Monday, August 15, 2005

The Fear Factor in America's Growing Exurbs

A fascinating article (registration required) in the New York Times this morning profiling the rise of new planned communities on the what the NYT calls "the farm-road margins of metropolitan areas.."

I've pasted several graphs - first the story's set up, and then a few sentences on the fear factor that the buyers in these developments cite for choosing a house there. (New Urbanists beware)

"Such places do not sprout by happenstance. Driven by irresistible economic forces and shaped by subtly shifting social patterns, they are being created, down to the tiniest detail, by a handful of major developers with a master plan for the new America. In the case of New River, that developer is KB Home, one of the nation's biggest and most profitable builders with $7 billion in sales last year, which helped make it sixth among all Standard & Poor's 500 companies in total revenues.

KB Home has 483 communities under development in 13 states and expects to complete more than 40,000 new homes this year. Yet it is just one of about two dozen such corporate giants fiercely competing for land and customers at the edge of America's suburban expanse.
Poring over elaborate market research, these corporations divine what young families want, addressing things like carpet texture and kitchen placement and determining how many streetlights and cul-de-sacs will evoke a soothing sense of safety.

They know almost to the dollar how much buyers are willing to pay to exchange a longer commute for more space, a sense of higher status and the feeling of security."

Here's the crime & fear: (italics are mine)

"In its most recent survey of Tampa home buyers, KB asked people what they valued the most in their home and community. They wanted more space and a greater sense of security. Safety always ranks second, even in communities where there is virtually no crime. Asked what they wanted in a home, 88 percent said a home security system, 93 percent said they preferred neighborhoods with "more streetlights" and 96 percent insisted on deadbolt locks or security doors.

So KB Home offers them all. "It's up to us to figure out what people really want and to translate that into architecture," said Erik Kough, KB's vice president for architecture. And the company designs its communities with winding streets with sidewalks and cul-de-sacs to keep traffic slow, to give a sense of containment and to give an appearance distinctly unlike the urban grid that the young, middle-class families instinctively associate with crime. "I definitely feel safe here. I feel protected," said Lisa Crawford, who moved to New River about a year ago with her husband, Steve, and their two children."

The article touches on other elements of the issue - that the GOP dominates in these new and racially diverse developments. "White flight has nothing to do with it," says one expert. "It's all housing prices." KB Home has also figured out the formula for housing cost versus commute: buyers are willing to commute an additional one minute for every $800 they can save on the price of a house.


At 7:15 AM, Blogger COD said...

It's interesting these people that are buying for 'space" only see space in terms of square footage under roof. A 3800 sq. foot home on a 1/4 acre is not space in my book. I'd gladly trade down in home to add acres between me and the neighbors.

At 8:13 AM, Blogger Jim Bacon said...

Two interesting issues arise from Bob's post. First, when people think about their personal safety, they're thinking about crime. They're not thinking about safety on suburban roads. But, as Bill Lucy and Ed Risse have documented, suburban roads (especially when combined with our binge-drinking adolescent teenage sub-culture) are huge killers of teenagers. Law-abiding, middle class citizens are at greater risk of violent death or injury due to a suburban automobile accident than they are to a criminal assault in the city.

The second question is why people equate personal safety with security from crime, not traffic fatalities. I blame the media's obsession with crime. If it bleeds, it leads. Here in Richmond, the newspapers dwell almost lovingly on the inner city's murder rate. If the Times Dispatch and local television stations ran with major stories and film footage every single time a suburbanite died in an auto wreck, decrying the out-of-control wave of teen driving accidents, people would start stampeding back into the city and the safety of its grid streets and 35 mile-per-hour speed limits.

Of course, given our fear-mongering media, people don't even feel safe in the suburbs anymore (unless, perhaps, they're like those described in the NYT article). With the cable TV obsession with child kidnapings, mothers are terrified to let their young children roam their suburban neighborhoods for fear that a child molester will snatch them.

At 5:48 PM, Blogger Ray Hyde said...

In forty years of driving, I've neve been injured by an automobile ( unless it was a skinned knuckle repairing one), but I've been beaten and mugged twice while walking.

