Washington has more telephones per person and a higher proportion of government workers than any major city in the world. It ranks third -- after Houston and Dallas -- in per capita income.
But Washington's infant mortality rate also ranks high -- far above those reported for Peking, Cairo and Bogota, Colombia. It is exceeded only by six major cities -- all in Asia and Latin America. Among big cities, the District also has one of the highest homicide rates in the world.
These highs and lows of D.C. life -- plus dozens of facts in between -- are recorded in a new "Book of World City Rankings" that provides comparative data on 105 cities, including 14 in the United States.
The book ranges from birth statistics to those for health, jobs, education and crime in an effort to help people "evaluate the relative merits of a place as somewhere to live, work or invest," according to John Tepper Marlin, its principal author.
Unlike a rival book on American cities, Rand McNally's "Places Rated Almanac," "World City Rankings" does not give an overall summary ranking that purports to tell which city is best. In last year's "Places Rated," that honor went to Pittsburgh, with Yuba City, Calif., ranking last of 329 cities compared.
"Anybody who says Pittsburgh is the best must have something wrong with his methodology," said Marlin, who heads the Council on Municipal Performance, a nonprofit group based in New York that studies cities and their management.
Even with vast aggregations of data and computers, Marlin said, comparing cities is "much more subjective than anybody would imagine."
Marlin, a Washington native who lives in New York City, said the city's high figure for telephones (1.73 per person) and its high proportion of government workers (31.6 percent) probably are related.
"Every government official likes to have at least one phone," he said, "preferably a hot line." The two cities that rank next in telephones per person, Paris and Stockholm, also are capitals, he noted. But so is Cairo, which is last on the list with 4.3 phones per 100 people.
Washington's high per capita income -- $10,117 in 1980 -- also reflects the strength of its government-centered economy, Marlin said, along with the prosperity of the lawyers, lobbyists and contractors who thrive here.
At the bottom of the income list are Peking ($175 per capita) and Tianjin ($142), also in China. The list includes only 43 of the 105 cities ranked in the book, Marlin said, because reliable recent data on the others are not available.
"The Russians and the rest of the Soviet Bloc don't tell you anything about their economy," Marlin said. "But the Chinese don't mind admitting they're poor."
According to the book, the District's infant mortality rate -- 27.3 per 1,000 births -- "exceeds that of many Third World cities" and mainly results from the large number of single-parent households headed by women "who do not receive comprehensive prenatal health care, education and economic support."
The book places the District seventh highest in infant mortality among 77 cities in 1978, the most recent year for which substantial worldwide statistics were available. Since then, the infant mortality rate here has generally dropped, despite a rise in 1984 to 21.2. But it remains high compared with other U.S., European and Japanese cities.
However, Dr. Harry Rosenberg, chief of mortality statistics at the National Center for Health Statistics, cautioned that international comparisons of infant death rates are "uncertain" because of differences in reporting requirements and definitions. He said the completeness of data for many underdeveloped countries is "highly questionable."
According to "World City Rankings," the major cities with higher infant mortality rates than Washington include Manila, Rio de Janeiro, Dehli and Mexico City. The next highest American city is Baltimore, in 10th place.
But the book says the District "has a high number of physicians in the population and excellent hospital facilities for those with access to them." The city ranks eighth in population per physician and nurse and seventh in population per hospital bed. But many D.C. hospital patients come from the suburbs.
Washington's homicide rate -- at 35 per 100,000 population in 1981 -- was third, behind St. Louis and Detroit, among a string of big American cities making up the top nine on the homicide list. Rio de Janeiro, the first foreign city listed, ranked 10th. The lowest homicide rate was in Melbourne.
In 1983, Marlin compiled "The Book of American City Rankings," which compares 100 large U.S. cities. The new study published by Free Press/Macmillan is based on several hundred reports by different governments and companies plus questionnaires sent by the authors to officials. Marlin's coauthors, both of whom worked for the Council on Municipal Performance, are Immanuel Ness and Stephen T. Collins.
Among other big-city facts in "World City Rankings":
*Rents are highest in Jidda, Saudi Arabia -- not in New York, London or Tokyo.
*London, despite its reputation, has about 40 percent less annual rainfall than Washington. But Marlin noted that in London the moisture "kind of sits in the air most of the time."
*Washington has a higher proportion of women who work -- 62 percent -- than any American city but ranks 10th worldwide.
*The divorce rate is highest in four American cities with Dallas first and Washington fourth, followed by Leningrad in fifth place. Rome and Rio, both highly Catholic, have the fewest divorces.