime asking these very questions. The article, Trees Thwart Shady Behavior, described a study on crime and residential trees by examining 2,813 single-family homes in Portland, Oregon.

Controlling for visual appearance, presence of barriers, and street activity, the study showed "houses fronted with more street trees had lower crime rates". That was all crime rates, including vandalism and burglary.

Read it HERE.

Friday, August 5, 2011

Fall from paradise - Murder on Gabriola

Small towns are safe. Big cities are not. That's the myth.

Like many small communities in the Gulf Islands off the British Columbia coast, Gabriola Island is draped in lush rain-forests and magnificent beach scenery. It has miles of walking trails and hiking paths. Gabriola's 4,000 residents have the lowest crime rates anywhere. Until now.

With most myths, facts intrude. This week one shattered Gabriola's calm.

A knife attack left a mother dead and her son in hospital. Residents were ordered indoors and to stay off the trails. Today police apprehend a suspect hiding in some bushes near the scene of the crime.

This is Gabriola's second murder in 6 years. Two murders, of course, does not a trend make. Low numbers tell volumes about low crime risks.

Still, small towns do not necessarily produce low crime. Counting the current murder, Gabriola's murder rate is 25 per 100,000 (16 times higher than the rest of the country). What can be done?

I've blogged before about the catch-and-release courts in British Columbia. After sentencing, the murderer in Gabriola's last homicide served 2 years in prison (he beat his roommate to death with a hatchet).

Courts are clearly not in the safety or prevention business.

Walking outdoors next week may seem different on Gabriola. More frightening than last week. Lockdowns and wandering killers can have that effect.

True, these murders were indoors. Yet fear is insidious and civic places need a public space. How can small towns project confidence onto public spaces like paths and parks? Can we design out this problem? Do we really want cameras on hiking paths?

Is this the price we must pay for vigilance?