Downs, from the Brookings Institiute figures that scattered urban dwellings might cost as much as 20% more in services, but that people who buy such places would gladly pay the costs because the perceived benefits would far outweigh the additional cost.

KB Homes apparently has discovered that Downs is correct.

At 12:51 PM, Blogger subpatre said...

Bob – I don’t think the article said what you think it said; most people won’t trade a 500-mile daily commute to live in a free ($400,000 value) house. /humor

Churchill smoked, and lived a long time; some people don’t have car wrecks. Statistically (which means for most people) smoking reduces lifespan, and far more people are hurt by car wrecks than by crime. Jim’s point is valid.

The yearly cost of vehicle accidents is a staggering $200 billion. Over 40,000 people die, plus 300,000 critical injuries require $1 million per patient. Yet the press leads with the Iraq war and dramatized crime.

It’s easy –and accurate—to blame the MSM, but the fault also belongs with people. Everyone knows the MSM sensationalizes, but they still believe it.

Another factor is the myth of urban-centered crime; urban centers have more crime because there’s more people. Duhhh! Once social (or economic) groups are isolated, crime per person is the same for the classes who buy into developments.

Streetlights? Another illogical security blanket. Crime follows them, not the other way around.

More significant is the change. Urban refugees often move to get their children a better environment, when the children are the problem. M13’s reach into NoVa’s west end and the Valley is an example. Unprepared suburban and rural LE ends up needing additional resources (tax) to deal with it.

At 7:03 PM, Blogger Ray Hyde said...

"In America, the crime clock continues to click: one murder every 22 minutes, one rape every 5 minutes, one robbery every 49 seconds, and one burglary every 10 seconds. And the cost of crime continues to mount: $78 billion for the criminal justice system, $64 billion for private protection, $202 billion in loss of life and work, $120 billion in crimes against business, $60 billion in stolen goods and fraud, $40 billion from drug abuse, and $110 billion from drunk driving. When you add up all the costs, crime costs Americans a stunning $675 billion each year."

When I was in college I was offering my condolences to a friend who had lost his wife to cancer. In return, he offered his condolences to me becuase my wife had just left me (for a younger man). I told him I didn't think our situations were comparable, after all my ex was not dead.

"But at least", he said, "I don't have to feel like my wife did it on purpose."

Devastating as accidents are we tend to accept them as partially a consequence of our own choices, unless some drunk is involved. Crime is debilitating because it is a deliberate unprovoked assault on your being.

We can do a lot to decrease accidental deaths, and we should, and we have.

It would be interesting to know if the $200 billion figure for auto accidents includes the $100 billion quoted above for drunk driving.

"According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, rural areas contributed to the highest death rate, 58.4 percent, as compared to urban areas. Likely explanations for this would include the greater road mileage and higher speed of rural drivers and longer amounts of time elapsed between the crash and the arrival of victims at hospitals in rural areas."

"Of the crashes that occurred in rural areas, nearly two-thirds of the crashes reported, common causes included driver fatigue, insects entering or striking the vehicle, or animals and unrestrained pet distractions.

In urban areas, automobile accidents caused by distracted drivers were often due to drivers looking at other crashes, traffic or vehicles, or cell phone use."

NHTSA statistics also determined that in the year 2001 there were 2.12 fatalities per 100 million vehicle miles travelled on rural highways and 0.91 fatalities per 100 million vehicle miles travelled on urban highways.

Yet because losses tend to be higher in urban areas, rates for auto and home insurance are often higher than average in inner cities and more densely populated suburbs.

Could it be because cars there get stolen more often?

Clearly, here is an issue where valid arguments can be made on both sides, but we just don't know all the answers.

Maybe if we just set the spped limit for rural areas the same as urban areas (35 mph) we could have cars that are less dysfunctional. By itself, such a speed limit might encourage suburban residients to live closer in without screwing around with zoning, property rights, or the right to live and work where you please. It is a level playing field option that woulod save energy resources.

Politically, of course, that idea is dead as a doornail.

