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Auto-Free Livable Cities Guide
By Michael Lewyn

UPDATED: 1-11-08(2006 crime statistics used)

 

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. 

In particular, this page rates cities which one of us considers sufficiently major to research- admittedly a somewhat arbitrary criterion, but one which includes almost all of the largest cities and a few mid-sized cities as well.

My method can be applied to 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, or 1/3 if you include cost of living)

Half of my rating is based on grades for three indicia of crime: (1) murder rates, (2) robbery rates and (3) burglary rates (all for 2006).  I picked burglary because it is the most serious property crime, robbery because robbery, to a much greater extent than any other violent crime, typically involves strangers (and is therefore evidence of the extent of random violent crime), and murder because murders are more frequently reported to the police than any other crime. Crime statistics are based on FBI crime statistics at www.fbi.gov

B.  Transportation (50% of rating, or 1/3 if you include cost of living)

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-).

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

Burglary: under 400 per 100,000 = A, 400-600 = A-, 600-800= B+, 800-1000 = B, 1000-1200 = B-, 1200-1400 = C+, 1400-1600 = C, 1600-1800 = C-, 1800-2000 = D+, 2000-2200 = D, 2200-2400 = D-, over 2400 = 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).  All grades are rounded up or down to the nearest point.

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.

Also, there are a couple of types of cities that I have tried to avoid rating: poor satellite cities (e.g. Newark, NJ) because I suspect if there are criminals there, they are committing a lot of crimes in other jurisdictions, thus making such places seem safer than they really are. (Newark has a high murder rate but a low rate of other crimes, which does not smell right to me).

C.  Cost of living (1/3 if you count it)

I have huge reservations about rating cities on cost of living, for a few reasons.  First, I can't find good statistics on cities, so I have to use statistics for metro areas as a whole (most of which are suburban).  So the statistics aren't that accurate; often, cities will be either much less expensive or much more expensive than their suburbs.  Second, regional cost of living statistics give an unfair advantage to more dangerous cities, since they include dangerous neighborhoods where no rational person would want to live. (Or to put it another way- if you threw out the bad areas, a relatively dangerous city like Atlanta or Washington would seem much more expensive, but the impact on Portland, Maine would be much more limited). Third, you get what you pay for- expensive cities are expensive because they are desirable (e.g. more walkable and safer than other large cities).  Having said that, a lot of readers have told me that they want cost of living information.

So I am rating based on the National Association of Homebuilders' most recent (3rd quarter 2007) housing cost statistics for metro areas, as follows:

1.5-1 (or lower) ratio between median home price and median family income = A+ (e.g. if median family income is $50K, median home price is 75K or lower)

2-1 to 1.5-1: A

between 2.5-1 and 2-1: A-

between 3-1 and 2.5-1: B+

between 3.5-1 and 3-1: B

between 4-1 and 3.5-1: B-

between 4.5-1 and 4-1: C+

between 5-1 and 4.5-1: C

between 6-1 and 5-1: C-

between 7-1 and 6-1: D+

between 8-1 and 7-1: D

between 9-1 and 8-1: D-

over 9-1: F

D.  What I didn't rate

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 simply did not 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.  (And frankly, if I have a job, I am not sure that the economic strength of the region affects a place's day-to-day livability -- especially for people like myself, whose work forces me to switch metropolitan areas when I switch jobs).

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.

III. The winners and losers

A. A brief summary

Without cost of living- The big winners were NYC (90.7), Boston (86), Ann Arbor (85.2) and San Francisco (85). No other city scored over 83. Most of the other cities scoring over 80 were in the Northeast, with the exceptions of Chicago, Madison, Seattle, Portland and Honolulu.

The losers were mostly in the South, with the exception of two crime-ridden Rust Belt cities (St. Louis and Detroit). The worst major city, Birmingham, clocked in at 65.2, followed by Memphis (65.5), Detroit (66.1), St. Louis and Jackson (66.8). Also worthy of dishonorable mention (in the 67-68 range) are Baton Rouge, Macon, and Little Rock.

With cost of living- Since people pay a premium for safety and walkability, cost of living upended the standings: prosperous cities like NY and Boston nosedived, while less affluent Southern cities gained. But the winner was in neither category: Ann Arbor clocked the competition at 86.7, with Pittsburgh and Madison a fairly distant second (84.5). Syracuse finished a respectable fourth (83.8).

Similarly, cost of living upended the standings at the bottom as well: every city scoring below a 73 was either in California or Florida, with Oakland (70.3) at the bottom, followed by Orlando (71.5), Miami (72.3), and Sacramento (72.4). These cities were mediocre in other respects and dragged down by home prices.

