It’s impossible to describe St. Louis, the city with the world’s seventh highest homicide rate (~88 per 100k), as a “high trust” community. Even though I live well outside the high-risk neighborhoods, I’ve found the entire experience of living in STL is colored by its crime rate. There is no escaping the second- and third-order effects of low social trust.
I’m not afraid of living in the city—I go about my day-to-day routines without anxiety that I’ll be a victim of something sinister. I’m comfortable walking around my neighborhood and going out to enjoy the many amenities St. Louis has to offer. I don’t fear that my home will be broken into or that my car will be stolen. But it’s apparent to me that this level of comfort is downstream of various precautions I’ve taken, consciously and subconsciously, to minimize my risk. I’ve also become acutely aware of how the city’s absence of trust eliminates certain opportunities and experiences that residents of other cities may take for granted.
The little things
The dominant theme of my X feed over the past year has been reckless driving. I’ve become a broken record on how St. Louis drivers flagrantly run red lights and stop signs, speed, crash into fixed objects, and otherwise behave in horrifying ways.
The fact that I can’t trust my neighbors will stop for me when I’m crossing the street or respect my right-of-way at an intersection is one manifestation of a low-trust environment. The implications are dispiriting: clearly, the people I share the streets with don’t value my well-being highly enough to prioritize it over their convenience. It’s also evident that the risk of getting caught violating traffic laws isn’t working as a deterrent—enforcement is so rare that it no longer influences behavior.
The erosion of the social contract on the city’s streets has a variety of second-order effects. Some are tangible: the physical injuries and financial losses incurred when drivers crash into people or property. What’s harder to detect is the emotional impact—the amplified sense of trepidation every time you move about the city; the disappointment and frustration you feel when you see yet another driver get away with sociopathic behavior. A culture of reckless driving puts a small number of unlucky people at risk of being maimed or killed, and the much larger number of people who witness these incidents come away feeling a bit more distrustful of their fellow St. Louisans, slightly less optimistic about the ability of the city to provide a safe environment for their families.
Reckless driving is, of course, correlated with other social ills, and the result is a broader corrosive effect on the sentiment of city residents. St. Louis’s roads, highways, and alleys are encrusted with litter, which engenders similar feelings of despair about our communal commitment to city living. Even the most basic public infrastructure—bus stop shelters, port-a-potties, trash cans—is vulnerable to being damaged or destroyed. The grating sound of modded cars rips across the city every night. A large proportion of the city’s buildings are disheveled, even in wealthier neighborhoods. These annoyances culminate in a general sense of hopelessness—the conclusion that St. Louis is dysfunctional and that you’ll need to move elsewhere if you ever want to experience a more pleasant, orderly urban environment.
“I’m sorry, but St. Louis looks like a dump” — my wife— wanye (@wanyeburkett) November 22, 2023
Let’s talk about transit
Signs of disorder matter a lot more on public transit. Transit’s fundamental characteristic, sharing a vehicle with other members of the public, means you’ll naturally be far more sensitive to antisocial behavior than in other contexts. Riding a bus or train isn’t that far removed from using an elevator, and if someone starts acting up during your elevator ride, you’ll certainly be put off from using it again. Your proximity to the source of disruption and sense of entrapment while the vehicle is in motion result in an environment that requires a high level of social trust to function.
Progressives on urbanist Twitter have been negatively polarized into dismissing this basic prerequisite for successful transit. I get it—anti-urban conservatives are hyperbolic about the risk of using transit in most cities. I also agree with the consensus that level of service (frequency, speed, and reliability) is the largest determinant of ridership—i.e., transit first needs to be convenient to attract riders. (Higher ridership also goes a long way toward naturally mitigating antisocial behavior by creating a critical mass of normal people.)
Still, this doesn’t mean a clean and orderly environment is worthless. You can spare me the widely repeated statistics showing driving is considerably more dangerous than riding a bus or train. I’m well aware—but the unfortunate reality is that in the game of public perception, transit will never compete on a level playing field with driving. Most people don’t assess risk by soberly comparing published injury & fatality statistics. When they have a choice, they select their mode of transportation based on their lived experience, and that’s heavily influenced by how vivid past experiences were—i.e., how close they felt to the source of the danger.
Much of what makes American transit unpleasant isn’t formally tracked. When people describe transit as “unsafe,” they’re likely recounting instances of antisocial behavior that are entirely unreported and unrepresented in any statistic. Arguments or fights between other passengers, verbal abuse, smoking and open drug use, public urination and defecation, loud music, and other disturbing situations typically go unreported to authorities, and while they may not result in physical harm to witnessing passengers, they undoubtedly leave a lasting impression.
