The blog of the Urban Institute
September 22, 2011

Crime in DC-area Metro Stations - Why the Numbers Don't Justify the Hype

September 22, 2011

Did you read about the senior judge on D.C.’s Superior Court who recently chased down the man who stole his iPhone in a metro station and recovered someone else’s stolen phone? If so, you may have wondered how common such thefts are—or how safe the metro system is. Or maybe you read the story last summer about a blogger’s warning to those at the Restoring Honor rally in DC-- that whole sections of the metro system are best avoided-- and wondered how widespread  or justified  this fear of crime is.

In fact, metro crimes aren’t all that common. A May 2011 WMATA security report points out that the average probability of being a victim of a violent or property crime on metro buses or trains or in metro parking lots is 5.85 per million riders. And the chart below displays the top three stations for property and violent crime in 2010 in Maryland, Virginia, and DC, as reported by WMATA, out of the metro system’s 86 stations. The numbers of property/violent crimes are in parentheses, and corresponding station ridership and crime rates are included.

Top Property/Violent Crime Metro Stations and Ridership Levels in 2010

So what does this say about property and violent crime levels?

Notice first that the six stations in Maryland and Virginia are all last stops on a metro line, and all have park and ride facilities.  The three Maryland stations have the highest crime incidents recorded in 2010 and are among the lowest ridership rates in the table.  In contrast, with no “end-of-the-line” stations, the stations in DC with the highest crime counts are located near the city’s tourist-friendly parts, enjoy very high ridership rates, and are stops where three or four metro lines intersect.

But if we dig deeper into ridership levels and crime rates, some similarities disappear.  The Chinatown metro station has the highest ridership rate and top crime count in DC, but the lowest crime rate (which is still roughly 14 times the metro system’s average crime rate).  Even so, this seems minimal compared to the New Carrollton or Branch Avenue stations in Maryland, where the crime rates are 82 and 111 times higher than the system average (respectively).

From a previous look into DC’s metro system, we know that WMATA has lower crime rates than expected – especially compared to other cities.  However, from these metro station data, we can’t tease out which violent or property crimes occur in which stations or the full range of metro crime patterns. In particular, the “iCrime wave” my colleagues have written about may also be related to metro station crime patterns.  For now, we just don’t know.  But until better data lead to sounder advice than the blogger gave visitors last summer, it’s probably enough for riders to watch their belongings and surroundings carefully and be aware that busy, crowded metro stations may present crime opportunities.  Certainly, we don’t need to rule out riding entire metro lines.


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Great insights by my Urban Institute colleague! The Justice Policy Center at Urban will soon release a study on efforts to prevent car crimes in Metro's parking facilities. In examining the distribution of serious crimes across the Metro system, we noted that two-thirds of those crimes are occurring in the parking facilities and other non-rail areas on Metro property. This proportion is mostly driven by car-related crimes and likely explains why the Maryland and Virginia stations identified above, all having large parking facilities, have such high crime counts and rates. The DC stations listed above are all hubs with intersecting Metro lines, so it's likely that the large volume of passenger flows is creating ample opportunities for crime (particularly pickpocketing). Yet given that volume of ridership, it makes sense that the rates - the risk of victimization at those stations - are relatively low. More on crime in and around Metro next month when our report is released.