Criminal Traffic

Wilmington, NC – One of the best places in town to witness the intersection of design and crime prevention is the parking lot at Target.

Stand on one of the nicely-landscaped islands that divide up the lot every ten spaces or so, one has an easy view of the many cars making their way down the narrow traffic lanes. This is not a parking lot for speed, and that's no accident.

Shannon Rackley's just finished up her shopping, and she's noticed the design of this parking lot too. "It is kind of congested," Rackley observes as she loads her SUV. "I don't know if it's the Target, but just trying to get out of here is just, you know, not so good."

Not good for drivers in a hurry, but worse for potential crooks, according to Barry Coburn, crime analyst with the Wilmington Police Department. Target, he says, is a national leader in designing its stores to discourage crime, and it starts with the parking lots.

"Parking lots used to be willy-nilly," Coburn says, recalling the big box stores with their wide-open lots. "Well, as we learned human behavior we learned that that wasn't necessarily always the best. You still want to maximize your number of spots, but you try to design it so that someone can't go completely across the parking lot in one big massive movement, because that make their getaway that much easier."

Parking lot design is one of the many examples of how traffic flows shape criminal patterns. Basically, Coburn says, if it's convenient for you, it's convenient for crooks.

But city planners can't snarl the roads to cut down on crime. Instead, police focus on the smaller details of the streets.

"One of the things we do, as a department, when we're riding around at night, we notice street lights are out. That's a big thing. When you can effect that, you can call somebody and have that light turned back on or fixed or repaired. It will change that environment immediately," Coburn says.

Crime prevention isn't always a conscious design.

In early May, the Department of Transportation changed the traffic flow at the corner of 6th Street and Wooster - flexible yellow barricades force cars coming off 6th to turn right. Traffic engineers made the change because of the large number of accidents caused by cars trying to cross Wooster's four busy lanes.

But it's had an unintended consequence on a different sort of traffic, according to 6th Street resident Herbie Coombs.

"I haven't seen the prostitution like I did, because it obviously interrupts their little pattern that they would drive by, by having this barricade," Coombs says, "and, less drug street walking too."

It's a sunny Saturday afternoon. And as he stands near the wind-chimes on his front porch, looking at the quiet block in front of him, Coombs says he was quite surprised that such a minor change to the traffic flow could have such a big effect.

According to the police department's Coburn, the disappearance of drug dealers may have less to with how traffic has changed on this block, than just the change itself.

"They have certain level of fear that they're going to be apprehended," Coburn notes, "and all of a sudden, when you change that behavior pattern for them, make them go a different way. They sort of wonder what's going on and it slows them down a little. That's one of the big things crime prevention takes into account."

The other side of that coin is familiar, easy-to-access places can make for more crime.

Seven businesses along Wilmington's 16th - 17th street corridor reported robberies last year, everything from banks and sandwich shops, to the Food Lion and the Burger King. Two of them were hit twice.

Wilmington police officer Verna Atwood cruises along 17th street as a summer shower drums on the roof of the squad car. She says robberies are a regular occurrence along this stretch.

"It's because of the area," she notes, "this about it, you've got your graveyard here, all the back of these businesses here are wooded area or a residential area. Easy, easy to hide. Easy to hide."

For many robbers apparently, the best form of transportation is still the oldest - their feet.

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