Can Driving Less Lower Crime and Build Community?

3.22.13 | Global climate change is forcing a shift in the conversation about regional resilience at the extremely local level—how (and whether) individual buildings stand up to increasing weather extremes fueled by rising temperatures.

The Urban Land Institute‘s Rives Taylor laid out a checklist for real estate investors to consider when looking at buildings in their portfolios, or ones they’re considering adding to their portfolios, and how to make them more weather-resilient. The list is instructive for local governance because it identifies some of the categories investors—the smart ones thinking long-term, anyway—are or will be considering when wondering where to put their money down. Among them: local regulations and resilience planning, and infrastructure.

Of course, one of the drivers (pardon the expression) of global climate change is carbon emission caused by the trillions of vehicle miles traveled (VMT) in the United States. Our inherent bias toward driving over all other transportation modes was recently cataloged by the Tri-State Transportation Campaign in its examination of federal tax breaks given to each mode (h/t to StreetsBlog).

Bringing public transit and cycling into parity with driving will help accelerate (pardon the expression) the decline in VMT, which has been noted here and here by Eric Sundquist, managing director of the State Smart Transportation Initiative. How that decrease in VMT could play out regionally is explored by Bill Lindeke in this post at Twin City Sidewalks. He suggests that planners adjust their VMT projections sharply downward.

Taking this step would liberate our cities from the regime of increasing traffic. Getting rid of the assumption of increase could free our vision, and make room for more ideas about street design or mode choice. Instead of fatalistically designing roads for gridlock, we could begin designing roads that meet our shared goals, things like walkability, encouraging local businesses, and encouraging sustainable energy use. In other words, we could plan for what we want to happen, not what we know is going to happen whether we like it or not.

Peak VMT is the sign that the tide has turned on car country.  The monster at the end of the book isn’t real. Our cities can start to relax.

Moreover, as fewer people drive, there should be more demand for mixed-use projects whose measurable benefits, Emily Badger notes at Urban Land, now include better public safety.

“People say this makes intuitive sense,” says John MacDonald, the chair of the department of criminology at the University of Pennsylvania. A neighborhood with lunch counters, offices, condos and bars is likely to have more “eyes on the street” at more times of day. And this collective surveillance ostensibly deters criminals.

But in a new study published in the University of Pennsylvania Law Review, MacDonald and colleagues put actual data for the first time behind this notion. They examined eight high-crime neighborhoods in Los Angeles, in residential-only and commercial-only areas, as well as in neighborhoods with a mix of the uses or a change in land use over time.

The commercial-only areas had the highest crime rates – 45 percent higher – when compared to similar blocks that included residences. The researchers also found that neighborhoods experiencing a change in zoning, typically to add residences to a commercial area, saw a 7 percent drop in crime thanks mostly to a decline in automobile theft and break-ins.

As Jane Jacobs might have said: “Duh.” (I know she would never have said that, but I suspect the New Yorker phrase is unprintable in a family blog.) And it turns out Ms. Jacobs was also right about gradual redevelopment promoting community, too.

Photo/ Richard Masoner

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