MetroLink is much safer than you think

MetroLink is much safer than you think

Back in November, Bi-State began the process to install turnstiles at MetroLink stations. A $52 million undertaking backed by Centene CEO Michael Neidorff, supporters argued it would make the system much safer.

To speak briefly on the turnstiles, there is little evidence that they will improve safety or change the perception of crime. The first time someone hops a turnstile, it will become a regional headline. Few people who perceive MetroLink to be unsafe conversely believe Chicago’s “L” or New York’s Subway to be safe. St. Louis’ light rail system was built as an open system, and it makes little sense to change that over a mere perception of crime.

But what is really irksome is that MetroLink is much safer than it is perceived to be. And of course perceptions matter to some degree, but one way we can change those perceptions is by looking at data and understanding the larger picture beyond the rare incident.

Violent crime on MetroLink

Bi-State is shy with their data. However, they did give out some numbers to media in 2020 amid changes in their security strategy. Here is what the statistics looked like across 2019 and 2020. Remember the 2020’s ridership dip was dramatically impacted by the pandemic.

  • 2019 – 132 violent crimes/2.06 million unique riders = violent crime rate of 6.03 per 100,000 unique riders
  • 2020 – 64 violent crimes/928,571 unique riders = violent crime rate of 6.89 per 100,000 unique riders
  • 2019 – 132 violent crimes/13 million boardings = violent crime rate of 1.02 per 100,000 boardings
  • 2020 – 64 violent crimes/5.85 million boardings = violent crime rate of 1.09 per 100,000 boardings

I chose to include and focus on unique riders because it is a better representation of the total population (at risk) that uses MetroLink. It acknowledges that not all boardings are by new individuals and that there are many repeat riders. This helps to build a parallel to other contexts. To calculate the number of unique riders, I took the total number of MetroLink boardings (13 million in 2019 and 5.85 million in 2020) divided by the average number of transit trips per user (18) and then multiplied that number by the percentage of trips that are MetroLink (35%). It isn’t perfect, but it’s as close as I can get without Bi-State releasing detailed data.

So it does happen, but it’s rare. Any given unique rider has an infinitesimal chance of being a victim of violent crime. When observed with the naked eye, it would be comparable odds to a trip to the grocery store or a favorite restaurant. Adding more riders to the system will only drive the rate lower with more eyes on trains to keep people honest. And these numbers shrink considerably when we look at violent crimes only committed by strangers. Let’s look at how likely you are to be a victim of a violent crime in other situations. I will use 2018 and 2019 data to be consistent with the data provided for MetroLink and to avoid pandemic related spikes in violent crime.

Violent crime in other contexts

  • United States (2019) – 366.7 per 100,000 residents
  • Chesterfield (2018) – 46.22 per 100,000 residents
  • Parking Garage/Lot (2019) – 10.89 per 100,000 residents
  • Gas stations & Convenience Stores (2019) – 7.73 per 100,000 residents
  • U.S. Car fatality rate (2019) – 11 per 100,000 residents

While I did my best to create comparable contexts, there is also a time component that could be considered. In each of these places, you are more likely to be a victim of violent crime than if you ride MetroLink. Chesterfield has a violent crime rate 8-times that of MetroLink. Parking lots and gas stations, part of the mundane everyday for folks who say that crime has pushed them away from public transit, have higher violent crime rates.

And what’s worse? The alternative to taking public transit, driving, kills nearly 40,000 people in the United States each year. A staggering statistic. You are 2-times (and it is an even higher rate in Missouri) more likely to die in a car crash than you are to be the victim of a violent crime on MetroLink. Due to the centrality of cars in the life of Americans, we internalize an amount of risk that would be unacceptable in any other context. Can you imagine if fatality rates were 11 per 100,000 unique riders on MetroLink? Or when flying?

Why the stigma?

For many in St. Louis, MetroLink is synonymous with crime. It has been blamed with bringing violent crime to the Galleria Mall, even though the vast majority of shoppers arrive by car. Others see its potential expansion into St. Charles or Chesterfield as inviting crime. It doesn’t take long reading the comment section on any article about public transit to read “jokes” about murder.

If the stats flesh out that riding MetroLink isn’t actually any more dangerous than engaging in other mundane activities, why is it so stigmatized? Perhaps race and class play a factor for some. For others, maybe the privacy of a car provides a false sense of security. And for another group, it is likely a lack of familiarity. Whatever the reason, it’s wrong. Flat out, unequivocally wrong.

Why it matters

Unfortunately, the negative views that some hold about MetroLink and our public transit hurt us all, and especially the most vulnerable. It makes it harder to fund needed transit, contributes to pollution, and encourages dangerous road designs in a world of car supremacy.

MetroLink is a safe and efficient transportation system. It’s one of the region’s greatest assets and much of its value (the adjacent land – which, if developed, would increase the safety of the system) is largely untapped due to this perception. Crime does happen, but it’s important that we have a more honest assessment of what that looks like, otherwise we end up with expensive “solutions” like turnstiles.

A better appreciation for the safety of MetroLink might encourage Bi-State to prioritize improved service over additional security. I’d wager waiting in the dark at an unsheltered bus stop in cold weather is a far greater danger to transit riders. We need to change how we view and talk about MetroLink.


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