I came across this Family Friendly Cities blog post a while back, and of course I’m inclined to agree with the general conclusion. You hear a variety of reasons people want to move outward to the suburbs, and while there’s a nuance in the millions of decisions made across the metro (and country), my anecdotal understanding is the ranking follows the referenced ‘best cities’ ranking pretty closely:
- Housing Cost (particularly, price per finished square foot and/or yard size)
- Amenities for kids (or presence of other kids)
I’m sure there are other items people consider; proximity to at least one household member’s job, preference for suburban shopping, you get the picture. Maybe the order of importance shuffles around. But the gist is there, and I think whether many admit it or not, safety is more at the front of peoples’ minds than they may even be willing to admit. So that’s what I’ll be tackling today (though the links in the list provide some food for thought).
As discussed in the blog post, safety is obviously much more than crime. Crime is important, and definitely baked into the collective consciousness in how Americans view cities, but it’s not the only factor. It’s really surprising that we suffer this huge blind spot in risk assessment. Despite years of improvement in fatality rate for both per mile driven and per person in the United States:
Maybe we ignore it because we all think we’re above-average drivers. Maybe we just really like the utility of driving climate controlled vehicles. It’s easy to get caught up in the many benefits of cars and only consider the direct costs associated with owning/operating them (which is definitely less than the $10,000/year value touted in many urbanist blog posts, at least for most households in this country).
But again, the fact remains that the US is woefully behind other first-world countries when it comes to road safety, for drivers and non-drivers alike. Furthermore, those very countries are outpacing us in the drops in deaths. Some may point out that Minnesota is actually pretty safe for drivers, and I agree, but we’re still deadlier than most of those European countries.
Regardless, blogs usually go as far as that. Cite some national-level numbers and comparative death rates, call it a day. It’s not a stance that will win many over; it’s too easy to wave away blanket-statements saying they “aren’t true for *my* city or neighborhood.”
I’m going to unpack the data comparing some Minneapolis neighborhoods to suburbs to answer the question: Does living in a city and driving much less (or not at all), with all the crime that may come with it, outweigh the safety benefits of avoiding crime?
As I said earlier, there’s some heavy perception bias and willingness to ignore some data, on both sides. Living in a ‘safe’ suburb doesn’t mean you’ll never experience crime, and living in a city doesn’t exempt you from motor vehicle deaths or injury (or driving to the suburbs). Living in the suburbs doesn’t mean you’ll never ever visit the dangerous city and avoid that mugging – many work or party or catch sports or visit friends in the city from time to time.
I can’t evaluate that level of nuance with the data available, so I’ll only compare rates for driving and crime within each area. Side note, I’m using data from a bit of research I did over a year ago when I had this exact conversation with my father. I actually broke down crime by Minneapolis neighborhood and only included much of Southwest Minneapolis (right) and compared against what I would call “mostly safe” suburbs: Lakeville (my hometown), Burnsville, Prior Lake, Savage, Bloomington, Eden Prairie, Chaska, and Eagan. Go ahead and accuse me of cherry-picking nice Minneapolis neighborhoods with low crime. However:
My chosen Minneapolis zone includes several neighborhoods with concentrated areas of poverty, whereas the suburbs I picked are almost entirely without poverty. Additionally, my Minneapolis neighborhoods have a collective crime rate just 15% below the Minneapolis average. Anyone who knows the metro would say the suburbs I chose lean toward the rich and desirable side, so I’d say the comparison is apt to be in the suburbs’ favor (as a broad point, the median household income for Minneapolis was $45,000, the selected suburb average $75,000). They’re also not overly rural, so they won’t see as many super-high death rates from notoriously dangerous rural roads (though parts of Prior Lake, Lakeville, and Chaska do fall in this category).
I pulled crash rates from MN DPS by city to get a rate per person. This was only 2012 data, and given the small numbers (relative to crime rates) it would have been better to smooth it out using the average of a few years, but again, I don’t feel like it. I used an average of Minneapolis bicycle and pedestrian (non-occupant) death/injury rates and cross-referenced it with city data. I pulled 2 years worth of neighborhood crime data from 2011–2012 for Minneapolis and used CityData for the suburbs.
I wanted to understand the risk of death as well as the risk of death+injury. Deaths are easy: homicide or crash death (no suicides). Injury is more difficult, but I basically include any car-related injuries and rape, robbery, & aggravated assault for criminal injuries. If I were to guess, I’d say the average car-related injury is more serious (medical cost, bodily trauma, etc) than a criminal event, costs more (car damage deductible/etc vs any property loss), but I don’t have the data to back that up.
So, assuming you live in one of those (slightly safer than average) Minneapolis neighborhoods and never drive, you’re basically just as likely to die in a year as a person living in a suburb driving the average amount. Drive the average rate in Minneapolis and the suburbs beat you out. If you’re looking to avoid injury, even going car-free is still technically more dangerous than living in those suburbs.
Could someone live in Minneapolis and rarely, if ever drive? Yes. 19.7% of our households don’t have cars (though many may borrow one to get to work). 42% of our residents work in the city (with another 10% working in nearby St Paul). 55% work within 5 miles of their home.
It’s important to point out what was left out. Crime rates are dropping much faster in core cities relative to suburbs, nationwide. I suspect this is true in MSP. Teen suicide rates are inversely correlated with population density (which has been hitting home in Lakeville recently). There are long-term health effects from car-dependent lifestyles on children and adults. There are positive health/risk outcomes with quality cycling infrastructure bringing more users. Vehicle particulate emissions cause 55,000 premature deaths per year nationwide (exacerbated where highways run through urban areas).
Point being, urban areas could make up the gap with better street designs that we know are relatively inexpensive and have huge returns on safety. Retrofitting completely auto-dependent areas in suburbs will be much more challenging. Suburban crime is holding flat to rising while cities’ crime rates are dropping quickly. Better transit and vehicle electrification will make urban air quality better. If you’re taking the 30 year view, it is my opinion that Minneapolis/St Paul living is a far healthier and less risky environment than a typical MSP suburb.
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