Skittishness from past experience describes my attitude toward transit quite well. There’ve only been a couple of periods of my life where I was a habitual transit rider—first when I commuted via the St. Louis MetroLink in 2019–20, and second when I lived near the Clinton ‘L’ stop in Chicago’s West Loop in 2021–22. My lifetime transit ridership is not particularly high, so the number of unpleasant situations I’ve been subject to results in a discouragingly high ratio of negative experiences to trips. I can confidently say this ratio is far worse than I’ve experienced for driving, walking, or biking, despite the higher risk of injury associated with those modes.
I’ll take the opportunity to say something nice about St. Louis in this post: riding MetroLink was my most positive experience with transit. I was a daily rider in 2019 before the pandemic decimated the system. The service was reliable and convenient, fare enforcement was frequent, and traveling with a critical mass of commuters during the morning and evening rush hours helped minimize my exposure to bad behavior. Smoking in the cars was the most common issue—annoying, but not frequent or severe enough to keep me off the train.
Conversely, riding the ‘L’ in 2021 and 2022 produced some very negative experiences:
- On the Brown Line, a man began violently threatening me for not acknowledging him when he boarded the train. My wife and I fled to a different car at the Chicago stop.
- After landing at O’Hare, I waited 40 minutes for a Blue Line train to depart. Once we finally left, a mentally ill man in the car began screaming incoherently and banging on his seat. I said “fuck it,” got off at Rosemont, and called an Uber.
- The Green Line trains I boarded at Clinton were often smoky and filthy. The environment was incredibly offputting after 8pm, and I eventually stopped riding at night.
The two ‘major’ incidents have stuck with me. I haven’t had any near-misses or other freak occurrences on the road that are seared into my mind the same way as a deranged man screaming obscenities at me in an enclosed train car, despite having spent orders of magnitude more time behind the wheel. And this all happened in a single year of casually riding the ‘L’ on the weekends.
Like South Africa and many parts of Latin America, America’s struggle with low social trust has its roots in a system of racial segregation and oppression that was only recently dismantled. It is obviously a difficult problem to solve, and we can’t expect to achieve the same social harmony as Japan overnight.
Overcoming social conditions that create low trust requires exercising power to assert and solidify communal norms. Boiled down to its most basic elements, the issue of low trust is an issue of a minority of individuals breaking the law and violating norms, creating and perpetuating an environment where regular citizens cannot have confidence that they’re safe in public. It’s the responsibility of the state to enforce the laws governing antisocial behavior—laws that our society has enacted through the democratic process; laws that represent our consensus on what is right and wrong.
Much of our communal infrastructure has been hijacked by a small group of inconsiderate people who act with impunity. Reckless driving, for example, is the predictable result of a huge decline in traffic law enforcement over the past decade—bad drivers have adapted their behavior to the lower risk of being pulled over. Threatening environments on public transit persist because we allow a small group of mentally ill and/or antisocial riders to occupy the system with little probability of being held accountable for their actions. The same is true of littering, public camping, open drug use, and many other vices that frighten people away from urban areas.
I know the threat of law enforcement against “down and out” populations like the chronically homeless angers progressives—but the reality is that violating laws and norms is never required of the destitute. Engaging in antisocial behavior is a choice. Urban support services often attempt to assist the chronically homeless, only to have them refuse shelter or aid for a variety of reasons that often boil down to “I don’t want to”.1 Out of misguided compassion, we allow them to occupy trains and parks where they claim they’re most comfortable—at the expense of the orderly operation of crucial public services into which we invest billions of dollars annually.
Engaging in disruptive behavior on transit shouldn’t be an option. Permanently camping in a public park shouldn’t be an option. The options available should be to a) accept offers of shelter or treatment or b) face incarceration. And for antisocial behavior that isn’t associated with drug use and homelessness, like reckless driving, the argument against allowing bad behavior to continue is even weaker. We must enforce the laws we have democratically enacted.
I recognize there are socioeconomic factors at play that influence the prevalence of these issues, but we need to distinguish individual agency from systemic trends. We should both hold individuals accountable for antisocial behavior and invest in policies that reduce the rate of homelessness, poverty, untreated mental illness, and drug addiction. There is no tenable solution for cities that relies solely on the long, slow grind of systemic change. That’s a recipe for the gradual erosion of our institutions and an agonizing procession of tragedies—people pushed in front of trains, gruesome car crashes, demoralizing vandalism.
