I was thinking about this after my most-recent ride on Metrorail. The state of one of the cars I rode in nudged a neuron, so to speak, as I tried to connect it to something I’d heard about some time ago. That something was “the broken window theory.”
The “broken window theory” goes something like this:
The broken windows theory is a criminological theory of the normsetting and signalling effects of urban disorder and vandalism on additional crime and anti-social behavior. The theory states that monitoring and maintaining urban environments in a well-ordered condition may prevent further vandalism as well as an escalation into more serious crime. (Source)
(Another study argued with this theory’s conclusions. The authors of that study noted that “remarkably little is known about the effects of broken windows” and that the evidence to support the theory “remains, at best, mixed.”)
What I Saw on the Train
I haven’t ridden Metro regularly since the 1980’s, so I can’t provide an emipirical study. What I can do is provide my impressions and how I think they connect to “the broken window effect.” (Mind you, I didn’t see any broken windows on Metro.) But in the last several weeks, there have been instances of violence in and around Metrorail stations. I was wondering if the “broken window effect” can be implicated in these and other occurrences.
The car I rode last (an Orange Line train from L’Enfant Plaza to Vienna at about 5 p.m. on Friday, March 4th) was fairly empty for evening rush on this popular route. I saw a couple of examples of “disorder” on the train. Not out-and-out disorder; the incidents were more a flouting of accepted behavior and somewhat anti-social behavior. Such as:
- Consuming beverages on Metro. I saw a person sipping from her fountain drink and another taking a long draught from his water bottle. Um, unless you’re on an IV-drip to replenish fluids, I think you can make it to the next station before taking a drink. But then I guess those Metro placards that prohibiting consumption of food or drink while riding Metro weren’t meant for you, right? Right?
- Playing radios. Technically, this didn’t happen; however, I think that playing music so loud that your seatmates can hear it is 1) disturbing and 2) unhealthy. I wonder what the nice gentleman will be like in a few years when he won’t be able to hear without a hearing aid. I hear they don’t work too well with earbuds. My solution: Get better earphones that sit over the ear or get ones that fit more snugly in your ear. Besids, it’s always more fun to watch someone groovin’ out (& even singing!) to their tunage when nary a sound can be heard.
- Litter. This is something that has been building for a while; but I think it has been exacerbated with the dissemination of those free newspapers at Metro stations in the morning. People read them. And leave them. I believe Metro has replaced the receptacles for newspapers in their stations. Use them, people. And for those who might pick up a discarded paper: Consider yourself fortunate to have something to read. When you leave the station, take the paper with you … and Throw It Away. (Metrorail should run that iconic public service announcement with the Native American with a tear in his eye because of pollution. This time, it should have a nicely dressed office worker in a disordered Metrorail car. Nah; it’ll never happen.)
I saw a TV interview yesterday in which Metrorail riders admitted to being a little afraid on or around Metro stations. This was very surprising. During my commuting days, I never felt afraid while riding Metro.
In the original study that led to discovery of this effect, residents of Newark, NJ (where the study was conducted) felt safer with police patrols, even though crime did NOT decrease. Perhaps if Metro police and patrols were more visible, the riding citizenry might at least feel safer. One of the measures of feeling safe, after all, was to not be afraid “of being bothered by disorderly people. Not violent people, nor, necessarily, criminals, but disreputable or obstreperous or unpredictable people: panhandlers, drunks, addicts, rowdy teenagers, prostitutes, loiterers, the mentally disturbed.”
I realize that Metro can ill afford to mount this type of effort right now; but if the local governments and their citizens feel that having a world-class Metrorail system (again) is worthwhile, then perhaps all parties will find the wherewithal to support (and fund) and effort to rehabilitate Metro and its image.
But for now we will have to rely on the Guardian Angels to help keep some semblance of order. (But I don’t think they’ll enforce the “no eating & drinking” rule.)