Has complaining about Seattle become the city’s No. 1 pastime? With the constant griping that everything used to be better, I’ve been wondering. Now there’s a new study that has me convinced.
The study is the 2019 “Cities Scorecard for Millennials,” published by The Langston Co., a Denver-based market-research firm. Tom Anderson, a demographer and partner at the firm, explains that it’s different from the typical city ranking in which they simply add up a bunch of data points and spit out a result.
“There’s so many of these junk ‘best cities’ rankings, and they are very one-dimensional,” he said.
Instead, Anderson wanted to hear from residents themselves about how they perceive various aspects of life in their town. So he partnered with a polling firm, Centiment, which interviewed 3,000 young adults (ages 21 to 38) in 22 large cities on a wide range of topics. For each, respondents scored their level of satisfaction on a scale of 1 to 10.
“We’re not measuring objective truths about certain cities,” Anderson said. “We’re measuring self-reported satisfaction levels.”
So when it comes to self-perceptions, how does Seattle stack up with other large cities?
We rank in the bottom five for our overall score, which the survey calls that the city’s “value.” What that means is that for young adults, the negatives of living in Seattle outweigh the positives.
Some of the things we give ourselves low marks make perfect sense to me. But for many others, our low level of satisfaction seems out of whack with reality.
Take traffic. Sure, it’s bad here. But the worst? Not according to the most recent INRIX Traffic Scorecard, which ranked Seattle as the sixth-most congested city. But our self score for traffic was easily the lowest among the cities, at 23 percent below the survey average. Even folks in Los Angeles, with its notoriously clogged freeways, are more at peace with their gridlock than Seattleites are with ours.
The same is true for commute times. We rank dead last yet again, scoring ourselves worse than any other city by a wide margin. But according to the most recent census data, our metro area commute times average 31 minutes — not great, but hardly the worst. Even in New York, which actually is the worst (37 minutes), those surveyed expressed a higher level of satisfaction with their commutes.
Cost-of-living is another example. Nobody could be surprised that we gave ourselves low marks, since Seattle is very expensive — but are we on par with San Francisco? No, it’s not even close, according to the most recent Cost Of Living Index. And yet, in the survey, we came in last place for satisfaction with overall cost of living, with a score just a fraction lower than San Francisco’s.
Similar story with public transit and walkability, both of which are generally considered pretty good here. For transit, we scored ourselves second-lowest in the survey, trailing a bunch of car-centric cities that have objectively worse systems than ours, such as Phoenix and Sacramento.
And even though the website Walk Score ranks us consistently in the top 10 for walkability, we gave ourselves below average grades. We even rated ourselves lower than Charlotte, North Carolina, which WalkScore ranks as the fourth least-walkable city in the U.S.
Still not convinced that Seattle has become the capital of kvetch? Then explain this:
The survey asks respondents to rate their level of satisfaction with different types of local taxes. In Seattle, we gave ourselves below average scores across the board — including for income tax.
Newsflash: We don’t have an income tax in Washington, folks.
That’s right — Seattleites somehow find a way to complain about a tax that we don’t have to pay. We actually expressed more dissatisfaction for our (nonexistent) income tax than New Yorkers, who get hit with a city income tax on top of the state one.
Maybe I’m reaching, but one explanation could be that a lot of young people here were expressing their frustration with Washington’s highly regressive tax system, which relies so heavily on sales tax. But that certainly wasn’t the case in the five other cities included in the survey that are also in states without an income tax — three in Texas, two in Florida. Those cities rank as the top five most satisfied with incomes taxes. Seattle ranks 12th.
I asked Anderson if he had any thoughts about why Seattle — a city that typically tops many rankings for economic vitality and quality-of-life — did so poorly in his survey. Turns out, he’s given this some thought.
“It’s my hypothesis that Seattle millennials are very progressive, and they have very high standards for what their city should be,” he said. “And if that’s the case, then these high standards aren’t being met. That’s why we see many low self-reported satisfaction levels with many facets of the city.”
I should state here that there are a few bright spots for Seattle in the study. We gave ourselves fairly high scores for anything related to career. We also had the second highest score for access to nature, and third highest for our sports teams.
Overall, Seattle ranks in the middle of the pack for all the good stuff, which the study calls “benefits.” But because the costs are so high, our final score fell to the bottom five.
In addition to low scores for cost-of-living, transportation and taxes, we rated the city’s social environment very poorly — things like friendliness and ease of meeting people — but that’s probably not a surprise.
The survey’s top performing cities are Houston, Dallas and Atlanta, in that order — all in the South, and all places with a significantly lower cost-of-living than Seattle.