Things I’ve Worked On: What Makes DC a Great City? Part 2

Now, I’m going to turn my attention to affordability and quality of life in my ranking of New York, Chicago, San Francisco, Washington, and Boston.

3) Affordability

Affordability is particularly important within the context of accessibility. That is to say, accessibility means very little if you’re completely priced out of the accessible parts of the city. For this item, I looked at the median rent of a 1-bedroom apartment as a percentage of the median household income. I obtained rental rates from here (accessed 8/4/14), with values over the last 12 months, and income from here (2009-2013). That these measurements correspond to different time frames should not make a very big difference for my purposes. Note that the cities in terms of rental info are not very well defined, as New York, for example, has a separate entry for Brooklyn. Still, the numbers seem approximately correct (if anything, attempting to find a weighted mean/median with Brooklyn would appear to worsen the results). I chose the rental rate for a 1-bedroom apartment (as opposed to mortgage/ownership or rental rates for a 2- or 3-bedroom apartment) because it corresponds to a more inelastic situation.

1-Bed Rental ($) Income % of yearly income spent on rent
New York 2895 52259 66.48%
Chicago 1810 47270 45.95%
San Fran 3700 75604 58.73%
Washington 2250 65830 41.01%
Boston 2500 53601 55.97%

I should clarify that none of these cities are particularly affordable, which I suppose makes differences between them all the more significant. Stretching these differences across 0-4 (and making the lowest number correspond to the highest ranking) yields the following:

New York 0.00
Chicago 3.22
San Fran 1.22
Washington 4.00
Boston 1.65

4) Quality of Life

Quality of Life is a catch-all for things not accounted for in other items. Here, I’ll have to average rankings across a number of aspects. For the first ranking, I refer back to the Global City Competitive Index from jobs and smarts because the social and cultural character category that we excluded then seems relevant here (It measures the freedom of expression and human rights, openness and diversity, the presence of crime in society, and cultural vibrancy). Next, I include rankings of happiness based on data from the CDC (info here). Happiness is surely dependent on other elements that are already accounted for, but it will move the averages for this item closer to the “truth” (The happiness score is also an integer ranking, which weakens it; however, because there are a fairly large number of cities in the original ranking, we can treat it as almost a raw score for these 5 specific cities). I also considered weather in my first ranking, and it seems reasonable to include it here (data from five thirty eight). Finally, I consider a wildcard item: the number of professional sports championships (big 4 + MLS [which is quite popular in DC]). Sports is tricky because NY is much larger than the other cities, and per person does not make much sense on its own (because your enjoyment from a win is not entirely contingent on how many other people are celebrating). So I’ve decided to count only championships won by the best retained team (e.g., New York Yankees, not Mets) and find the average of the raw total wins and the wins per million residents.

Social and Cultural Character Happiness Ranking (high is bad) Weather Unpredictability (high is bad) Sports Championship Score
New York 95 56 69 20.68
Chicago 92.5 36 70 10.94
San Fran 85 39 40 7.61
Washington 85 11 67 10.07
Boston 80 41 71 44.18

These numbers need to be normalized before we can compare them. Different from elsewhere, because we’re going to find an average, we’re going to need to stretch these items on a consistent national major city scale. Thus, we’ll spread it over a 0-10 scale, with 10 being the best score among major national cities and 0 being the worst score among major national cities:

Social and Cultural Character Raw Happiness Score (high is good) Weather Unpredictability (high is good) Sports Championships score Average
New York 10.00 0.00 2.96 4.53 4.37
Chicago 8.33 3.64 2.78 2.26 4.25
San Fran 3.33 3.09 8.33 1.48 4.06
Washington 3.33 8.18 3.33 2.05 4.22
Boston 0.00 2.73 2.59 10.00 3.83

I must say, I feel like Boston got a raw deal on social and cultural character (Houston scored higher!), but its dominance in sports compensates. Finally, I’ll again stretch the averages over 0-4 to find a final ranking:

New York 4.00
Chicago 3.11
San Fran 1.70
Washington 2.89
Boston 0.00


We’re left with the following breakdowns:

Jobs and Smarts Accessibility Affordability Quality of Life
New York 4.00 4.00 0.00 4.00
Chicago 1.06 0.00 3.22 3.11
San Fran 0.00 0.73 1.22 1.70
Washington 1.28 2.46 4.00 2.89
Boston 0.04 2.15 1.65 0.00

Selected summary statistics are as follows:

Mean Variance Minimum
New York 3.00 3.00 0
Chicago 1.85 1.88 0
San Fran 0.91 0.40 0
Washington 2.66 0.95 1.28
Boston 0.96 0.92 0

I should emphasize that these summary statistics are not very useful because there should be weights when calculating an aggregate score. Further, such weights should incorporate not only the importance of the items but also the degree of difference among cities. For example, recall that in Part 1 the cities did not exhibit much difference for the jobs and smarts item from an international baseline perspective. In contrast, in our final ranking, we amplified these potentially very small differences across the entire range from 0 to 4. Theoretically, if the difference between the worst city and best city were only a handful of jobs, the difference on the scale would still be 0 vs. 4. Thus, any sort of weight for this item would need to account for this by being smaller. For now, it’s best to look at the rankings for specific items. Considering this admittedly massive flaw in our averages, based on them, NY wins. However, NYC has a large variance because the rent is “too damn high,” so many will be priced out of enjoying, e.g., accessibility and quality of life. In fact, Washington DC is the only city that doesn’t score a 0 on any, which may well mean it is the best city. I’ll end with this chart, which is the record if the cities went head to head based on strength in each category

Win-Loss Jobs and Smarts Accessibility Affordability Quality of Life Overall
New York  4-0 4-0 0-4 4-0 12-4
Chicago 2-2 0-4 3-1 3-1 8-8
San Fran 0-4 1-3 1-3 1-3 3-13
Washington 3-1 3-1 4-0 2-2 12-4
Boston 1-3 2-2 2-2 0-4 5-11

I think I like this chart the best for comparison to the original ranking (It’s the same thing as converting to integer ranking and finding the average but displayed in a cooler way):

Final Rank Original Rank
Washington 1st 1st
New York 1st 3rd
Chicago 3rd 4th
Boston 4th 5th
San Fran 5th 2nd

In the final part of of this series, I’m going to look at the historical trends that created DC. In other words, we know why DC is a great city now, but how did it get this way?

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