Three months ago, the Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) system that serves San Francisco and surrounding counties began a “blitz” to deter morning rush-hour fare evasion at four downtown stations. As reported by the San Francisco Chronicle, the first month’s results were startling: proof-of-payment citations rose 13 percent, new ticket sales rose 10 percent, add-value transactions to existing tickets rose 29 percent, and—most significantly—average weekly calls to police dropped a remarkable 45 percent. This rapid turnaround in behavior was achieved simply by staffing the stations with extra police officers, fare inspectors, and BART managers wearing bright yellow vests so that anyone trying to jump a fare gate or use a bypass door saw their way blocked by an official.
These results should come as no surprise to anyone familiar with the Broken Windows theory of policing developed by James Q. Wilson and George L. Kelling. The theory’s simple premise: responding proactively to minor crime (vandalism, disorderly behavior, and fare evasion) also reduces serious crime, including violent crime. Before he made New York City the safest large city in the country as commissioner of its police department, William Bratton put Broken Windows into effect as the head of the New York Transit Police, directing his officers to focus on fare evasion. The effect of the policy—first in the subway tunnels and then on the streets of New York—is now legendary.
San Francisco’s BART “blitz” demonstrates the effectiveness of Broken Windows. Just by putting people at the gates who looked to be in charge—neither the fare inspectors nor the yellow-vested managers were badged police officers—BART was able to cut crime in those stations almost in half. Exactly as Broken Windows predicts, those willing to commit serious crime often start by committing minor crimes, like fare evasion. Keeping such people out of the transit system means that everyone paying the fare is safer.
Huh. All the best people told me that San Francisco merely needed to paint over George Washington murals and banish the Betsy Ross flag to achieve utopia.
Related: Down the coast, the L.A. Times has a third world-sounding headline this week, “Desperate to get rid of homeless people, some are using prickly plants, fences, barriers.”