Things I’ve Worked On: What Makes DC a Great City? Part 1

Being who I am, I’ve thought a lot about what makes DC such a great city, so I think a series of posts on this topic is worthwhile.

First, to give an idea about why and exactly how much I like the city, I’ll point to a rudimentary ranking I created when deciding where to move post-grad school. Obviously, there are many flaws in my methodology (e.g., integer ranking and double counting), but at the very least this shows what factors I considered and how important I considered them. The goal here was to get the highest score. Also note that some items are specific to me and others are universal. I chose to include these 5 cities based on past visits (perhaps I should’ve included, e.g., Philadelphia, but I had not yet visited there).

Global Transit Grads Bike Afford Weather Smart
NYC 4 4 1 2 1 3 2
Chicago 3 0 0 3 4 2 1
San Fran 2 1 3 4 0 4 4
Wash DC 1 3 4 3 3 3 3
Boston 0 2 2 1 2 1 4

Continued:

Fr/Fam Active Gov Gay Sports Eye Total
NYC 2 0 3 0 3 2 27
Chicago 4 3 2 1 2 3 28
San Fran 1 4 1 4 1 4 33
Wash DC 2 2 4 2 1 1 32
Boston 3 1 0 3 4 1 24

Including importance weighting:

Global Transit Grads Bike Afford Weather Smart
Importance med high med high high high high
Factor 1 1.5 1 1.5 1.5 1.5 1.5
NYC 4 6 1 3 1.5 4.5 2
Chicago 3 0 0 4.5 6 3 1.5
San Fran 2 1.5 3 6 0 6 6
DC 1 4.5 4 4.5 4.5 4.5 4.5
Boston 0 3 2 1.5 3 1.5 6

Continued:

Fr/Fam Active Gov Gay Sports Eye Total
Importance low low high med low high  
Factor 0.5 0.5 1.5 1 0.5 1.5  
NYC 1 0 4.5 0 1.5 3 32
Chicago 2 1.5 3 1 1 4.5 29.5
San Fran 0.5 2 1.5 4 0.5 6 39
DC 1 1 6 2 0.5 1.5 39.5
Boston 1.5 0.5 0 3 2. 1.5 24

Essentially, I wanted a highly accessible city (transit and bike) with smart people (grads and smart), good jobs (global and gov [in my case, all ideal jobs are government adjacent by way of funding, consulting, etc.]) and a high quality of life (weather, [pro] sports, active, afford[ability], and eye [test]).

I want to revisit these rankings with a little more analytical rigor and universality. I’m going to begin by focusing on four overarching items: jobs and smarts, accessibility, affordability, and quality of life. I’m going to stick with the same 5 cities because ultimately this is about Washington, D.C., the city I ended up choosing, and the other 4 cities provide sufficient comparison for my purposes.

(1) Jobs and Smarts

In my new ranking, it makes more sense to include smarts with jobs because they go hand in hand. Further, most indexes of economic competitiveness include a human capital element, which in turn includes measures of educational attainment and quality.

Regarding the item “Global,” in my first go at this item, I looked at a little bit of everything, including GaWC’s Global Cities Tiers, Foreign Policy’s Global Cities Index, and the Global Power City Index by The Institute for Urban Strategies at The Mori Memorial Foundation in Tokyo, and guesstimated the results into a ranking.

I recently edited an article that looked at city connectivity rankings in China. Without discussing the specifics of the paper, one of my main takeaways was that global connectivity includes numerous, sometimes conflicting, aspects. To give a brief example, Beijing ranks significantly higher than other Chinese cities in terms of international command and control functions, due to there being a much higher concentration of headquarters of large domestic financial companies. In contrast, Hong Kong and Shanghai have more financial companies than Beijing, but most of them are foreign branches, so they rank far lower on this measurement. However, from a different connectivity perspective, Shanghai and Hong Kong might be considered more globally relevant than Beijing. Therefore, it’s of the utmost importance to understand what each index is measuring.

This time around, I’m going to look only at the 2012 Global City Competitiveness Index by the Economist Intelligence Unit (The Economist Group), which looked at the competitiveness of global cities according to their ability to attract capital, businesses, talent and visitors. One of the primary reasons I chose this index is that it includes raw scores and breakdowns as opposed to integer or tier rankings.

