How not to rank US cities

By Felix Salmon
November 29, 2012

More than half the world now lives in cities, and nearly all the growth and value creation in the world comes from what Richard Florida calls “megaregions” centered on large conurbations. So it’s really useful to see which cities are doing well, and which are not.

Sadly, that’s not what we’re getting. Instead, we get things like “The 20 Richest Metros in America“, from The Atlantic, based on the metric of personal income per capita, or — and this is much worse — CNBC’s First Annual Recovery Road Trip, which spent much of this week counting down the top three cities in America, based on a highly convoluted and opaque methodology based loosely on stock-price appreciation.

The results of these exercises are always useless. Here’s a list of random cities! (This is the Atlantic’s list.)

  1. Bridgeport, CT
  2. Midland, TX
  3. San Francisco, CA

Here’s another list of random cities! (This is CNBC’s list.)

  1. Atlanta, GA
  2. Charlotte, NC
  3. Philadelphia, PA

Here, by contrast, is the actual league table for US cities:

  1. New York
  2. Los Angeles
  3. Chicago
  4. Washington
  5. Houston
  6. Dallas
  7. Philadelphia
  8. San Francisco
  9. Boston
  10. Atlanta
  11. Miami
  12. Seattle

As you’d expect, this league table changes only very slowly, but it does change: Philadelphia fell behind San Francisco, for instance, in 2008, but then regained its seventh-place position in 2009. And lower down the table there’s more movement: Pittsburgh has risen from 25th place to 22nd since 2007, for instance.

The problem is that because this league table doesn’t change very much, there’s not much news value in reporting it, and instead reporters are drawn to gimmicks. Similarly, if you wanted to use public-company stock-market capitalization as a metric, then the obvious thing to do would simply be to list the cities with the largest market caps. My guess is that it would look very similar to the metropolitan GDP league table, and therefore, again, not be all that newsworthy. So instead, CNBC decided to go with the amount that stock prices have fluctuated, a methodology akin to simply throwing darts at a list of cities.

If you want to do valuable reporting on the cities which are getting things right, then the thing to do is to look at the growth rates of America’s biggest metropolitan areas, see which areas are consistently outperforming, and ask why. It’s much less gimmicky. But it’s much more useful.


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Journalists lazy twits who don’t take the time to understand 1% of the topics they are writing on? Say it isn’t so Felix!

I once spent an hour explaining to an economics journalist the intricacies of our state’s labor market for the story they were working on regarding unemployment. Obviously she couldn’t include even a portion of it, but I gave her dozens of small useful and illustrative facts about unemployment in our state and its causes/trends/et cetera, that would educate the reader of her article.

My quote out of a 1 hour interview was basically “unemployment is bad right now”. Worse she incorporated 0% of what I said to her into her article and basically just made things sound as terrible as possible.

That and other identical experiences have led me to only using journalists for my purposes and never trying to help them anymore. They hold themselves up like some noble profession but they are about an eighth of an inch up from used car salesmen. Schlepping lies and sensation for eyeballs and their accompanying ad dollars.

Posted by QCIC | Report as abusive

You cut off the league table at an . . . interesting point, since the next city is Minneapolis (a reasonable entry, arguably should be higher) and then the next city is Detroit. Below Detroit are such worse-performing cities as San Diego, Denver, Charlotte, Portland Oregon, and Columbus. Clearly the list isn’t quite capturing our intuitions when it comes to city performance. Of course it’s fine to be counter-intuitive if that’s where the data point, but in this case it’s hard to imagine that Detroit is in any meaningful way doing better than the other cities I’ve listed, so the likelihood is that the measure is flawed.

Posted by minderbender | Report as abusive

Ranking cities by GDP doesn’t look to be much different from ranking by population, does it?

Posted by Eericsonjr | Report as abusive

The geographers technique of aggregating is important, and properly aggregating is very important. Waterbury CT is about the same distance from Bridgeport as Greenwich is, and for unknown reasons, The Atlantic chose to group the latter and not the former. Anyone with any geographic sense would note that Bridgeport and Waterbury are far more similar (urban with underused industrial capacity) than either is to Greenwich (Suburban tracts 11 acre zoning). Greenwich has more in common with neighboring Westchester – but because it’s NY state they can’t be combined? No, it’s the model that is wrong. You reduce the weight of the political boundaries between states in these analyses. Can’t do that in Congressional districts, which is why Bridgeport and Greenwich are tied together.

Posted by OnkelBob | Report as abusive

“If you want to do valuable reporting on the cities which are getting things right, then the thing to do is to look at the growth rates of America’s biggest metropolitan areas, see which areas are consistently outperforming, and ask why.”

How is this more valuable Mr. Salmon? Growth rates by what measure? Population growth? jobs? Income? Immigrants from Asia? ALSO, valuable for whom? Immigrants? Middle-class conservatives? Upper-class liberals? Lower-income midwesterners? Conservative southerners? Humor me.

Posted by AJMango | Report as abusive