HD cameras and station design intended to enhance LRT security

LRT security
Stations along the Central Corridor light rail line, like the Westgate stop on University Avenue west of Highway 280, are designed with glass panels and mesh metal railings to be as transparent as possible for security reasons.
MPR Photo/Jennifer Simonson

Every station along the future Central Corridor light rail line connecting St. Paul and Minneapolis will have surveillance cameras. Unlike the stationary cameras along the Hiawatha line, these newer devices will be able to zoom in and tilt their gaze on their subjects.

The high-definition gadgets are just one security feature that light rail planners considered when designing the 18 new stops.

Other components are much simpler. Urban planners say good design can go a long way in making public transit stations feel safer.

The stops along the new Green Line will have a big design advantage over Hiawatha in terms of crime prevention. The stations are all in the middle of the street. That means more eyes on the street, from nearby buildings and passersby.

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The Westgate station is situated in front of the KSTP studio on University Avenue in St. Paul. Glass panels provide a view into the station. Even the mesh metal panels on the railings are see-through. All of these elements were deliberately chosen with safety in mind.

Urban planner Allison Yoh says the idea that "eyes on the street" helping to deter crime is an idea that has been around for decades.

"There's this concept that the more people who are around you, the safer things feel," Yoh says. "If you're walking on the street or waiting at a transit platform by yourself, it tends to feel less safe than if you are on a platform bustling with lots of activity and pedestrian traffic."

Yoh is the associate director of the Institute of Transportation Studies at the University of California, Los Angeles. She says studies have shown people generally feel better about riding transit when they feel safe at the stations, and women in particular will limit their travel routes to areas where they feel secure.

"It's kind of an intuitive kind of understanding that if you're a woman, you may not feel as comfortable going through a darker alley than you would if you are a man," she says.

LRT security
The Lake Street stop on the Hiawatha light rail line on Thursday, Aug. 9, 2012. The station will receive upgraded security cameras because there are a higher number of nuisance crime reports here than at other stations.
MPR Photo/Jennifer Simonson

Security cameras are one way to achieve that perception of safety. And they're proliferating across public spaces in the U.S. In St. Paul alone, more than 160 police cameras have gone up downtown and along University Avenue over the past five years.

Despite concerns from civil liberties groups, law enforcement officials stand by the expansion of cameras, which help them investigate leads. As one example, the cameras helped locate a lost child among the downtown crowds on St. Patrick's Day, said St. Paul Police Sgt. Paul Paulos.

Each new Green Line LRT station will have at least eight cameras.

And the West Bank station in Minneapolis will have three times that many. It's the only two-story station on the line. And it's situated in a sunken corridor where riders will emerge from the train on Washington Avenue and can go up to the Seven Corners university area and the Cedar-Riverside neighborhood.

Central Corridor spokeswoman Laura Baenen says the West Bank station will need 24 cameras to provide full coverage.

She adds that the intent of the cameras is to deter crime, although she acknoweldges there's not always an obvious correlation between surveillance and good behavior.

"You never know when someone has decided not to commit a crime because they observed a camera watching them," Baenen says. "Those people will never tell you, 'I'm not going to rob someone because I see a camera there,' but it is a best practice around the country to have cameras."

Light rail planners can learn from the existing Hiawatha line. At the Lake Street stop in south Minneapolis, transit riders have reported seeing loitering, public intoxication and assault.

Over the past six months, the station has had about four times as many incidents as the average LRT stop. According to Metro Transit figures, there were 240 incidents reported at Lake Street, compared with the average of 63. Neither figures include reports of fare evasion. The calls run the gamut from medical emergencies to robberies.

Metro Transit officials say one reason for the heightened activity is that Lake Street is one of the busier stations. But design may play a part. Like the West Bank, this station is also two stories, but here, transit riders emerge from the train on a second-level platform and take the stairs down to the street. That means fewer eyes on the platform.

LRT security
Construction is under way at the Central Corridor light rail line's West Bank station on Thursday, Aug. 9, 2012, near the University of Minnesota.
MPR Photo/Jennifer Simonson

"It's up high," says transit rider Brenda Doane, "and when the officers drive by, they can't see what's going on unless they come up the escalator or the stairs."

Doane lives in the area and remembers feeling uncomfortable when her job required her to catch the train before sunrise.

"I would see people sleeping on the steps with bottles of booze, and I'd have to step over them," she says.

To help monitor the Lake Street station, Metro Transit will soon install 24 new surveillance cameras. The agency has already put in place a number of improvements, such as better lighting and increased patrols.

But Chuck Samuelson of the American Civil Liberties Union of Minnesota doubts the cameras will thwart criminals. He says they will simply move the crimes to areas where there is no surveillance.

"I do not believe cameras make you safer," Samuelson says. "I believe cameras make you FEEL safer."

The cameras will help make transit riders like Doane feel safer. Doane welcomes the extra eyes at her light rail stop -- even if they are electronic.

Meanwhile, workers continue to build the Green Line transit system. By the end of the year, the Metropolitan Council expects heavy construction to be 75 percent complete -- which means station structures and roads, sidewalks, curbs and gutters will be finished.

The line is scheduled to open in 2014.