Now that everyone in Cleveland has posted to their Twitter and Facebook pages Forbes’s new article on America’s “worst winter weather cities” (I’m not linking to the article because I don’t think Forbes deserves the traffic), it’s about time to take a step back and look at exactly why Cleveland managed to come out on the top of this list.

It’s unfortunate that Tim Kiladze and Forbes have given some folks ammunition to perpetuate the self-depreciating victim attitude that seems to be too prevalent around here. Forbes is notorious for these “best of” and “worst of” lists, which typically rely on badly flawed methodologies. At the end of the day, Forbes’s motivation is to sell magazines and drive traffic to its website, not to provide any valuable insight about these cities. It’s a potential gold mine for the magazine because, no matter how the lists shake out, local media absolutely eats this stuff up. Until that stops (and there is no indication that it will), Forbes will keep turning the crank.

The most obvious question to ask about this “worst city” list is “worst compared to whom”? Kiladze tells us:

In compiling our list, we measured weather patterns in the country’s fifty largest cities, or Incorporated Places and Minor Civil Divisions as defined by the U.S. Census Bureau.

50 largest cities… sounds reasonable, right? Not really, because the size of cities is determined by arbitrary boundaries. Using this metric, cities like ElPaso , TX, Tucson, AZ and Fresno, CA are all technically “larger” than Cleveland. Meanwhile, none of the cities in upstate New York, where it would be logical to think about the cities as inflicted with “harsh winter weather”, make the cut. Buffalo is the 69th largest city, Rochester the 99th and Syracuse the 174th. With those cities out of the running, Cleveland doesn’t have a whole lot of tough competition.

But there’s more. Other potential “bad weather” cities that you might expect to fall in the top 50 don’t make the cut either. A few include: Cincinnati (56th), Pittsburgh (60th), St. Paul (66th), Anchorage (67th) and Madison (81st). Eliminating all of these cities from the methodology is akin to kicking the Cavs and the Lakers out of the NBA and then declaring the team that wins the playoffs the “world’s best”.

Still, this doesn’t change the fact that Kiladze’s methodology finds Cleveland to have worse winter weather than Minneapolis. How did that happen? The author explains:

…data was provided by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and tracks average annual temperature, total precipitation in inches and total snowfall in inches. The temperature and precipitation data was calculated over a 30-year period from 1971 to 2000–NOAA’s most recent figures because of its decadal calculation schedule–and the snowfall levels included up to 2008.

Here is where things really start to fall apart. Kiladze is using the year-round average temperature and the year-round average participation to draw normative conclusions about winter weather. This essentially means that any city with blisteringly hot summers is off-the-hook, regardless of what their winters are like, because the summer temperatures will skew the average. But it also means that cities with big variations in temperature benefit as well.

Consider that the average high January temperature in Minneapolis is a frigid 22 degrees Fahrenheit. In contrast, Cleveland averages 33 degrees in January – a significant 11 degree gap. But the average July temperature in Minneapolis is 83 degrees, versus only 81 degrees in Cleveland. When you average the numbers together, Minneapolis doesn’t look quite nearly as bad as it should.

Further, Kiladze makes no attempt to analyze how different cities respond to winter weather. It’s merely assumed that an inch of snow is an inch of snow, no matter where it falls. This is laughable. One of my worst travel experiences was on a trip I took to Atlanta in January of 2005. Upon arriving, a few inches of snow covered the ground, barely enough to make anyone in Cleveland think twice about canceling their dinner plans, but enough to ruin our entire weekend in Atlanta. There really was nothing to do in the city other than sit around the hotel and watch movies on cable. Point is.. a city unprepared for winter can be easily crippled. In a city that can handle it, life doesn’t have to come to a halt.

The bottom line is that the headlines makes a powerful statement that the fine print can’t back up. That doesn’t mean Cleveland’s winters are tropical or that I’m not anxious for it all to be over. It does show that Forbes’s lists are intellectually bankrupt and don’t deserve anyone’s time of day.

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3 Responses to “Deciphering Another Nonsense Forbes List”

  1. John Polk Says:

    This was really a great read. Thanks for doing some mythbusting. Many years ago, the Cleveland Chamber’s research genius would, as a perverse hobby, use similar methodology to de-construct similarly specious lists, and re-cast them to re-position Cleveland in a less unfavorable light. The counterpropaganda was actually helpful from an economic development perspective.

    The crack investigative reporters at the PD gave Forbes a lot of free local publicity by giving this bulls..t story the front page. Wonder if they’d give similar attention to this perfectly responsible effort to refute it…

  2. Rob Pitingolo Says:

    John, not only did the PD give this undeserved publicity, but the reporter even managed to misinterpret the details of the Forbes article. You can read my follow-up http://blog.robpitingolo.org/2010/02/i-despise-forbes-lists.html“>here.

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