When it comes to the economy, Boston beats Seattle solidly, even though both cities are playing in the big leagues.
Special to The Seattle Times
Housing and utilities cost more in Boston, pushing the cost of living up.
• A software-development engineer paid $137,049 in Seattle would have to make $164,696 in Boston to retain same standard of living.
• A college professor paid $85,000 in Seattle would have to make $102,184 in Boston.
• A city bus driver paid $35,000 in Seattle would have to earn $38,669 in Boston.
• A barista making $15,000 in Seattle would have to earn $16,573 in Boston.
The average listing price of a four-bedroom, two-bathroom home in Massachusetts was $577,080, Coldwell Banker reports in its 2014 survey. Here are the five most expensive markets in that state:
• Wellesley: $1,090,088.83
• Cohasset: $923,888.89
• Lexington: $918,600.41
• Hingham: $891,342.11
• Newton: $884,766.60
Similar-sized homes sold in Washington state for an average of $398,527 last year. The top five most expensive markets were:
• Mercer Island: $1,013,445.83
• Bellevue: $835,120.59
• Kirkland: $768,007.93
• Woodinville: $709,888.10
• Redmond: $694,456.00
Lists are fine, but it would be instructive to focus on one of Seattle’s competitors. How do we match up? What can we learn?
For no particular reason, I picked Boston.
But this is not a game. Benchmarking Seattle against its high-quality peers is critical to understanding our strengths and challenges. We are in a worldwide battle for talent and capital, two assets that can go anywhere. The current boom is no guarantee of future results.
Both Seatown and Beantown are technopolises, rich in brains and startups, consistently listed as two of the most competitive metropolitan areas in the nation. The two cities have about the same population.
Both are port cities and have cut down hills and used land fill to expand. Each also has a sexier, more successful historic rival: San Francisco for us, New York City for Boston.
Of course, some broader differences are stark. Boston was settled in 1630, more than two centuries before Seattle emerged as a little logging village. Boston and environs can claim three presidents; Seattle none. Parts of Boston retain an urban, ethnic grit that is all but lost here. Say movies, and people think of the relentless crime drama “Mystic River” for one city, the sweet “Sleepless in Seattle” for the other.
Boston sports NBA and NHL teams. Our Sonics decamped for Oklahoma City.
In the economy, if one were keeping score, Boston beats Seattle solidly, even though both cities are playing in the big leagues.
For example, in the Economist Intelligence Unit’s Hotspots 2025 report, which looked at the future competitive prospects of world cities, Boston ranked 19th and Seattle 35th among 120.
Boston ranks as an Alpha-minus city by the measurement of the Globalization and World Cities Research Network (GaWC), the fourth-highest level. Seattle is considered a Beta-minus city, two rungs further down.
Mark Muro, senior fellow and policy director of the Metropolitan Policy Program at the Brookings Institution, is a Seattle native. He also worked as a reporter for The Boston Globe.
When I asked him to compare and contrast this past week, he said, “Boston is famous for a diversified and broad portfolio in advanced industries. Seattle looks pretty good ... but it doesn’t have the breadth and depth of Boston that is ultimately most resilient.”
Where metro Seattle’s advanced industries are highly concentrated in aerospace and software, Boston can claim command of more than a dozen of these high-value sectors. Among them: computer systems and research and development, precision instruments, semiconductors, aircraft parts, Web search, audio-video, telecom, power generation and medical diagnostics.
Metro Boston’s great strength is its universities, including Harvard, MIT, Boston College, Tufts, Northeastern, Suffolk and Boston University. Especially over the past 40 years, they have been behind Boston’s rise as a tech powerhouse, most famously on Route 128. Not only do they generate renowned research and attract some of the most talented students in the world, but many, especially MIT, have become highly proficient in commercializing research through tech transfer.
This close connection between universities and the economy allowed Boston to reverse decades of decline. It provided the metro area with the steady accumulation of deep, leading-edge knowledge. And the private sector found applications for it.
“Look at the skills base,” Muro said. “Boston has an incredible pool of human talent that circles the universities and pervades the economy.”
Boston has other advantages. It is close to New York and the largest cluster of population in the country, easily reached by the Northeast Corridor on Amtrak. Boston has abundant transit, including subway lines and commuter trains serving much of the region.
Although Boston lost its money-center banks in the mergers of the 1990s and 2000s, it remains a major corporate center. Companies come for the universities, and the startups are strong. Private research is a heavy player. Boston is also a major tourist destination.
None of this leaves Seattle at fourth down and 15, to use a tired sports metaphor. As Muro puts it, “Seattle is playing in that echelon now. Seattle is submitting a rival bid. It’s fairly well positioned” as these world cities embark on a major growth phase.
Seattle’s challenge is to deepen and widen its advanced industries. Although it can’t get in a time machine and go back to the golden age of when universities were being founded, it can leverage and expand the research and tech transfer from the University of Washington.
Like Boston, Seattle has mastered the art of reinvention. It is also particularly well positioned to take advantage of growth in Asia.
So the contest is far from over. Seattle is in the game and at a high level.
|Abbreviated résumés of two very competitive places.|
|Microsoft, Amazon.com, T-Mobile||Largest companies||State Street Bank, Fidelity Investments, John Hancock|
|Coffee||Famed hot drink||Tea|
|Pike Place Market||Tourist attractions||Faneuil Hall|
|Burke-Gilman Trail||Popular trails||Freedom Trail|
|Safeco Field||Baseball stadiums||Fenway Park|
|UW’s Red Square||College gathering places||Harvard Square|
|Bertha||Tunneling projects||Big Dig|
|Space Needle||Iconic landmarks||Zakim Bridge|
|Ride the Ducks||Popular tours||Swan Boats|
|Rock ‘n’ Roll Seattle Marathon||Marathons||Boston Marathon|
|Red Hook||Beer||Samuel Adams|
You may reach Jon Talton at firstname.lastname@example.org
Information in this chart, originally published Feb. 1, 2015, was corrected Feb. 2, 2015. A previous version of this story incorrectly stated Harvard’s college gathering place.
About Jon Talton
Jon Talton comments on economic trends and turning points, putting them into context with people, place and the environment in the Pacific Northwest