On Tuesday, a commenter listed whether a bus stops at “stabtastic” 3rd and Pike as one reason to drive.  Having recently reviewed some Seattle crime data, this seems like it might be more a case of trusting feelings and media more than data.  Yes, 3rd and Pike doesn’t “feel” safe.  But downtown actually is quite safe.  Let’s start with this Trulia heat map of crime:

 

Not pretty for downtown, right?  But you have to keep in mind there are more people downtown than elsewhere.  A map of people with brown pants might look similar, yet walking downtown has nothing to do with the color of your pants – there are just more pairs of pants downtown than elsewhere.  Also an interesting map on Trulia, check out the ratio of violent to nonviolent crime:

Downtown is all but gray, meaning a very low proportion of crime is violent.  Surprising, given the stereotypes of highly urban areas.  Clicking on SpotCrime’s map of 3rd and Pike, most of the “crimes” listed nearby were actually arrests*.

These Trulia maps are great, but they don’t quite get at what we want to know: how safe am I walking down the street?  Ideally, we’d have a pedestrian count for every sidewalk at different times of day, and we can compare that number with the number of crimes.  The lower the crime/person ratio, the safer that stretch of sidewalk is.  However, I’m not aware of a good census-mapped count of pedestrians. 

So here’s what I’ve done.  I took census data on population, and census data on employment, and compared it to crime data.  My hope is that if you count the number of residents in an area and the number of employees in an area, you can use this as a rough comparative guide for how many people are on the street at any given time.  It certainly won’t be perfect – it will tend to overcount pedestrians in car-dependant areas and undercount them in walkable areas, but it’s a start.  Here are the maps I created:

Violent Crime
Non-violent Crime

Other than the International District and perhaps Pioneer Square, downtown doesn’t look that much different than the rest of the city.

Methodology:

The Seattle Police Department only has census-level crime data from 2007.  Apparently they have better things to do than update maps, but I won’t complain.  So I used 2000 census data for both population and employment, since that’s the data they would have used at the time plus I wanted to avoid issues with a change in census tracts in the 2010 data set.  I’m fine with losing the freshest data, since the conclusion would be the same.  The charts represent crimes / (population + employment) for each census tract.  I considered violent crimes to be murder, rape, robbery, and aggrivated assault.  For Violent Crimes the color groups are <.004, <.008, <.012, <.016, <.02.  Non-Violent Crimes groups are <.06, <.12, <.17, <.23, <.29.

* Within a few blocks the 11 non-violent crimes consisted of 8 arrests, 1 car break-in, 2 accounts of shoplifting

55 Replies to “The Myth of Downtown Crime”

  1. The correlation between pants and crime may not tell the tale, but looking a little deeper would reveal that the position of where the pants are worn on the hip would reveal an entirely different story, regardless of the color.
    Some studies have shown the pants with mostly pocket change in them are much lower than those only filled with folding money. Also, belts or no-belts must be factored in.
    We need more data.

  2. 3rd and Pike, one of the largest concentrations of people anywhere in the city, big reason would be the number of buses that take off from there. This block has also been a hang-out corner for decades and it doesn’t ‘look safe’. I tend to avoid it mostly due to the concentration of smoke. But I have a friend who lost her eyesight,who is not bothered by smoke, and her opinion of the corner is that folk have been very kindly towards the ‘old blind lady’. I tend to feel more safer because of the density and I live Downtown.

    But using perceived crime as a reason to drive a car and not use public transportation, is a lame excuse. A woman was killed on First Hill by someone stealing her car. I personally feel less safe in a parking garage or lot than waiting for a bus.

    There are many stops to choose from to catch a bus, some are probably safer than others. But the rider is only on the corner for as long as it takes for the bus to arrive. A smart urban pretty much knows to be alert to your surroundings and chooses the safer spots to wait for a bus – its not that hard. Thanks for the insightful post.

    1. Just a small quibble. The person killed on First hill wasn’t apparently in her car at the time. She fought her attacker over property (her car) which could have just as easily been her purse or phone.

      1. Just to quibble back, she didn’t say the woman was in her car, just that it had to do with her car being stolen (as you also stated).

  3. Downtown also has a highly variable and transient population.

    Example: a bum from Columbia city riding a bus stabs a man visiting from Milwaukee. How can you compare that to a mostly stable neighborhood of residences with little influx?

    1. Ok. A bum from Kent stabs a man from Kent in a neighborhood in Kent. Is the man any less dead?

      1. The point being that in your example and similar ones — all actors local, you can make calculations based on population density.

        But yes, the point you make, however, is that for an individual, he merely wants to know where he is less likely to end up dead.

        That then takes us full circle to the original set of crime statistics that only considers that likelyhood!

      2. Either you’re saying that there are actually more people on the street than predicted using population and employment and therefore more touristy areas should have even lower crime risks than my charts suggest, or I’m not following you.