B.  The ratings themselves

(IN ORDER: murder rate/robbery rate/burglary rate transit as % of poverty rate/transit market share/ % walk to work)

NORTHEAST:

Maine: Portland B+/B/B/D+/D/B 79.3 without cost of living

Cost of living B

With cost of living 81.2

New Hampshire- Manchester B+/B+/B+/D/D-/D 76 without cost of living

cost of living B

with cost of living 79

Concord A/A/A/D/D-/C- 80.2 (no cost of living data available)

Mass.- Boston B-/C+/B+/B/B+/A 86 w/o cost of living

cost of living C

Grade with cost of living 82.3

Springfield B/C+/C/D+/D/C 74.3 without cost of living

cost of living B+

with cost of living 78.8

Conn.- Hartford C+/C-/B/C/C+/C 77.2 w/o cost of living

cost of living B+

with cost of living 80.8

RI- Providence B/B/B/D+/D+/A 81 w/o cost of living

cost of living B-

with cost of living 81.3

Md.- Baltimore D-/C-/B-/C+/C+/B- 75.7 w/o cost of living

cost of living B-

with cost of living 77.8

Delaware: Wilmington C-/D+/C+/C/C-/B- 74.5 without cost of living

cost of living B

with cost of living 78

DC- Washington C-/C-/B+/B/B+/A-  82.3 w/o cost of living

cost of living C+

with cost of living 80.8

New York-  Albany B/C+/B-/C/C-/B+ 80 without cost of living

Cost of living B+

With cost of living 82.7

New York City B/B/A//A-/A/A- 90.7 (No. 1 w/o cost of living)

Cost of living D-

with cost of living 81.2

Buffalo C-/C-/C/C-/C-/C 73 w/o cost of living

cost of living A

with cost of living 80.3

Rochester C/C-/C+/D+/D+/C+ 73.2

cost of living A With cost of living 80.4

Syracuse B/B-/C+/D+/D+/B+ 78.2

cost of living A

with cost of living 83.8

Pa- Philadelphia C-/D+/B+/B-/B/B 80 w/o cost of living

Cost of living B-

with cost of living 80.7

Pittsburgh C+/C/B-/B-/B-/B 80.7 w/o cost of living

cost of living A-

with cost of living 84.5

Harrisburg C/D/C_/C-/D+/B 73.8 without cost of living

cost of living A-

with cost of living 79.8

SOUTH

Va- Virginia Beach B+/B+/A-/D/F/D 75.5 w/o cost of living

Cost of living B- (Since Va Bch and Norfolk are twin cities they are rated together by NAHB)

With cost of living 77.7

Norfolk B-/C+/B+/D+/D/C+ 75.5 w/o cost of living

Cost of living B-

With cost of living 77.8

Richmond D/C/B-/C-/D+/C- 72.3 w/o cost of living

Cost of living B

With cost of living 76.3

NC- Charlotte B-/C+/D+/D+/D/D- 70.5 w/o cost of living

Cost of living B+

With cost of living 76.3

Greensboro B-/B-/C-/D-/D/D 71.3 without cost of living

cost of living A-

with cost of living 78.2

Winston-Salem B-/B-/D/D-/D/D 70.2 without cost of living

cost of living A-

with cost of living 77.5

Durham B/C+/C/D+/D/D+ 73.2 w/o cost of living

Cost of living B+

With cost of living 78

Raleigh B/B/B/D+/D-/D 75 w/o cost of living

Cost of living B

With cost of living 79.2

SC- Columbia B/B-/B-/D/D/A 79 w/o cost of living

(no cost of living statistics available)

Charleston C/B/B+/D/D/C+ 76 w/o cost of living

Cost of living B-

With cost of living 78

Alabama- Birmingham  D-/C-/D/D/D-/D  65.2 (no cost of living statistics available)

Mississippi- Jackson C/C/D/D-/D-/D- 66.8

no cost of living figures available

Louisiana: Baton Rouge C-/C+/D+/D-/D-/D+ 68.3

(no cost of living figures available)

Ga.- Atlanta C/C-/C/C/C/D+ 73.3 w/o cost of living

Cost of living B+ (NOTE: this is an example of the silliness of rating entire metro areas; safe, close-in areas of Atlanta are much more expensive- but I work with the numbers I can find, not the numbers you'd like to find...)

