The London Underground isn’t as dangerous as New York’s in the 1990s

25 January 2019
What was claimed

Crime levels on the London Underground are reminiscent of crime in New York at its worst in the 1990s.

Our verdict

Riders of the New York City Subway in 1990—when crime peaked in the 1990s—were considerably more likely to experience a serious crime than riders of the London Underground are to experience any crime at the moment.

Last week London mayoral Conservative candidate Shaun Bailey retweeted an article about rising crime on the London Underground and drew a comparison with New York at its most dangerous in the 1990s.

These sorts of comparisons between the two cities are often made, for obvious reasons. Both are leading world cities and because they have very similar populations, statistics about them can often be compared fairly easily (although things aren’t always that simple).

It’s unclear precisely what Mr Bailey meant in his comment—whether he was drawing a comparison between crime on the two cities’ subway networks, or more generally in the two cities. (Also, he said the crime levels on the London Underground were also “reminiscent” of New York’s at their worst, which could be interpreted quite broadly.)

We’ve asked Mr Bailey about what he was basing his comparison on, and in the meantime we’ve taken a look at the figures to see whether either comparison is fair.

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There was far more crime on the New York City Subway in the early 1990s than on the Tube now

Current levels of reported crime on London’s underground are considerably below those in New York in the 1990s.

At its worst in the 1990s (which was the year 1990) there were 17 reported felonies per million riders on the New York City Subway. Felonies are serious crimes such as violence, robbery and theft, so that number doesn’t include less serious crimes.

By contrast from November 2017 to September 2018 there were 10 reported incidents per million riders on the London underground (according to figures from the British Transport Police). Unlike the New York felonies data, that includes all incidents­—serious and less serious.

So riders of the New York City Subway in 1990 were considerably more likely to experience a serious crime than riders of the London Underground are to experience any crime today.

Data including less serious crimes on the New York City Subway is available for 2017. In that year there were 6.7 crime complaints per million riders on the New York City Subway.

London is much safer than New York was in the 1990s

The story above the ground is much the same. Data suggests that New York had a higher crime rate in the early 1990s than London today, but New York’s overall crime rate has since fallen below London’s. 

We haven’t been able to find the total crime rate for New York going back to 1990, but have found data on specific crimes which shows how different the crime levels are.

In 1990 in New York, 31 homicides and 1,400 robberies per 100,000 people were recorded, compared to 1.5 homicides and 360 robberies per 100,000 in London in 2017.

In 2017, the police in New York received 5,300 crime complaints per 100,000 residents in 2017, while the Metropolitan Police recorded 9,300 per 100,000 (and that doesn’t include the crimes recorded by the City of London police or the British Transport Police working within London).

One notable exception is the homicide rate, which in New York in 2017 was three per 100,000 residents, roughly double the rate in London.  

Comparing crime rates precisely is difficult

One big health warning is that all these figures are for crimes recorded by the police. This means they don’t account for unreported and unrecorded crimes and so the figures are likely lower than the true crime level in both cities.

However that can make comparing crime between the two cities difficult, because it assumes that residents of the two cities were equally likely to report crime, and that the relevant police authorities were equally likely to record those crimes.  

Another issue is that the city-wide crime rates are based on the number of people who live in the cities. But that doesn’t account for people who are in the cities but don’t live there, such as commuters or tourists. So comparisons of crime rates based on resident figures should be taken with a pinch of salt.

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