A few evenings ago, I walked down a street in downtown Salt Lake City near my home and was offered drugs. Six different times. By six different dealers. All within one block.
Of course all cities have rough areas and this spot in particular — 200 South near the Gateway Mall — is well-known by locals as a troubled area. But it’s also right downtown near a not-so-old shopping area, transit stops and housing. It’s a place that shouldn’t be rough and that definitely shouldn’t have people brazenly selling drugs as if it were an illicit farmer’s market.
So why is it used by criminals and ignored by everyone else?
The reasons are likely legion but here’s one the city may not have considered: parking.
In an article this week in The Atlantic Cities, Jenny Xie wrote that eliminating parking actually cut down on drug deals in San Francisco and Baltimore. The idea is that drug dealers use idling and parked cars to conduct transactions, so eliminating their parking eliminates their workplace. To that I’d add that excessive parking also can be alienating to pedestrians and generally law abiding people. Think big abandoned parking lots, for example, that due to neglect become ripe for crime.
That may well be what’s happening in downtown Salt Lake. The picture below shows the area where I was repeatedly offered drugs. I was walking along the south side of the street:
What’s fascinating about this spot is that the south side of the street is lined with parking lots. Around the corner to the west, on Rio Grande Street, cars are free to idle (and possibly park, though I don’t know because I would never drive my own car there). In other words, it’s exactly the kind of environment that might be good for selling drugs.
By contrast the north side of the street is lined with buildings — not great buildings, but buildings nonetheless — and it’s completely drug free. Judging by the types of people I regularly see on these streets, I also suspect the north side of the street is perceived as vastly safer.
This seems to provide strong evidence in support of Xie’s thesis. It’s also interesting because the nearby homeless shelter is often blamed for this area’s troubles. That may or may not be part of the problem, but the north side of the street isn’t that much farther away from the shelter and it’s safe. Instead, the big difference seems to be the parking.
This is both good and bad news for Salt Lake City and other places like it. It’s good news because it offers a way to attack crime that isn’t just putting more police on the streets. We can scale back parking, and things like parking minimums that encourage car-dependant infrastructure, and expect to see some improvement in safety.
But it’s also bad news because in Salt Lake and other cities there are just so much parking. That means it’s going to take a long time and a lot of creative work to actually fix this problem.