With cost of living 77.2

Athens-Clarke Cty B+/B+/B-/D-/D-/C- 76

no cost of living figures available

Macon B-/B-/F/D/D-/D 68.5 (no cost of living statistics available)

Florida- Jacksonville B-/B/C+/D-/D-/D- 72 w/o cost of living

Cost of living B

With cost of living 76.3

Miami C+/C/B-/C-/C-/D+ 74.5 w/o cost of living

Cost of living D+

With cost of living 72.3 

Orlando C-/D+/C-/D+/D/D- 68.3 w/o cost of living

Cost of living C+

With cost of living 71.5

Gainesville B/B/C+/D/D/C 75.5 w/o cost of living

Cost of living B

With cost of living 78.7

Tallahassee B/B/C+/F/D-/D 70 without cost of living

Cost of living B+

76 with cost of living

Tampa B/B-/C+/D/D-/D  72.8 w/o cost of living

Cost of living B-  (same for St. Petersburg because of twin cities relationship)

With cost of living 75.8

St. Petersburg B/B/C+/D+/D-/D 72.7

Cost of living B-

With cost of living 75.8

Kentucky- Lexington B+/B+/B/D/D-/D+ 76 (no cost of living figures available)

Louisville/Jefferson County

B/B/B-/D+/D/D- 74.5 without cost of living

Cost of living A-

With cost of living 80.2

Tennessee- Knoxville B/B/C+/D-/D-/C- 74.2 without cost of living

Cost of living B+

With cost of living 78.8

Memphis C/D+/F/D/D/D- 65.5 without cost of living

Cost of living B+

With cost of living 72.7

Nashville B-/C+/B-/D/D-/D 72.7 (no cost of living statistics available)

Arkansas- Little Rock D+/C+/D/D+/D/D- 67.6 (no cost of living statistics available)

Texas- Austin B+/B+/B-/D+/D/D 76.5 w/o cost of living

Cost of living B+

With cost of living 80.2

Dallas C+/C/C-/D+/D/D- 70 w/o cost of living

Cost of living B+

With cost of living 76

Ft. Worth B/B/C/D-/D-/D- 72.5 w/o cost of living

Cost of living B+

With cost of living 78

Houston C+/C/C+/D+/D/D 71.5 w/o cost of living

Cost of living B

With cost of living 76

San Antonio B/B+/B-/D+/D/D 75.5 w/o cost of living

Cost of living B

With cost of living 78.7

MIDWEST

Ohio- Cincinnati C-/D+/D+/C-/C-/C 71.2 w/o cost of living

Cost of living A-

With cost of living 78.2

Cleveland C/D/D/C-/C-/C- 70.2 w/o cost of living

Cost of living A

With cost of living 78.5

Columbus B-/C+/D/D+/D/D+ 71 w/o cost of living

Cost of living A-

With cost of living 78

Toledo B-/C+/D-/D/D-/D 70 w/o cost of living

Cost of living A

With cost of living 78.3

Dayton C/C/D-/D+/D+/C 71.5 w/o cost of living

Cost of living A-

With cost of living 78.3

Ind.- Indianapolis C+/C+/C/D+/D-/D 71 w/o cost of living

Cost of living A

With cost of living 79

South Bend B-/C/D+/D/D-/D 69.5 w/o cost of living

(no cost of living statistics available)

Ill- Chicago C+/C/B/B-/B/C 80 w/o cost of living

Cost of living B-

With cost of living 80.7

Michigan- Detroit D-/D/D/C-/D+/D= 66.1 w/o cost of living

Cost of living A

With cost of living 75.8

Ann Arbor A/A-/A-/C-/D/A 85.2 w/o cost of living

Cost of living B+

With cost of living 86.2

Lansing B/B/B-/D/D-/D 74 w/o cost of living

Cost of living A

With cost of living 81

Grand Rapids B-/B-/C+/D/D-/C- 73.5 w/o cost of living

Cost of living A-

With cost of living 79.7

Wisconsin- Milwaukee C+/C-/B/C-/C-/C- 75.7 w/o cost of living

Cost of living B+

With cost of living 81.2

Madison A-/B+/B+/C-/D+/B+ 82.7 without cost of living

cost of living B+

With cost of living 84.5

Minnesota- Minneapolis C+/D/C/C+/C/C+ 74.7 w/o cost of living

Cost of living B

With cost of living 78.2

St. Paul B/B-/C+/C/D+/C 77.2 w/o cost of living

Cost of living B (same as Mpls due to twin cities relationship)

