Liveability survey results prove perplexing

The Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU) issued its annual survey on urban liveability last week, with only one U.S. city cracking the ranks of the top 30 most liveable cities in the world.

With liveability defined by EIU as political stability, healthcare access, “culture and environment,” education, and infrastructure, Vancouver, Canada took the top spot as the most liveable city of the 140 global cities surveyed for the fifth year running.  Canada and Australia dominated the rankings, with both nations accounting for seven out of the top ten.

The top of the survey is not particularly surprising, given the reputation of cities like Vancouver, Toronto, and Sydney for having dense development and an efficient public transportation network – in addition to easy, widespread access to world-class education and healthcare.  Neither is the bottom of EIU’s survey very earth-shattering – no one would dispute the finding that Harare, Zimbabwe and Douala, Cameroon aren’t particularly liveable.

But the middle of the survey is curious, especially when it comes to which American cities are considered most liveable.

Pittsburgh, Pa. – known more for the NFL’s Pittsburgh Steelers, sandwiches topped with French fries, and an omniscient groundhog than for its liveability – was the only US city to make the top 30.  Even more curiously, Detroit, where virtually a third of the city is abandoned, and Atlanta, with some of the lowest population densities in the nation, were both ranked much more liveable than Portland, Ore., the home of free light rail and urban growth boundaries.

This survey is ultimately proven a farce, however, by EIU’s conclusion that Los Angeles (#44) is more liveable than both London (#53) and New York City (#56).  Such a claim is ridiculous; if you want proof, try to get across town during rush hour without a car.

Most of EIU’s survey consists of rather nebulous comparative statistics – such as “food and drink” within the Culture and Environment category, or “availability of good quality housing” within the Infrastructure category – which may explain some of the oddities in the survey’s conclusions.  At the end of the day, these kinds of surveys are generally meaningless – again, do we really need research to tell us Washington DC is more liveable than Karachi, Pakistan?

Either way, this year’s EIU liveability survey seems especially warped.