      3. @Matt

        It kind of works both ways.

        High transient population during day (including office workers) low at night (because of lack of residential housing).

        So, a knifing of a tourist on a bus at 3pm — maybe not unexpected statistically.

        A shooting of young woman at 1:30 am near her Pioneer Square apartment…unusually violent.

  4. Your broader point is spot on, and Seattle is indeed a very safe city by any national standard. I must say, however, that I don’t like comparing ratios of violent to non-violent crime as a way of expressing the safety of a neighborhood. In downtown’s case, I would ALWAYS expect non-violent crime to be much higher because theft (and especially shoplifting) necessarily occur in retail/high value areas, so the ratio between violent/nonviolent doesn’t really contain any meaningful information. Per capita incidence of crime, analyzed comparatively between neighborhoods, is much more important to me. Your original maps show this well, but I don’t think the second Trulia map is useful.

    1. Actually it is not safe in comparison.

      New York City is currently safer according to the FBI cities crime index, with a rank of 259 whereas Seattle is at 150.

      If you look at major Western Washington cities…Tacoma, etc…I believe almost all of them are in the top 100.

      It is really a shame of neglect that the level of crime and violence across WA state has been left to rise so high for so long…

      1. Seattle is very safe when it comes to violent crime. The same 2010 FBI data states that among the 73 U.S. cities with a population of 250,000 or more, Seattle has the 10th lowest murder rate and the 8th lowest rape rate. We do have the 16th HIGHEST rate of property crime, however. I’m not surprised New York is ranked more highly overall, as it’s steadily become a very safe city over the last 30 years. But New York’s murder rate (6.4/100k) is still double Seattle’s (3.1).

        In Washington, Seattle and Spokane (3.0) have the same murder rate, Tacoma has more than double as many murders (7.1), while Kent is indeed 25% safer than Seattle.

      2. Not only is NYC a very safe city these days, but those are the same NYC statistics that a survey of retired cops says are gamed.

        I just moved back home to Seattle after being in DC for about 5 years. In terms of safety on the street, there is just no comparison… Seattle is vastly safer, both according to the data (real) and my gut (perceived). With the exception of a few parts of Rainier Avenue, the worst parts of Seattle are better than about half of DC.

      3. Seattle just doesn’t have as bad of problems with widespread drug use/sales and gangs that many eastern US cities have.

      4. “safe” is misleading in this context. Seattle is very well known for graffiti crime (a large part of property crime), some thing that has gotten way better in new York over the past decades. Does tagging actually make you less safe?

    2. [Zach] I agree with your point about the gray map. This post pretty much started with that grey map, as I thought it was indicating what areas are dangerous . Only looking into the details (not obvious from the page this was borrowed from – it’s just labeled “violent crime”) did it become clear that this was just comparing violent and non-violent crime. They actually go on quite a bit about this gray map, and I’m not sure I agree with their conclusions. From there I developed my own maps looking at data I actually care about. I kept it because it’s still interesting.

  5. With regard to labeling people as “lame” for their reactions I would say perception is reality. One’s perceived notion of safety becomes their reality. It’s a natural self preservation instinct.

    The class consciousness and perceived safety may be a strong issue with people who prefer car travel. It’s not particularly rational but that is human nature. Anecdotally, it is interesting that a significant portion would be willing to consider taking a train/light rail versus driving but would never consider a bus, even an express bus. What is required to change these attitudes is not shame but a patient and methodical public information effort that shows “people like them” successfully utilizing those services and benefiting from them.

  6. Looks like a high concentration of crime in the Rainier Valley. Not the greatest for Light Rail.

    1. The concentration of crime is on and immediately around Rainier (and not all of Rainier, only certain parts). MLK, while not perfect, is much safer.

      1. That’s partly true, but the vast majority of the crime is within typical distance considered TOD walkable.

    2. High crime rates should not prevent a region from receiving top-quality transit service.

      1. Top quality service includes safety – i.e. low to no crime. Have to take care of that pesky crime issue in the South End.

  7. I basically agree with your premise, but I do quibble with using the incidents of crime per capita, rather than an absolute value, as a proxy for “feeling unsafe”. Although the crime rate on a given block tells you how likely you are to be a victim of a crime, it’s the absolute value that tells you how likely you are to be witness to a crime. I suspect a “feeling” of being unsafe has more to do with the amount of crime going on around you, and not necessarily directed at you. Hence, the absolute number is more appropriate.

    To use your analogy of brown pants, if I broke out in hives every time I saw someone with brown pants, downtown really would be one of the worst places for me to walk around.

    1. That’s a valid point. But I’m not afraid of witnessing a crime. I’m afraid of being a victim of one.

    2. Your point is well taken Jeffrey, but the flip side to being more likely to witness a crime is that if you’re a victim of crime you’re more likely to have many witnesses. Depending on the crime this may be cold comfort, but it is something to consider.

