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by Peter Moskos

March 30, 2009

Broken Windows, Subways, and Crime

The danger in New York City of subway cuts and transit fare hikes looms. Keeping the transit system in decent shape affects more than your commute to work. It’s a public safety issue. The proposed MTA “doomsday” service cuts puts the past 15 years of public-safety gains in jeopardy.

Many factors contributing to New York City’s crime drop, but a huge part was better policing and a focus on minor and not-so-minor quality-of-life issues, the so called Broken Windows. New York City’s great crime drop was both unpredicted and unprecedented, and it started on the subways. Broken Windows, as formulated by James Q Wilson and George Kelling, says that an unfixed broken window, figuratively speaking, is a sign that nobody cares. This leads to increased disorder, fear, and crime.

It’s easy to forget how bad things were in the early 1990s. The city was still seen as out of control and, as the New York Times wrote, fear was constant: “Crime, the fear of it as much as the fact, adds overtones of a New Beirut” in a city “bristling with beggars and sad schizophrenics tuned in to inner voices.” In 1990 2,245 were killed. Then crime started going down. It went down fastest in the subway.

Then transit Police Chief William Bratton focused on the Broken Windows of the subway: turnstile jumping, aggressive begging, and homeless people—many with stunning hygiene needs—using the subway as a free 24-hour shelter. In 1991, crime dropped three times as fast underground as above. By 1994, the subways were safer. Much safer. Felonies had dropped by one-third in three years. Successes in the subway told the city’s tax-payers that they could beat the criminals The great crime drop had swung into gear. A tipping point had been reached.

Over the past 25 years, many of the city’s broken windows have been fixed. As an improved transit system—started with investment and the virtual elimination of graffiti in the 1980s—lead the way. While academics continue to debate the causal link between disorder and crime, a Broken Windows’s approach resulted in a massively safer New York City and the simply concept that policing and quality-of-life issues matter.

Since then, tourist spending in New York City has doubled to $29 billion per year. Compared to that, the $1.2 billion needed to close the MTA’s budget gap is a drop in the bucket. Just a few muggings and “random” crimes shown on YouTube will cost the city and state far more than what the MTA needs to keep moving forward.

Dirtier stations, less maintenance, fewer station attendants, longer waits, and aggressive teenagers tell the public that nobody is in control. With increased fear, fewer people will use the streets and subways, giving criminals a greater opportunity to act. Fear and crime thrive in systems of disorder and decline. With crime and fear, suddenly a vicious cycle is born. That’s why the proposed cuts to MTA service are so dire.

It is not inevitable that tough economic times bring more crime. Murders in New York were up last year to 523 from 496 in 2007. This is worrisome, but not so much because the numbers are bad. They’re not. But in tough times, it is particularly important to prevent a slide back to New York City’s bloody past. Crime could go down even further. Canada has a few more murders than New York City but with four times the population. With continued good policing and public funding, we could move in that direction.

Or we could slip back. It is possible, with bad public planning and the self-fulfilling idea that crime and violence will increase. MTA service cuts affect more than service. The doomsday cuts can lead to a real doomsday with thousands of New Yorkers again being killed each year. In her classic book, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, Jane Jacobs wrote, “We must understand that the public peace—the sidewalk and street peace—of cities is not kept primarily by the police, necessary though they are. It is kept primarily by an intricate, almost unconscious, network of voluntary controls and standards among the people themselves.” Service cuts equal more disorder, fear, and crime.

In tough economic times, the subway is the last service that should be cut, not the first. There’s no reason we can’t slide to New York’s dark ages. But it doesn’t have to be this way, but if we lose the subways, the city will follow. Subway cuts are the first step to breaking our city’s windows, the same windows that have so painstakingly been fixed over the past twenty years. And that will be the most costly mistake of all.

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