My vision for American urbanism is one that works for the majority of Americans—working people who follow the law, pay taxes, and behave respectfully in public settings. These folks deserve public services and spaces that are clean, safe, and orderly. In other words, they deserve the public realm that they contribute to and rightfully expect as taxpayers and voters.
When urban progressives coddle antisocial public behavior, they prioritize a tiny minority of deeply dysfunctional individuals over the broader majority. They undermine public services that were never intended to function as shelters, effectively enacting a massive, covert transfer of communal resources to a select group of people who fail to respect the social contract. It’s deeply undemocratic and toxic to the sense of trust that’s required for cities to function and thrive.
Chris Arnade summarized the issue well with his observations from an early-morning New York Subway trip—public services for the working majority are undermined by the presence of an antisocial minority, even if no crime is explicitly committed:
Because of a 2+ hour passport line at JFK, I missed my bus home. So I crashed at a friends house in Rockaways & got up to take 4:30 am subway to Port authority.— Chris Arnade 🐢🐱🚌 (@Chris_arnade) December 22, 2023
It was filthy and mostly empty, except for about three/four homeless guys per car sleeping/passed-out. At each stop…
Maybe adopting this viewpoint means I’m not a progressive in the eyes of many. I see it differently—the term progressive should refer to someone who believes in improvement from the status quo, who believes in the betterment of our society and the human condition. Allowing unstable people to occupy public spaces does not represent progress. Undermining the public’s investment in shared systems and services is not progress. Incentivizing further migration to the suburbs is not progress. Accepting as inevitable the dirty, hostile environments that have characterized American cities for decades is pure conservatism.
I hope to see a restoration of trust in our cities during my lifetime. I hope we recover from the recent spike in violent crime and make our public spaces and infrastructure functional for the working majority. I hope the people on the street get the help they desperately need and are no longer encouraged to wallow in addiction and illness. Sadly, I think the current generation of progressive leaders in our cities is actively working against these goals. At some point, the majority who want safe, functional cities need to stand up and reassert the democratic consensus—or accept further balkanization of urban life into the guarded isolation of suburbia.
- “[Seattle] currently only offers shelter beds or tiny home village placements during its outreach and encampment removal proceedings. Among the rejected offers, a whopping 92 percent were for shelter beds. Indeed, 41 of these offers list the reason for rejection as ‘do not want shelter,’ ‘do not want communal space,’ or ‘[history] of negative experience with shelter.’ According to Jamie Housen, communications director for Mayor Bruce Harrell, ‘do not want shelter’ means did not want any of the shelter types offered by city outreach workers, including tiny homes, and is not specific to shelters.”
While I was finishing up this post, I came across a thread on X about a homeless man who was recently murdered in South St. Louis. It’s a demoralizing story.
It’s also infuriating that it was considered acceptable to let this man aimlessly wander a neighborhood for months on end, disturbing regular people and going without the help he needed. It’s not progressive or compassionate to allow people who are unable to support themselves to live “freely” in squalid, unstable, life-threatening conditions. It’s not fair or democratic to expect city residents, who expect to be able to enjoy their neighborhood’s public spaces, to tolerate disturbing behavior.
Some of the commentary on X bemoans a lack of shelter capacity in the city, but we don’t even know if that was an issue at play here—the man refused assistance. There were options available to get him off the street, but he preferred the status quo.
That’s absurd. All people need to be held to some base standard of conduct for social trust to exist, and voluntarily living on the streets cannot be permissible if a feasible alternative is available. We cannot say that this man had enough agency to choose a transient lifestyle and simultaneously lacked sufficient agency to be held accountable for acting erratically and disturbing residents.
Progressives often talk about being “compassionate” to the chronically homeless, but I again define that term differently. Compassion does not mean enabling bad choices—it obviously doesn’t, because this man ended up dying a cruel, painful, lonely death. Sometimes, compassion is about holding people to a standard—even if it’s difficult for them, even if they don’t want it, even if it involves coercion.
It’s also absurd to pretend that urban environments where this sort of situation is commonplace are tolerable to the broad majority of people. If I encountered an unstable, “jarring” man with toy guns wandering up and down my street day after day, I would immediately feel less secure. I would not feel comfortable walking outside. I would not accept that he’s just “part of the neighborhood” and actually harmless. I would want to move away—and that urge would grow even stronger once I learned he was murdered nearby! I think most people feel the same, which is why Dutchtown continues to decline in population.
It’s simply not sustainable to hold the chronically homeless to a different standard of behavior than the public at large. American cities cannot succeed under these conditions. Either we make our cities functional by holding all citizens to a base standard of conduct or we accept a continuation of the low social trust that has crippled them for a generation.