      1. You don’t get to choose between no crime and crime. The choice is crime with witnesses or crime without them. If it was as easy as not having crime, I think we’d all choose that.

  8. So, now we know that the people who feel safe waiting for their precious lilly white 34 are deluding themselves that their neighborhood is a safe place to wait for the bus. Really, if more people are waiting for the 7, that justifies more police presence, and so it becomes safer. (Speaking of which, yes, there ought to be more police presence around Rainier Ave bus stops, especially approaching Rainier Beach. Thanks for that awesomely useful chart!)

    SPD has had to undergo a cultural change, from cruiser-based patrols, to alternative modes such as horse patrols, bike patrols, and simple walking/standing beats. There has certainly been a much more visible Manhattan-style standing beat around north downtown since the spate of murders. Cruisers are great for protecting property, but not so much life.

    1. No, we don’t know that… if you had a chart with higher resolution, I feel confident that you’d see that almost all of the crime in those red areas is right on or within a block of Rainier, with very little on or around Seward Park or Wilson.

      Still doesn’t excuse the reluctance to wait at busy, well-lit rail stops on MLK.

      1. I didn’t hear any reluctance to wait at the station. I heard reluctance to wait at the not-as-well-lit-as-it-could-be bus stop around the corner. Transit police ought to take responsibility not just for the station, but the path to transferring.

        Of course, then that raises the question of whether Metro or ST police are responsible, or is there a chain of responsibility … ST at the station, SPD between the stations, and then Metro at the stop?

      2. Those last few words of your post are exactly right, and that’s an absurd situation. It puts into sharp relief the folly of treating a transit system as a separate jurisdiction for policing purposes. SPD should have a unit that specializes in transit, possibly funded by ST and KCM, but SPD should handle all three of those locations.

      3. My impression is that Metro police handle inside Metro buses and facilities, not public spaces at stops. But the customer satisfaction surveys have shown more fear (rationally or not) at stops than on the bus.

        I’ve seen SPD keeping more of an eye on Othello Station, but not so much the transferring bus stops.

  9. So, the question arises, how will SPD pay for everything the federal government will require it to do to fund the police? I certainly hope there is no sales tax increase, as that will only exacerbate the crime problem.

    Seattleites are rather welcoming of property tax increases, and averse to specialty taxes.

    The county could also help out, by funding more transit police, who would carry some of the burden of making sure transit users are safe not just on the bus or train, but getting between transit vehicles at major transfer points. The county still wants to fund more police. Note to county council: Base the funding on something other than a counter-productive sales tax, don’t use the money to build more incarceration facilities, and instead put more police around county facilities, such as transit, and you might not get such revulsion from Seattle voters.

    Again, putting more cruisers around Bailoland just doesn’t have the utility of putting a few walking cops around Bailoland Station.

    1. Maybe if they paid much less attention to “occupiers”, jaywalkers, wood carvers and other “low priority” issues, they might have the resources to do real crime intervention.

      1. They obviously are low priority. The Red Cross, Children’s Campaign, and other aggressive panhandlers don’t give up as I am trying to hurriedly walk away.

    2. A city income tax would be good:)

      Then again, many of the problems the SPD has had with accountability regarding the mentally ill and non-white citizens appear to stem from a lack of proper training, which may not be as costly as some believe.

    3. ‘more incarceration facilities’ may well include replacing the (horrible, about to fall down) juvenile facility on 12th. That’s not new capacity, more like ‘repair what we already have’.

    4. Fire police officers hopefully.

      Or just stop wasting money on lawsuits and going after “crimes” that don’t matter.

  10. Of course, this is all reported crime. I had my car window smashed in and my iPod (and thankfully nothing more) stolen at the corner of Fifth and Union a few months ago. When I called the police about tit, I was told that (a) it was optional for me to file a police report, if I needed it for insurance; and (b) it was unlikely they were going to do a damn thing about it.

    1. As noted above, Seattle seems to have quite a low rate of violent crime overall, but quite a *high* rate of property crime. I have no idea why.

  11. Two things that I would find interesting:

    1. Can we have heat maps like this for all of King County, or even batter the Puget Sound?

    2. Can we normalize the map for population density?

    1. 1. Knock yourself out. You’ll probably hit issues with differences in the way crimes are reported and laws enforced, but nothing you can’t overcome with enough effort ;-)

      2. Done! My maps are normalized for both population and employment density. Choosing just population density doesn’t get you much, since there is crime where there are people, and people don’t just stay where they live. For instance, if few people live in a census tract, even a little crime would make that area look dangerous.

      I’ve e-mailed Trulia about the gray map, and they may try to use “actual street density” (not sure how they’d measure that) in a future map. Stay tuned.

  12. Seattle as a whole is a nerved city. Anyone who feel unsafe, pretty much anywhere here, probably hasn’t experienced another big city.

    And I much prefer my name for the 3rd and Pike area: the “Thunderdome”

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