Why Aren’t People Moving to America’s ‘Best’ Cities?

Let the federal government tell you where to live

Downtown San Marcos, Texas.

Downtown San Marcos, Texas.

Photographer: Anne Rippy/Getty Images

Earlier this month, real estate brokerage Redfin published a list of America’s most bicycle-friendly cities, slotting Minneapolis first. That should seem a little ridiculous to anyone who has spent a winter in the North Star metropolis. Then again, hilliness and the number of bike commuters were part of the study’s methodology. The number of days cold enough to freeze snot to your upper lip was not.

Let’s not single out Redfin, though. A quick scan of “best cities” lists offers plenty that don’t pass the sniff test. There’s the list of best places to launch a startup that touts San Diego above noted tech economies like San Francisco and Seattle. There are the 10 most livable cities for the 50-and-over crowd, as ranked by AARP, none of which are south of Washington, D.C.—despite decades’ worth of evidence that older Americans prefer shuffleboard to curling1

The point isn’t to excoriate the list makers, who are, after all, simply responding to demand from people like you and me (and virtually every news outlet, including Bloomberg). Producing lists requires researchers to lean on subjectively selected methodology, which may overlook things like soul-shaking cold, or otherwise miss the forest for the trees. If high housing costs make San Francisco less livable, why do so many people want to live there?

I mention those other lists because there’s a better list out today, the Census Bureau’s most recent city-level population estimates, based on a very straightforward methodology: These are the places where people are actually moving. That doesn’t mean you should move to these places, too. But if they’re good enough for others, you might want to give them a look2.

In case you were wondering, San Marcos—pop. 58,889, and the fastest-growing U.S. city for the third year in a row—and Georgetown are satellites of Austin, while Frisco and McKinney are part of the sprawling Dallas footprint. It's also worth noting that there's little overlap between cities growing at the fastest rates and those adding the most new residents. Irvine, Calif., was the only city to place in the top 15 for both categories. The popular cities already bursting at the seams have little room to get much bigger, and not everyone wants to follow the crowd. If another urbanite's trash is your idea of treasure, here are the five cities that lost the most total residents from 2013 to 2014.

 

 

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  1. 1 Er, they’re moving south.   
  2. 2 Don't think the Census is above the "best cities" game; the venerable bureau is the proud developer of something called dwellr, which is either a dating app for number-crunchers or a way "to discover the top 25 U.S. cities and towns that best fit your lifestyle."