Did the great crime decline cause modern urbanism?

One of my big and untested (but unrebutted) hunches about the urbanism revolution, the drop in vehicle-miles traveled per person and so forth, is that it all flows from the rapid and mostly unexplained decline in crime rates that began in 1994.

As cities became safer, the first to notice were the young, poor, mobile and liberal. It seemed strange to our parents — but then, our parents’ bizarre fears of the central city seemed strange to us.

Just as, I’m sure, the rise of those fears (also known as the 1960s) seemed strange and unfair to my vaguely Germanic grandparents.

I’ve been watching the sixth season of Mad Men, the one that happens in 1968. Scenes on the main character’s once-quiet Manhattan balcony are being interrupted by screaming sirens; the middle-class couple who buy into the Upper West Side find themselves besieged by crooks. It was a rapid change in atmosphere that’s backed up by the statistics:

50 years later, local crime trends have reversed, perceptions of local crime have followed, and so have the tides of urbanism. As Mayor Hales put it in a speech last month, the flight to the suburbs was a round trip. The Don Drapers of the world are again buying Pearl District lofts, the Peggy Olsens are again renting two-bedrooms on Division or Thurman, and they’re both biking in to Wieden on Monday morning.

Was the crime decline that’s driving it all caused by pollution from leaded gasoline? Abortion rates? Data-driven policing? It’s not at all clear, though those seem to be the current favorites.

Whatever the cause, Americans do seem to be more or less aware that crime has gotten better, as long as you’re asking us about crime in our own personal lives. If you ask whether crime is a problem in the United States in general, most people, fed on Nancy Grace and Fox 12, will tell you it’s bad and getting worse. But when it comes to our own trains, parks and streets, we tend to be in closer touch with reality.

On the other hand — and if my hunch is wrong, I actually think this is why it is — there’s a chance the causality flows the other way. Maybe cities aren’t getting safer, and therefore more desirable and expensive, because urban crime has slowed. Maybe urban crime has slowed because poor criminals were, as early as 1994, being joined in the central city by gentrifiers and, ultimately, priced out of central cities — driven into neighborhoods where even a decent crook has to own a car to make a living.

Whatever the reason, I’ll be watching the various theories closely as they develop. Here’s why: what fortune giveth unto urbanism, fortune is just as likely to take away.

As someone who’s staked a lot on the continued desirability of living in the central parts of U.S. cities, I’m worried about the final two data points on this chart. And if I were you, you’d be worried too.

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