AUTO-FREE LIVABLE CITIES GUIDE
by Michael Lewyn
I. Why this site?
After reading Rand McNally and numerous other “livable city” ratings, I decided to create my own. But this is a livable city guide with a difference: one that answers the simple question “where can I function without a car and still feel relatively safe?” Specifically, I rate American cities based on various indica of transit/pedestrian-friendliness and on their crime rates.
As you can see, this method of calculation works equally well for any unit for which crime statistics and transit usage statistics are available – that is, units ranging from metropolitan areas to the smallest suburban municipalities (although not for most unincorporated suburbs or for neighborhoods within a city, since crime statistics are rarely available for them).
II. How I calculate
A. Crime (50% of rating)
Half of my rating is based on grades for two indicia of crime: (1) murder rates and (2) robbery rates (both for 2001 unless otherwise noted). The latter is a good index of random violence because robbery, to a much greater extent than any other violent crime, typically involves strangers. I use murder because murders are more frequently reported to the police than any other crime. (I didn’t use property crimes because the most serious property crime, burglary, tends to be higher in sprawling, auto-oriented cities – so as far as I am concerned burglary rates just duplicate the transit statistics below).
Crime statistics are based on FBI crime statistics at www.fbi.gov
B. Transportation (50% of rating)
I use three statistics to calcluate the ease of pedestrian/transit commuting:
1) % of workers using transit as a % of poverty rate (from the 2000 Census). Why is poverty a factor? Because I don’t want to give high grades to places where people use transit because they are too poor to own cars. So if 10% of commuters in your city use transit, and the city has a 25% poverty rate, your transit/poverty ratio is 40% (which as explained below equals a C-). In addition, anyplace where over half of all commuters use transit gets an A; I put in this statistic to reflect the unique breadth of New York City’s transit system.
2) total transit market share (since if I only use (1) it leads to absurd results in dealing with low-poverty suburbs, e.g. if a suburb has 1% transit use and 1% poverty).
3) % of commuters walking to work. This factor captures not only the walkability of a city, but also the health of its downtown, since most suburban business districts are not particularly walkable. Also, using this statistic allows my ratings to reflect the virtues of small towns (which tend to have no public transit but are too small to need very much of it, and which therefore have lots of walkers)
(1), (2) and (3) are based on the 2000 census, which you can find at www.census.gov
I then assign letter grades as follows:
Murder: 0=A, up to 2.5 per 100,000 residents = A minus, 2.5-5 = B plus, 5-10 = B, 10-15= B minus, 15-20 = C plus, 20-25 = C, 25-30 = C-, 30-35= D+, 35-40 = D, 40-50 = D-, over 50 = F
Robbery: 0-50 per 100,000 people = A, 50-100 per 100,000 = A-, 100-200 = B plus, 200-300 = B, 300-400= B minus, 400-500 = C plus, 500-600 = C, 600-700 = C minus, 700-800 = D plus, 800-1000 = D, 1000-1100 = D minus, over 1100 = F
Transit market share as percent of poverty rate = under 5% of poverty rate = F, 5-10% = D-, 10-20% = D, 20-33% = D+, 33-50% = C-, 50-75% = C, 75-100% = C+, 100-125% = B-, 125-175% = B, 175-200% = B+, 200%-250%=A-, over 250% -A.
Transit market share, period = under 1% = F, 1-3%= D-, 3-7%= D, 7-10% = D+, 10-14%= C-, 14-17% = C, 17-20%= C+, 20-25% = B-, 25-30% = B, 30-40% = B+, 40-50% = A-, 50 or over = A.
Percent of commuters walking to work: under 1% = F, 1-2% = D-, 2-3% = D, 3-4% = D+-, 4-5% = C-, 5-6%= C, 6-7% = C+, 7-8% = B-, 8-10%= B, 10-11%=B+, 11-12%=A-, 12% or over = A.
Then I average the grades (assuming as follows: F= 55, D- = 62, D = 65, D plus = 68, etc. up to A, which is 95)
For example, in 2001 Boston had about 11 murders per 100,000 residents (giving it a B- on that criterion) and just over 400 robberies per 100,000 (a C+). So its crime score is 80 (the average of B- and C+).
Boston has a 32.3% transit market share and a 19.5% poverty rate, for a transit/poverty ratio of 165% (or a B) and a transit market share score of 32.3% (a B+). 13% of Bostonians walk to work – the best of any large city, and thus an A. These grades averaged together equal 89.3.
So when I just I average Boston’s crime and transit scores, I get a 84.6, not quite the best in the nation but pretty close.
One caveat: cities that have annexed a lot of suburban territory (e.g. Phoenix) have lower than average crime rates and lower than average transit use, because suburbs tend to have less of both.
