The Economist Intelligence Unit recently named Vienna "the world’s most livable city." The Austrian capital has been hovering near the top of this respected quality-of-life ranking for a number of years. Also this year, Vienna earned its ninth consecutive No. 1 ranking on a similar data-based study performed by consulting firm Mercer. Why are these organizations fond of this midsize European city? And why do other cities such as Melbourne, Tokyo and Vancouver rank highly on these studies year after year?

Variables like access to culture and the arts, pedestrian friendliness and accessibility of public parks play a role in the studies, but so do more practical day-to-day traits such as cost of living, transportation and even quality of sanitation services.

People can afford to live in 'livable cities'

Affordability is an important part of these quality-of-life studies, and it goes a long way towards explaining why Austria's main city stands out. In Vienna, for example, rents are relatively low. After this year's rankings came out, the U.K.'s Guardian was quick to compare the German-speaking city with London. They found that rent for a centrally located apartment in Vienna was less than half the rent of a similar apartment in London.

Large cities often struggle when it comes to affordable rent, and residents usually have to sacrifice location to get lower prices. Thanks to rental regulations and the municipal government's willingness to invest heavily in social housing, rent is not only reasonable in Vienna, but residents can afford to live near the city's core in quality housing. In fact, housing location is one of the reasons that another city, Vancouver, scored highly (five on Mercer and six in Intelligence Unit rankings) this year.

Ranking user-friendliness

people walking in Vienna Walkability is a key factor for residents and tourists alike in Vienna. (Photo: Subodh Agnihotri/Shutterstock.com)

The accessibility of education, social services and medical care are other factors in the rankings. Walkability and access to public transport are important variables as well, as are safety and crime statistics (an area where the highest-ranked large cities, Osaka and Tokyo, stood out).

Transportation is one aspect in Vienna that will appeal to people who are just visiting. Despite its comparatively diminutive size, the city has five subway lines, 127 bus lines and 29 tram lines (which constitutes the sixth-largest tram network in the world). These features are accessible by multilingual ticket machines with single tickets and unlimited passes.

Being without a car is easy because of these widespread public transport services and also because of Vienna's walkability. The city recently transformed its famous Mariahilferstrasse shopping street into a pedestrian-friendly thoroughfare. The historic city center is likewise dominated by pedestrian-only and pedestrian-friendly areas, boutiques, fountains and the city’s biggest claim to fame (arguably): its centuries-old cafes.

Size matters

Cities of all different sizes made the Mercer and Economist lists, but cities with smaller populations (Vienna has 2 million, No. 4 Calgary has 1.2 million and No. 6 Vancouver has 600,000 within city limits) tended to do better overall. The Economist's runner up, Melbourne, has a population of about 5 million, but it is known for its low population density. The EIU said that midsize cities and cities with lower population densities do not have a strained infrastructure and often have lower crime rates.

The midsize-city variable is not universal, however. Osaka and Tokyo, which is part of one of the most populous metropolitan areas on earth, earn top ranking on both EIU and Mercer rankings because of their almost non-existent crime rates, public services, cleanliness and transportation networks.

How is the 'quality of life' if you are just visiting?

tourist with map in Vienna Although tourists seem to prefer cities like Paris and London, low-cost carriers have made Vienna more accessible. (Photo: TravnikovStudio/Shutterstock)

Vienna has a long and deep history, and it remains a hub for commerce, classical music and cafe culture. However, judging by arrival statistics, tourists seem to prefer Paris, Barcelona, London or Berlin. Even so, low-cost carriers from other European hubs have made Vienna more accessible for people who are spending time on the continent or in England. (Unfortunately for U.S.-based travelers, these continental connections are vital because Austrian Airlines is currently the only option for direct flights from the U.S.)

Given recent protests against tourists in some parts of Europe, one might wonder if the Viennese would look unkindly on tourists coming to their Utopian city. The answer, at least according to a recent survey by the Vienna Tourist Board, is “no.” Ninety percent of residents said that tourism was positive for the economy and 82 percent thought that tourism, even during the high season, did not affect their daily lives. Things did get a little grayer when it came to factors like Airbnb, with just over half of respondents saying they were OK with tourists renting nearby apartments. Vienna had just over 6 million overnight stays per year by tourists during the survey. That’s approximately one-third of the amount of international overnight stays for cities like London and Paris.

How do U.S. cities fare on these studies?

How did U.S. cities do on the ranking? Honolulu and Pittsburgh were the top U.S. cities (23rd and 32nd on EIU, respectively), fitting with the preference for midsize-cities. Washington, D.C., and Minneapolis cracked the top 40. San Francisco scored higher than Honolulu on the Mercer study. Interestingly, Mercer found that Honolulu was the world's top city in terms of sanitation.

The EIU and Mercer studies are based on data rather than solely on opinion. You can be confident that the top cities on these lists are generally nice, safe and user-friendly places to live or visit. To reach your own conclusions, however, you will probably have to discount certain variables and give more weight to those that are important to you.

Why Vienna is the world's most livable city
Austria's capital ranks high in everything from walkability to affordability.