Broken Windows and Broken Streets – Livable Streets as a Strategy to Reduce Crime and Support Local Business

Police talk about the “broken window syndrome” when visible neglect creates a feeling that anti-social behavior is acceptable.  But maybe there is also a “broken street syndrome” when the noise, smell, and danger of speeding cars and unfriendly public spaces scares people away and makes our neighborhoods ripe for decay. 

What if intersections were redesigned so that it wasn’t so scary to cross the street?  What if trees were planted down both sides of the well-lit block?  What if commuters were no longer able to rush through the neighborhood?  What if cars were slowed to 20 mph, but traffic lights were timed so that drivers could cover just as much ground in the same amount of time as before?  What if bike lanes were located on major streets so cyclists didn’t have to ride on the sidewalk or in the middle of traffic?  Isn’t it likely that more people would spend time outdoors, providing what Jane Jacobs described as “eyes on the street”?  As Ms. Jacobs wrote in The Death and Life of Great American Cities, “A well-used street is apt to be a safe street.  A deserted street is apt to be unsafe.”

These methods of creating a more vibrant street life are some of the ideas that come from a strategy of “traffic calming.”  The goal is to stop designing streets primarily around the goal of moving as many cars as possible, as fast as possible – with stressed-out pedestrians, people pushing baby carriages, people in wheelchairs, bicyclists, and the elderly forced to fend for themselves.  Instead, traffic calming seeks to create “livable streets” that prioritized the needs of people to walk around, talk with their neighbors, patronize local stores, breath clean air, relax, ride a bike, celebrate, and be safe – to live, work, shop, play, raise children, and grow old.

Traffic calming is based on the realization that simply putting up a speed limit or “watch for children” sign doesn’t do much to change motorist behavior or attract pedestrians.  Wide lanes, gentle curves, long stretches of straight-away pavement all cause drivers to go faster no matter what the posted speed limit.  The only thing that really works is changing the physical structure of the road and its context.

What works is narrowing the car lanes – making them 9 or 10 feet wide instead of the “standard” 12 to 15, perhaps by putting bike lanes long the sides.  Tighter corners with “bulb-outs” or median islands shortening the distance across a street also force cars to stop or significantly slow before making the turn.  Speed bumps or raised intersections keep roads from becoming “speedways.”  Wide, properly maintained sidewalks that do not “dip” at driveways or even across minor crossroads make it clear that pedestrians have the right of way and that drivers have to be careful as they cross a walking area.

There have been few long-term, formal studies but the anecdotal evidence is strong.  The Five Oaks neighborhood in Dayton, Ohio got rid of drug dealers and prostitutes by eliminating the through-traffic that allowed customers to cruise through.  Traffic calming, along with a plan to increase home ownership resulted in a 25 to 50 percent reduction in neighborhood crime as well as a 40 percent decrease in traffic accidents while also catalyzing increased resident activism and community stability.  Similarly, street crime in the Old Northwood and Northboro Park areas of West Palm Beach, Florida, decrease by 60 to 80 percent because traffic calming changed residents relationship to their streets.  The Diggs Town housing project in Norfolk, Virginia, installed parking islands, and tree-lined small scale streets along with front porches and fences – and the police reported a drop of trouble calls from 25-30 a day to 2-3 per week.

The foundation of a safe neighborhood street comes from the coordination of transportation and land use.  Safe streets have buildings that face outward with windows and porches that allow a clear view of the street.  They have an active street life based on sidewalk vendors and shops that attract customers from early breakfast to after-hours socializing, as well as comfortable street furniture and public places that allow people to rest during their walks and encourage interaction – along with sufficient lighting and utilities such as water fountains and public bathrooms.  There should be room for children to safely play outdoors, to experience some of the “free range” freedom of the past.

These techniques, and others, are straightforward and have been successfully used in cities and suburbs all around the globe to prevent crime through environmental design.  Is traffic calming enough?  No.  Often it is the very act of coming together to fight for, design, and monitor local improvements that brings a community together and reduces the social isolation that fertilizes anti-social behavior.  Programs for homeownership, development and maintenance of parks and playgrounds, enforcement of building standards, better schools, and community policing are also important.  As are healthy local businesses.

Ironically, store owners are often initial opponents of traffic calming measures, especially if it includes any reduction in the number of parking places right in front of their door.  Store owners always fear that limiting car access or parking spaces will hurt business.  In fact, study after study shows that facilitating pedestrian traffic increases customer traffic, that making sidewalks attractive and comfortable with trees and “street furniture” makes customers willing to pay more, that people are totally willing to walk a block or two to get to a desired destination, that quicker turn-over of parked cars increases the number of people able to access a commercial area.

In San Francisco’s Valencia Street, two-thirds of the merchants surveyed four-and-a-half years after bike lanes were pained said that the lanes had a positive overall impact on their business.  Two-thirds of the merchants supported more traffic calming measures. Research on Bloor Street, a commercial section of Toronto, Ontario, found that people who had biked or walked to the area spent more money than those who drove.  Three-quarters of the surveyed merchants believed that business activity would improve or stay the same if a bike lane replaced half of the on-street parking.  Other studies have shown that people will spend 12 percent more for an item in stores on a tree-lined, aesthetically attractive and walking-comfortable street than in an ugly and unfriendly location. The significant expansion of public transportation, bikeways, and pedestrian-friendly infrastructure has allowed Portland, Oregon residents to save on transportation costs to an aggregate of nearly $2.6 billion a year, leaving significantly more money for other kinds of spending.  And a study of home values near the Monon multi-use Trail in Indianapolis, Indiana found that homes within a half mile of the Trail would sell for an average of 11 percent more than a similar residence further away.

Crime, violence, and disruptive behaviors have many causes.  Some people are just crazy; some are evil.  More commonly disrespectful environmental conditions evoke a discordant response.  But we should never forget that the biggest reason is poverty, both absolute and relative.  As the disparity between rich and poor grows, as our social safety nets fray, as our public sector budgets shrink, as good jobs within reach of the 80 percent of our population that doesn’t have a four-year college degree move overseas, as over development and climate change makes water and food more expensive – things will get worse.  Creating livable streets will not be the entire solution; but it is part of it.

For more on this topic, see (The LivableStreets Initiative) (“Traffic Calming and Crime Prevention” on the Pedestrian and Bicycle Information Center site) (the League of American Bicyclists web site)

And more studies on the economic impacts of trails and paths can be found at the National Trail Training Partnership and the Rails to Trails Conservancy

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