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Colin McNickle: Questioning those 'livability' rankings

| Monday, Oct. 15, 2018, 6:09 a.m.

“Livability” rankings have been all the rage for a number of years. Various entities devise the ratings; the media dutifully report them with little or no context. Public officials and booster organizations then tout the most laudatory rankings and reports as proof-positive that their respective cities and/or regions are “getting it right” or “on the move” or some other feel-good bromide.

But as two recent cases illustrate, all ranking methodologies are not created equal and some of the criteria employed are suspect, bordering on “bogus,” according to an analysis by the Allegheny Institute for Public Policy.

It was in August that The Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU) ranked Pittsburgh as the 32nd most-livable city in the world and second-best in the United States (behind Honolulu). But this past spring, U.S. News & World Report ranked Greater Pittsburgh 57th in its “Best Places to Live” rankings (with Honolulu ranked 35th).

“So, can anything useful be gleaned from these rankings?” asks Frank Gamrat, executive director of the Pittsburgh think tank, and Jake Haulk, its president emeritus and senior advisor. “Or are they essentially a meaningless exercise?”

The Economist’s methodology utilized qualitative (non-numeric) and quantitative (numeric) measures to rank cities. The former was based on the judgment of an in-house expert on a respective country and a field correspondent in each city.

Of the 30 categories gauged, only four (or 13 percent) were quantitative, or data-driven, while 26, or 87 percent, were qualitative, based on the judgment of individuals. That said, many of The Economist’s rankings defy credulity.

Take, for instance, Pittsburgh’s best score — 100, or “ideal” — in the EIU’s education category, which examines the availability of private education and the quality of private and public education.

The EIU measure did not delineate what aspects of education were evaluated — k-12, higher education or both.

But if the focus was on k-12, the Allegheny Institute repeatedly has documented Pittsburgh Public Schools’ manifest, long-running failures — incredibly high per-pupil spending and shockingly low academic performance.

“In short, the EIU ranking on education is bogus,” say Gamrat and Haulk.

Neither does The Economist take into account Pittsburgh’s failing water and sewer system; the outrageously high cost structure of Port Authority bus service or the use of public dollars to subsidize air carriers at Pittsburgh International Airport.

Contrast The Economist study, heavy on the qualitative, with the more quantitative-based U.S. News study, and the fact-based conclusions are sobering.

It scored Greater Pittsburgh poor on net migration; poor for its stagnant employment climate that lacks more meaningful goods-producing jobs; and a generally poor quality of life (determined by the crime rate; quality and availability of health care; “well-being” and a commuter index).

“The economy of the metro” — and as the Allegheny Institute has demonstrated for the City of Pittsburgh proper — “as measured by jobs data, has been stagnant for quite some time. … Weak job gains and little or no net migration are undoubtedly related,” the researchers say.

“The city and the MSA’s poor business climate are key elements in the comparatively weak economic performance,” Gamrat and Haulk remind. “And unfortunately (they) are likely to continue to be a drag on the economy.”

Colin McNickle is communications and marketing director at the Allegheny Institute for Public Policy (cmcnickle@alleghenyinstitute.org).

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