C. Why only these variables?
I thought about trying to find some measure of the stress of living in a city as big as NYC, but I decided not to because everyone has different tastes in this matter, and since I have never lived anyplace bigger than DC I am not sure what mine are. I decided climate was just too subjective to rate; I didn’t feel comfortable rating the climate of anyplace I had not lived. Economic climate varies from year to year to a much greater extent than crime or auto dependency, so I decided not to rate that variable. Cost of living may or may not be reflected in one’s wages, so I decided not to rate that either (plus to some extent you get what you pay for – i.e. people want to live in San Francisco who might not want to live in Detroit, and thus bid up San Francisco prices).. Cultural amenities tend to track size and transit use pretty well. And besides, if you want to throw in added variables, all you need do is take the rankings in the latest Rand McNally cities guide, assign letter grades to THEM, and presto! – you have your own ratings system that includes jobs, cost of living, etc.
D. The ratings
I decided to start off with a few dozen of America’s largest cities; metro area statistics are harder to find, because the Census has not yet released some of them. Some day when I have a little more spare time, I will start working on suburbs and smaller cities.
The results (drum roll please) - my most livable cities are Boston and New York (Boston if Sept. 11 murders considered part of NYC’s murder rate, NYC otherwise). The worst was Detroit (no surprise there). Generally, western cities did better than I would have suspected, midwestern cities a bit worse.
Grades in order are: murder/robbery/transit poverty ratio/transit use/walking to work.
Mass.- Boston B-/C+/B/B+/A 84.6
Md.- Baltimore D/D/C+/C+/B- 72.1
DC- Washington D-/D+-/B/B+/A- 76.6
NY- NYC has two separate scores. If the Sept. 11 terrorism victims is NOT counted as part of the murder rate, the city’s grades are as follows: B/B-/A-/A/B+ 87.6 (best among big cities) If the Sept. 11 murders ARE counted as part of the city’s murder rate, grades are as follows: F/B-/A-/A/B+ 80.1
Buffalo C/C/C-/C-/C 74
Pa- Philadelphia C/C-/B-/B/B 78.7
Pittsburgh C+/C+/B-/B-/B 80.5
Va- Virginia Beach B+/A-/D/F//D 75.8
NC- Charlotte B-/C/D+/D/D- 71.7
Ga.- Atlanta D+/D-/C/C/D+ 68.8
Fla.- Jacksonville B-/B/D-/D-/D- 72.7
Miami C+/D+/C-/C-/D+ 71.8
La.- New Orleans D-/C/C-/C-/C 70.7
Tn.- Memphis C/C-/D/D/D- 69.2
Nashville B-/C+/D/D-/D 72
Texas- Austin B+/B+/D+/D/D 77 (least worst in South)
Dallas C/D+/D+/D/D- 68.2
El Paso B+/B+/D/D-/D 76
Ft. Worth B-/B/D-/D-/D- 72.7
Houston B-/C/D+/D/D overall rating 72.2
San Antonio B/B+/D+/D/D 76.2
MIDWEST Ohio- Cincinatti C+/C-/C-/C-/C 74
Cleveland C+/D+/C-/C-/C- 72.5
Columbus B-/C+/D+/D/D+ 73.5
Toledo B/C+-/D/D-/D 72.7
Ind.- Indianapolis C+/B-/D+/D-/D 72.5
Ill- Chicago C/C-/B-/B/C 77.1
Michigan- Detroit D-/D+/C-/D+/D= 66.6 (worst in nation)
Wisconsin- Milwaukee C/C+/C-/C-/C- 73.5
Minnesota- Minneapolis B-/C/C+/C/C+ 77.7
Missouri- KC C/C/D+/D/D 70.5
St. Louis D-/D/C-/C-/C- 67.7 (second worst)
Nebraska- Omaha B/B/D/D-/D 74.5
Oklahoma- Tulsa B/B+/D-/D-/D 74.2
Oklahoma City- B/B/F/D-/D- 72.3
Colorado- Denver B/B/C/D+/C- 78.3
NM- Albuquerque- B/B-/D/D-/D 73.7
Arizona- Phoenix B-/B-/D+/D/D 73
Tuscon B/B-/D/D/D+ 74.7
Washington- Seattle B+/B/B-/C+/B- 82.5
Oregon- Portland B+/B/C+/C-/C 80.7
Hawaii- Honolulu B/B/C+/C/C+ 80.5
California- Fresno B/B-/D-/D-/D 72.7
LA C+/C+/C-/C/D+ 74.8
Long Beach B-/B-/D+/D/D 74
Oakland C/C/C+/C+//D+ 74.8
Sacramento B/B-/D+/D/D 74.7
San Diego B+/B=/D+/D/D+ 77.5
San Francisco B/C+/A/B+/B 85.4
San Jose B+/A-/C-/D/D- 78.1
Michael Lewyn teaches Property, Torts and numerous other subjects at John Marshall Law School in Atlanta, Ga. Before entering teaching in 2000, he practiced law in Washington, DC, Buffalo, N.Y. and Cleveland, Ohio. He has authored websites about Cleveland, Buffalo and Atlanta. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org