At 12:32 AM, Blogger Ray Hyde said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

At 11:31 PM, Blogger subpatre said...

Compare the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration's (NHTSA) The Economic Impact of Motor Vehicle Crashes, 2000 against the FBI's UCR Crime in the United States. They clearly show that vehicle accidents are far more frequent and create far more damage than crime.

Killed: 41 thousand car, 15 thousand crime
Injured: 5.3 million car, 1.4 million crime
Property: $84.6 billion car, $17 billion theft/burglary

As mentioned before, the socio-economic classes buying KBH houses are below average risk for crime, especially violent crimes.

On the vehicle side, suburban and rural damage costs tend to be lower, but fatalities per mile are higher. The perception of safety is a false illusion.

Ray – it’s pretty obvious the figures you cited earlier are indefensible. The site you've used is wildly inaccurate. They state “Violent crime actually has been steadily increasing…” when the exact opposite is true; violent crime's significantly down, and headed that way for the past decade.

The rest of the figures are similarly wrong or unsupported. Probe Ministries is a good example of the scare-mongering Jim posted about.

At 9:33 AM, Blogger Ray Hyde said...

Thank you, Subpatre, Itoo thoght the crime figure were suspect. More study and comps are in order. It's apples and oranges anyway. Its jist a point of view not right or wrong.

At 12:16 AM, Blogger Ray Hyde said...

Subpatre: The figures you complain about are highly suspect. That is exactly the point I have been trying to raise in my comments here: we need numbers and premises for them that we can agree on, otherwise we can argue into ideological meaninglessness.

Are the FBI numbers federal crimes only? Is the source I quoted out of hand primarily because they included the legal costs in crime costs? Can we blame the fact of criminal drunk driving on the existence of roads? Are we counting drunk driving twice? If we subteact the benefits of highways and driving from the costs, do we still have an argument? If we subtract the benefits of the legal profession from the costs of crime, do we still have an argument?

I admire your perpicacity. I challenge EMR and Jim Bacon to step up to the plate. If this is an ideological blog, then it is going nowhere.

I believe comparing traffic deaths to crime deaths is idiotic. At the same time I'm a cost analyst, and I beleive we can assign acceptable costs to anything, provide we agree on the basis.

Absent such agreement we are PIW and subject to the whims of politicians.

At 8:58 PM, Blogger subpatre said...

It's directly relevant to transportation and land use issues when people move to houses farther away from their work on the false premise of greater safety. It’s even more significant the exact opposite is true; that life, limb and property are at far more risk in the new locations.

KBH’s research shows their buyers are seeking greater security. As Jim points out, these new homeowners are at much higher risk in their new locations. I’d add that many of the buyers may be seeking greater security because of existing problems, and bring or worsen the problems by moving.

In my rural county, experiencing significant (3-5% per year) urban influx, children in protective custody rose from 13 to 42 ($1.1 million to $2.0 million) within two years; children living less than 3 years in the county accounting for all the increase. You can’t help but draw parallels with the 1960-1980s use of private and military schools as dumping grounds for delinquents, and the subsequent meltdown.

It's pertinent to those issues when commercial interests with no stake in the community develop huge expanses of land, put massive loads on roads designed (if designed at all) for light traffic, and sell their product on the fraudulent premise of greater safety.

The developments decrease the safety of their buyers’ and the existing residents by increasing non-urban traffic driven miles and road congestion. Massive new housing may also, as suggested in the CPS example, increase crime by swamping localities with problems they’re unprepared for.

Ray – both the UCRs and NHTSA data are standards; collections of primary data with clear methodology. If someone won’t bother to read links, check data, or (more important) accept standards recognized by all experts in the fields; it’s casting pearls before swine.

At 10:07 AM, Blogger Ray Hyde said...

"It’s even more significant the exact opposite is true; that life, limb and property are at far more risk in the new locations."

This is your opinion, but I don't think we have agree that the statement is necessarily true, or true considering what assumptions.

I have already agreed that the safety data presented was probably hyperinflated and contained values peripheral to the argument.

