America's Safest Cities
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, 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.
Read on to find out in which of the nation’s 30 most popular cities people feel safest.
#1 Portland, OR
All of the farmers’ markets, reliable public transportation, great parks, environmental do-gooders, and overall quiet may have given visitors that warm, secure feeling that helped Portland land the No.1 spot for safety—despite ranking only No.10 for friendly people.
#2 Minneapolis/St. Paul
Despite the seasonal cold, visitors may well arrive in the No.2 city with a sunny disposition, thanks to stellar airport experiences. And add to that a population of friendly people, family-oriented activities, and über-clean streets, and you have a recipe for feeling safe.
While Charleston may rank low in diversity, southern hospitality shines through in the No.3 safest city. Voted equally friendly as they are attractive, residents seem to put visitors at ease with their pleasant demeanors…and good looks.
#5 Santa Fe
When a city claims the No.1 spot for peace and quiet, it’s only natural it lands among the Top 5 safest cities. Moderate weather, cleanliness, and great antiques shopping don’t hurt the picture, either.
The biggest safety concerns of visitors and residents in the Mile High City—with its soaring snowcapped peaks all around and a surplus of people looking forward to hitting the slopes—are keeping warm and not falling down.
It’s the friendliest city in America, and while it may not have hit high marks in many other categories, the laid-back home of country music (with its acclaimed Hall of Fame) appears to put visitors at ease.
Residents of the Emerald City tend to be go-with-the-flow people, despite all the caffeine flowing through their veins. So it’s no wonder that visitors feel comfortable as they tour around with lattes in hand.
Although Providence falls in the middle in most of our survey categories, it looks like the flourishing theater scene, cozy cafés, and quaint restaurants helped folks feel safe enough to vote this waterfront city into the Top 10… if just barely.
#11 San Diego
#12 San Antonio
Visitors don’t necessarily feel unsafe in this Texas town, but there’s room for improvement. We suggest upping the number and quality of cafés and boutique-y restaurants—two small but significant additions that can make a stranger feel right at home.
#13 Kansas City
Visitors to Houston seem to really like the city—its luxury shopping, ethnic eats, and overall style. So why not a higher score? For starters, an inadequate public transportation system; improving it might help quell traveler anxieties.
Beloved for its rich history, Beantown barely managed to make the top half of the list. Maybe if the locals were a bit more welcoming—and the roads a little easier to navigate—we might see this one surface a little higher next year.
#16 San Francisco
Given this city’s rave reviews in so many other categories, the mid-tier ranking here is a little confusing. The lack of affordability—the Golden Gate city’s only glaringly low result—couldn’t be the reason behind this placement, could it?
It might not be in the bottom 10, but Mickey’s home turf—and, of course, a mecca for family travel—is surprisingly close.
Visitors agree that this combo city is relatively quiet, with nice weather, but that same calm seems to be unsettling. Perhaps its lack of pedestrian friendliness is the reason for its middling score?
Cleveland barely dodged the bottom 10 bullet in its debut to the AFC survey. If the survey is any indication, cleaning up, improving public transportation, and offering some more family-focused activities might help boost the secure feeling visitors yearn for.
#21 Washington, D.C.
As it’s our nation’s capital and home base for the country’s lawmakers, shouldn’t folks feel safer about visiting D.C.? Then again, maybe the lack of faith in the city’s well-being is a reflection of larger government ills.
#22 Las Vegas
With its get-away-with-anything tagline, “What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas,” is it really a surprise that Sin City found itself in the bottom 10 safest cities? Still, the neon-lit Nevada town is tops for fun.
#23 Dallas/Fort Worth
Maybe the lack of diversity (the duo’s worst-ranking feature) is to blame? Or the absence of family-fueled activities? Add less-than-perfect weather, sub-par cleanliness, and nowhere to go for dinner or drinks to the mix, and visitors might associate feeling shut in to being unsafe.
#24 St. Louis
After St. Louis landed the No.9 spot for family vacations, it might seem strange to see it so far down on this list. But a perfect storm of low scores in other categories makes the Missouri city a not-so-safe place for survey-takers.
#25 New York
It’s no secret New Yorkers have a bad rap for being gruff—at least in the eyes of outsiders. That, combined with Gotham’s noise levels and lack of cleanliness, appears to have skewed visitors’ sense of security.
“Hotlanta” got a bit of heat in this year’s survey, landing only one Top 10 spot—for business hotels. Safety, apparently, has little to do with wheeling and dealing.
#29 New Orleans
Even though it landed the No.2 spot for friendly locals, New Orleans should probably be renamed the Big Uneasy. After all, the Louisiana city did place No.2 for a wild weekend getaway—and too much partying can bring on trouble.
#30 Los Angeles
La-La Land lacks many qualities that tend to make visitors feel safe: the city earned low scores for friendliness—toward both people and the environment—as well as for relaxation, reliable public transportation, cleanliness, and worthwhile public parks, all categories that helped Portland earn the No.1 spot.