Easy Access Makes Best Crime Scenes

As with real estate, the three most important considerations for some crimes appear to be location, location, and location. Drs. William Smith and Perver Baran have found strong correlations among locations like accessible streets and retail settings and crimes like burglary, robbery, larceny, and auto theft. “Crime follows commerce, and commerce follows traffic patterns,” says Smith, a criminologist and associate professor in the Department of Sociology and Anthropology.

Findings by NC State researchers run counter to a popular theory that having more eyes on the street in high-traffic areas deters crime.

Smith and Baran, an urban design specialist who splits her time between the College of Design and the Center for Earth Observation in the College of Natural Resources, used geographic information systems (GIS) analysis to examine several years of crime reports from suburban Cary, North Carolina. Incidents were plotted on a map overlaid with breakdowns of commercial areas and residential neighborhoods, home ownership, ethnic and overall population density, and the accessibility and connectivity of local streets.

The GIS data showed that the four types of crime the researchers tracked were much more prevalent on easily accessible streets. Land use was another good predictor of crime, with retail establishments like restaurants, malls, and gas stations acting like magnets for thieves and thugs. “Offenders tend to go to areas that are familiar to them,” Smith says, noting they are quickly pegged as outsiders in neighborhoods with lots of cul-de-sacs and few cross streets—if they can even navigate their way in and out of these areas to begin with. “Accessibility is an important factor in crime.”

The NC State research could influence the way cities look at their street design, land use, and park systems. For example, despite its frequent ranking among the safest cities in the U.S., the town of Cary is looking at ways to lay out new streets to reduce crime, Baran says.

“Crime follows commerce, and commerce follows traffic patterns.”

Baran and Smith are also looking at how crime affects the use of neighborhood parks in Durham by overlaying GIS data on crimes, land use, and infrastructure like streets and sidewalks on maps of local parks. And they’re checking the NC State campus to determine which underlying factors might prevent certain areas from attracting crime. “Even after a space has been designed,” Baran says, “you can make modifications that could limit crime.”


Drs. William Smith and Perver Baran layered information on land use and street connectivity in Cary, N.C., on top of local property crime data to determine which features attract or deter crime.

Criminals are drawn to areas that are easily accessible—and easy for a getaway—according to NC State research.