With cost of living 79.7

Missouri- Kansas City  C-/C+/C-/D+/D/D 71 w/o cost of living

No cost of living figures available

St. Louis D/D/F/C-/C-/C- 66.8 w/o cost of living

Cost of living A

With cost of living 75.2

Iowa- Des Moines B+/B+/B-/D/D-/D 75

no cost of living figures available

Kansas- Topeka B/B/C+/D/D-/D- 72.8

no cost of living figures available

Nebraska- Omaha B/B/B+/D/D-/D 75

no cost of living figures available

Lincoln A-/A-/B+/D/D-/D+ 77.8

no cost of living figures available

Oklahoma- Tulsa B-/B/C-/D-/D-/D 72 w/o cost of living

Cost of living B+

With cost of living 77.3

Oklahoma City- B-/B/C-/F/D-/D 70.2 w/o cost of living

Cost of living A-

With cost of living 78.8

THE WEST

Colorado- Denver B/B/B-/C/D+/C- 77.8 w/o cost of living

Cost of living B

With cost of living 80.2

NM- Albuquerque- B/B/C+/D/D-/D 73.3 w/o cost of living

Cost of living B-

With cost of living 76.2

Idaho- Boise B+/A-/A-/D/D-/D 77.3 w/o cost of living

Cost of living C+

With cost of living 77.5

Utah- Salt Lake City B+/B/C+/C-/D/C- 76.5 w/o cost of living

Cost of living C+

With cost of living 77

Provo A-/A/A-/D-/D-/A 83 w/o cost of living

Cost of living C-

With cost of living 79.3

Arizona- Phoenix C+/B/B-/D+/D/D 73.8 w/o cost of living

Cost of living C+

With cost of living 75.2

Tempe B+/B/B-/D+/D/C- 76.7 without cost of living (part of Phoenix metro area, so cost of living same as Phoenix, which means overall score w/cost of living is 77.2)

Tuscon B/B-/B/D/D/D+ 75 w/o cost of living

Cost of living C+

With cost of living 76

Washington- Seattle B/B/C+/B-/C+/B- 81.7 w/o cost of living

Cost of living C

With cost of living 78.5

Spokane B/B+/B-/D+/D/D+ 75.7 w/o cost of living

Cost of living B

With cost of living 78.7

Oregon- Portland B+/B/B-/C+/C-/C 80 w/o cost of living

Cost of living C+

With cost of living 79.3

Eugene A-/B+/B-/D+/D/C+ 78.8 w/o cost of living

Cost of living C+

With cost of living 78.5

4>Salem B/A-/B+/D+/D/D+ 77.6 w/o cost of living

Cost of living B-

With cost of living 79.1

Neveda- Las Vegas B-/C+/B-/C-/D/D 74 w/o cost of living

Cost of living C+

With cost of living 75.3

California- Fresno B-/B/B/D-/D-/D 73.5 w/o cost of living

Cost of living C-

With cost of living 73

Los Angeles B-/B-/B+/C-/C/D+ 78.5 w/o cost of living

Cost of living D-

With cost of living 73

Oakland D/D/C+/C+/C+//D+ 72 w/o cost of living

Cost of living D+

With cost of living 70.3

Sacramento B-/C+/C+/D+/D/D 72.7 w/o cost of living

Cost of living C-

With cost of living 72.4

San Diego B+/B+/B+/D+/D/D+ 77.5 w/o cost of living

Cost of living D+

With cost of living 74.3

San Francisco B-/C/B/A/B+/B 85 w/o cost of living

Cost of living D-

With cost of living 77.3

San Jose B+/A-/A-/C-/D/D- 78.5 w/o cost of living

Cost of living C-

With cost of living 76.3

Alaska- Anchorage B/B+/B+/D+/D-/D 76

Cost of living B

With cost of living 79

Hawaii- Honolulu (crime/transportation statistics for Honolulu County) A-/B+/B+/C+/D+/C 81.5 without cost of living

Cost of living C-

78.3 with cost of living

IV. College towns: A comparison

Most of the listings above are far larger cities. Since I am an academic I decided to get statistics for a small few college towns and compare them. Some of the towns (most notably Iowa City) give the big cities a run for their money. (Please note the absence of cost of living statistics, since NAHB's listings were made primarily for larger cities).

Bristol, RI A/A/A/D+/D-/C 81.7

Ithaca, NY A/A-/A-/D/D+/A 84.5

State College, PA B+/A/A/D/D+/A 84.3

Morgantown, WV B+/B+/B/F/D/A 77.2

Charlottesville, VA B/B+/B/D/D/A 80.5

Lexington, VA A/A/A/F/F/A 81.7

Williamburg, VA C-/A-/A/D-/D-/A 79.6

Tuscaloosa, AL C+/B/C+/F/F/C- 70

Oxford, MS A/A/B+/F/F/D+ 76

Fayetteville, AR A/A-/B/D-/D-/C- 78

Ada, OH A/A/A/F/F/A 81.8

Bloomington, IN A-/A-/B/D/D-/A 81.8

Valparaiso, IN A/A/A-/D/F/B- 80.7

Champaign, IL B/B+/B-/D+/D/A 80.5

Carbondale, IL B/B/B+/D-/D/B+ 77.1

Iowa City, IA A/A-/A-/C-/D+/A 85.6

(one of the best in the country if you count it with big cities!) Grand Forks, ND A-/A/A-/D-/D-/C- 79.2

Vermillion, SD A/A/A/F/F/A 81.7

Lawrence, KS B+/A-/B+/D-/D-/B- 79.4

Moscow, ID A/A/A/F/D-/A 82.8

Provo, UT A-/A/A-/D-/D-/A

Palo Alto, CA A/A-/B+/C/D+/D 83.2

bknhts.jpg

Brooklyn Heights- a neighborhood in this year's winner, New York City.