In fact, this index is a composite index of 8 categories: Economic Strength (30.0%), Physical Capital (10.0%), Financial Maturity (10.0%), Institutional Effectiveness (15.0%), Social and Cultural Character (5.0%), Human Capital (15.0%), Environment and Natural Hazards (5.0), and Global Appeal (10.0%). For an extensive breakdown of the methodology, see the appendix of the report. Below are the corresponding figures for the five cities:

Overall Economic Strength Physical Capital Financial Maturity Institutional Effectiveness
Category Weight  100% 30% 10% 10% 15%
New York 71.4 54 92 100 85.8
Chicago 65.9 40.6 90.2 100 85.8
San Fran 63.3 41.5 89.3 83.3 85.8
Washington 66.1 43.4 93.8 83.3 85.8
Boston 64.5 37.9 94.6 83.3 85.8

Continued:

Social and Cultural Character Human Capital Environment and Natural Hazards Global Appeal
Category Weight 5% 15% 5% 10%
New York 95 76.5 66.7 35.7
Chicago 92.5 76.7 70.8 22.1
San Fran 85 77.6 66.7 15.3
Washington 85 77.6 66.7 32.7
Boston 80 77.3 83.3 27.2

Because I want to look only at jobs and smarts for this item and do not want to double count aspects later on, some of these categories should not be included (at least here). In particular, I should eliminate institutional effectiveness (because there is no variance among US cities), physical capital (because it includes mostly transportation-related aspects), social and cultural character (because this fits better in other items),  and environment and natural hazards (because this sadly doesn’t seem all that relevant).

Including only the most relevant items yields the following:

  Overall Economic Strength Financial Maturity Human Capital Global Appeal
Original Weight 65% 30% 10% 15% 10%
Rescaled Weight 100.00% 46.15% 15.38% 23.08% 15.38%
New York 63.5 54 100 76.5 35.7
Chicago 55.2 40.6 100 76.7 22.1
San Fran 52.2 41.5 83.3 77.6 15.3
Washington 55.8 43.4 83.3 77.6 32.7
Boston 52.3 37.9 83.3 77.3 27.2

Next, I need to convert these raw overall scores to a 0-4 scale. I set the highest raw score (New York: 63.5) as a value of 4 and the international 0 as a value of 0:

New York 4.00
Chicago 3.48
San Fran 3.29
Washington 3.51
Boston 3.29

These new rankings have a variance of 0.07, compared to a variance 2 on a ranking from 0 to 4 with no ties (which note wasn’t always the case in my original ranking). Obviously the discrepancy between these cities in terms of an economic and intelligence ranking is much smaller than a fixed interval ranking would suggest, at least from an international baseline perspective (note that these scores come from a global ranking). I also have the option to “stretch” these rankings across scores from 0 to 4 (meaning NYC receives a score of 4 and San Fran receives a score 0 and I spread the difference across the gap), which would yield the following:

New York 4.00
Chicago 1.06
San Fran 0.00
Washington 1.28
Boston 0.04

These final scores are perhaps our best method for comparing these 5 specific cities as absent of a national or international perspective as possible, which will be important later. However, this method is far from perfect.

(2) Accessibility

Next I’m going to look at within-city accessibility. Personal vehicles carry an array of socioeconomic and environmental concerns. Broadly speaking, the environmental and financial costs of car use are too high for it to be considered a viable form of transportation, even today (this gets at the idea of being a good global citizen, because the poor of the world and the citizens of the future are subsidizing our over-reliance on fossil fuels). Therefore, we will look only at mass transit, biking, and walking options.

For this information, I turn to 2012 American Community Survey estimates (according to these guys) on commuter modal splits:

Bike Transit Walk Total No Car
New York 1.0% 55.9% 10.1% 67.0%
Chicago 1.6% 26.3% 6.9% 34.8%
San Fran 3.8% 33.1% 3.8% 40.7%
Washington 4.1% 38.6% 11.9% 54.6%
Boston 2.0% 34.6% 15.5% 52.1%

This information covers only commuting to work, and obviously there are many other aspects to life. However, I think it is a reasonable proxy for non-car use in other facets of life. Again I’ll stretch these results across the five cities:

New York 4.00
Chicago 0.00
San Fran 0.73
Washington 2.46
Boston 2.15

In the next installation of this series, I will look at affordability and quality of life.

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