With nearly 3.5 million crimes reported in the 30 cities in T+L’s America’s favorite cities — an annual survey of travelers’ tastes, opinions, and experiences — it might seem a wonder that anyone ever feels safe.
But perception shapes travel just as much as hard facts do. Sure, Charleston has a relatively low crime rate — it was the No. 6 safest U.S. city of the 30, according to Department of Justice (DOJ) stats for 2008 (the latest year for which statistics were available) — but most visitors are unaware of those numbers. So why do they feel safe in the South Carolina town?
“The city of Charleston places a high priority on the safety of visitors,” says Charleston’s mayor, Joe Riley, citing the city’s Walk and Talk Program, which has police officers patrolling on foot instead of just behind the wheel. “This interaction with residents, businesses and visitors creates an opportunity to build rapport and trust.”
So which cities landed at the top of our list for safety? Places known for their cleanliness and friendly people—traits that can make visitors feel right at home — like Charleston; Austin, Texas, and Denver. Travelers are, not surprisingly, put at ease in cities with quintessentially small-town vibes.
Conversely, congested areas with towering skyscrapers, heavy traffic, pollution, and late-night shenanigans conjure images of dimly lit alleys — and violence. This may seem silly to some, but could very well explain why Los Angeles and New York City appear in the bottom third of the list despite crime levels being low for their massive populations, according to the DOJ numbers.
Some, like Benjamin Neher, a former L.A. resident and recent NYC transplant, suggest that pedestrian friendliness also plays a role. Though both Los Angeles and New York ranked low in safety — No. 30 and No. 25, respectively — Neher says, “I feel safer walking around at night in New York than L.A. simply because there are more people around.”
But sometimes it’s not so cut and dry. After Hurricane Katrina, Houston became home to more than 150,000 refugees. “As a direct result of that migration, crime in Houston spiked dramatically,” says Gordon L. Dilmore, research associate for the University of Houston’s Center for Public Policy. “The homicide rate rose by 23 percent, a figure reported liberally in the media and still quoted today, five years later.” While many refugees have left, the memories of that time have left a lasting impression.
The results of the survey are clear, and the message is obvious: people feel safer in urban settings that more seamlessly mesh suburban traits — and are more on edge in traditionally urban areas.