We first have to consider personal safety vs property safety, for one thing. As I noted property and auto insurance is far more expensive in town. How many stories can you recall of people in your county being killed by stray bullets?

Are we talking the total cost of crime vs total cost of auto accidents, or just deaths and injuries? If we are talking costs, do autos get their positive value subtcted from their negative costs?

Then there is the issue that crime has no redeeming value. Whether our personal values agree or not as to whether people SHOULD live in what is sometimes described as scattered developments, the perception exists that the benefits outweigh the risks. The question is whether KB homes invented that perception on their own or if they are merely capitalizing on a perception that exists, whether that perception is right or wrong.

I think we can agree that the fatalities per million miles traveled in rural areas is twice as high as in urban areas. WE agree that more people are killed and injured in cars than by crime; but I don't think that settles the argument, let alone alleviates the perception. It doesn't mean there are twice as many accidents in the country, just that they tend to be more deadly. If someone gets killed while driving more that 15 mph over the limit (reckless driving) that gets counted as an accident, not a crime.

Just because NHTSA and UCR data are standardized does not mean that they are either comparable or applicable.

The argument is interesting, but not yet settled.

here is an example of perception from another blog on the same topic...

"That would be a fine arguement if it was true, but a quick check of Minnesota statistics says the oppisite. From the DPS crash data site ( if we take the year 2000 as an example the total number of traffic accidents (fatal and non fatal, anything involving a car) was 103,591 for MN. If we now go to the DPS crime stats site ( we see that the same year a total of 159,969 crimes (where I subtracted out the number of auto related crimes). So making the assumption that non fatal traffic accidents outnumbers non fatal crimes (urban, suburban or rural) is a rather large assumption. Granted a quick look didn't turn up break downs by urban vs suburban but given the 50% greater number of crimes and the much higher rate in urban areas I would find it pretty hard to believe that the traffic accidents are so heavily wieghted towards suburbs as to offset the number of crimes in urban areas."

Finally, your comment

"In my rural county, experiencing significant (3-5% per year) urban influx, children in protective custody rose from 13 to 42 ($1.1 million to $2.0 million) within two years; children living less than 3 years in the county accounting for all the increase."

You are argueing that that increasing population causes higher expenses. Others on this blog suggest we can save money (and now lives) by concentrating in denser areas.

I don't see how both conditions can be true.

At 5:00 PM, Blogger Ray Hyde said...

On the larger issue of rural vs urban safety I found this document:

It discusses death rates of all causes and attempts to determine factors that contribute to differences in death rates among communities.

"Finally, in Model 6 independent differences in death
rates between metropolitan areas (MSA) and non-metropo-
litan areas (NBS) were examined. On average, there were
8.83 fewer deaths per 100 000 population for non-metropo-
litan areas, but the effect is small relative to the standard error. "

According to this paper it turns out that the highest correlation to higher death rates among communities are associated with African-American population and education level lower than high school.

That doesn't mean that we shouldn't do something about the apalling differences in highway fatalities, just that moving to urban areas might not be the answer we think it is.

At 9:02 PM, Blogger Ray Hyde said...

"Death rate variations for the United Kingdom and the United States are spatially compared by means of maps. The data mapped include death rates from all causes, and infant mortality. In the United Kingdom, the association between high death rates and areas of industrialization, exploitation, and dense population is very marked. Such an association is somewhat less definite in the United States where the high rates associate more easily with areas of poor socio-economic circumstances such as Indian reservations, Spanish-American districts, and most particularly, the high-proportion Negro areas of the South. In both countries, however, longevity in rural areas and in urban places of limited industry is likely to be greater than in areas not having these attributes. "

Annals of the Association of American Geographers
Volume 57 Issue 2 Page 301 - June 1967


At 3:02 AM, Blogger subpatre said...

The rate of vehicular death, injury, and property damage is a function of miles traveled. Whether statistically or individually, the more miles travelled the greater the risk. Period.

Commercial developments leverage the 'plus one minute commute for every $800 savings'; residents are farther away from employment than before and commute farther. Life, limb and property are more at risk in these new locations. Period.

