Let’s Talk Safety

I came across this Family Friendly Cities blog post the other day, and of course I’m inclined to agree with the general consensus. 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:

I’m sure there are other items people consider; proximity to at least one household member’s job, preference for suburban shopping, whatever. 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. It’s really surprising that America suffers 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:

U.S._traffic_deaths_as_fraction_of_total_population_1900-2010.. driving is still the leading cause of injury deaths for almost all age groups:

Source: CDC
Source: CDC

Maybe we ignore it because we all think we’re above average drivers. Maybe we just really like the utility of driving a climate controlled vehicle and free parking and weigh that benefit against the risk of dying or injury and the costs associated of owning/operating family cars (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 any pro-suburbs folk over, because there’s so much perception bias and an ingrained culture that some blanket-statements “aren’t true for MY city/neighborhood/etc.”

I’m going to unpack the data comparing some Minneapolis neighborhoods to suburbs to test it out. Does living in a city and driving much less (or not at all), with all the crime that may come of it, outweigh the safety benefits of avoiding crime.

The Method

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 the crossover, so I’ll only compare rates for driving and crime within each area. As a 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:

MplsCrimeEvalArea

..and comparing 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. If I had more time, I’d do this ‘hood by ‘hood to prove a point, but I’m lazy. Plus:

met-council-2011-RCAPS-500x384

My zone includes plenty of 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 in the suburbs’ favor (as a broad point, the median household income for Minneapolis was $45,000 to the 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 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 neighborhood crime data for 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 make no distinctions.

Here’s my results (I will happily give up my spreadsheet if anyone wants):

Crime_Car_FinalCompare

So, assuming you live in one of those (slightly safer than average) Minneapolis neighborhoods and never drive, you’re exactly 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. My family’s lifestyle is the one noted on the top line: we’re driving at a 5,000 total mile per year rate, less than 1/4 that of a typical American household.

Could someone live in Minneapolis and rarely, if ever drive? Yes. I mean, 19.7% of our households don’t have cars (though many may borrow ones 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.

Missing Pieces

It’s important to point out what was left out (without deeper analysis, sorry!). Crime rates are dropping much faster in core cities relative to suburbs, nationwide. I suspect this is true in MSP. Teen suicide rates track closely with population density (which has been hitting home in Lakeville recently). Long-term health effects of car-dependent lifestyles for children and adults. Positive health/risk outcomes with quality cycling infrastructure bringing more users. 55,000 premature deaths a year thanks to particulate matter from all the driving we do (exacerbated where highways run through urban areas).

Point being, urban areas could make up the safety gap with better street design and less car use, whereas retrofitting completely auto-dependent areas in suburbs will be much more challenging. Suburban crime is holding flat to rising while cities 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 humble opinion that Minneapolis/St Paul living is a far healthier and less-risky environment than a typical MSP suburb.

Anyway, to the tens of readers who clicked through to this post and made it this far, good job, and thanks for reading!

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