Ray, you bring up a vast number of irrelevant points. The total of all accidents to all crimes is irrelevant: all accidents have damage, a huge proportion of crimes are victimless.

Whether vehicle accidents or crime has a greater measurable impact on people requires a valid comparison of fatalities to fatalities, injuries to injuries, and property loss to property loss. That's available here.

Socio-economic group risk is irrelevant, at issue is people's safety living in one location vs. the same people's safety in another location. Status remains the same.

The original article specifies socio-economics, and Burke highlighted "young, middle-class families" from "communities where there is virtually no crime".

Also irrelevant is the 1967 piece on death rates in "areas of industrialization, exploitation" and "high-proportion Negro areas of the South".

In the end, when someone poses the questions like "Can we blame the fact of criminal drunk driving on the existence of roads?" , it's blatantly obvious the post was intended to waste space. At least commercial spammers keep it short.

Bacon & Burke --and their readers-- deserve more respect.

At 9:47 AM, Blogger Ray Hyde said...

I haven't examined all of your arguments and references yet, but how is

"In both countries, however, longevity in rural areas and in urban places of limited industry is likely to be greater than in areas not having these attributes. "

rrelevant to the idea that some areas are safer than others. It may well be that some areas are safer than others, but for reasons that have nothing to do with location.

Some roads are known to be far mor dangersous than others, so your claim that risk is a function of mileage alone can't be true.

Your susceptibility to crime is only partially a random event, likewise your suceptibility to an auto accident, both can be partially mitigated by your own behaviors, probably more so in the case of driving. I don't disagree with you that one of those behaviors is driving less.

I can't see that it is proven yet "that life, limb and property are at far more risk in the new locations." I can't agree that we know enough about this to set policy.

At 9:51 AM, Blogger Ray Hyde said...


I have read (in earlier studies based on Denver) that homehowners get a net savings on their mortgage of $20/week for every mile they move out. Of course that may change at today's gas prices.

I don't understand your comment that commercial developments are capitalizing on that, or how you think we can change the market.

At 10:03 AM, Blogger Ray Hyde said...

If the new KB homes development will eventually be a city with offices, commercial, and industrial uses, why should their situation eventually be any different from any other city?

At 10:41 AM, Blogger Ray Hyde said...

I mean no disrespect, and I have no position on this argument one way or another, I just think some people are prone to jumping to oversimplistic solutions. That is one reason politicians can get away with sound bite campaigns: it is too painful to think.

For example, I didn't catch your meaning about the socioeconomics the first time around: if those people who move to one of these far out places were not in danger before (because of their socioeconomic status) then they may have increased their overall risk by driving more.

At the same time, the records suggest that driving may incorporate some socioeconomic or education risk. Therefore those people who have moved may perceive (rightly or wrongly) that the risk does not pertain to them proportionately.

My comment about roads causing drunk driving goes back to my original question of whether we count drunk driving as a crime an accident or both. Is a high speed crash an accident or a crime? I'm frequently amused at newspaper stories that say a man was killed when his car went out of control, when what it should say is that the idiot killed himself by driving into a tree at 100+ mph.

I have personally observed several cases in which an accident was not an accident at all, but the unintended result of a criminal action deliberately taken. In each case I stopped and relayed my observations to the police.

The 1967 reference is irrelevant only if we can show the data is no longer true, but it is corroborated by more recent sudies. We agree that rural death rates are much higher than urban ones. When you look more closely at rural death rates you find that the biggest factors are low education and African-American or hispanic descent, and you find that some rural areas are far more dangerous than others.

I don't suggest that driving more is not more dangerous, just that it may not be more dangerous equally: either in location or socioeconomic status.

If we prevent the building of a bunch of new cities ( which we are apparently going to need) and then find out the rural/urban deat rates haven't changed, then we will have spent a lot of money barking up the wrong tree.

If we move a lot of people into town and then discover traffic death reduction was offset by pollution deaths, what will we have gained?

I don't claim to have an answer, just that there is at least some hints in the evidence that the answer is not simple.


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