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Kaid Benfield’s Blog

America's best cities for public transportation

Kaid Benfield

Posted April 26, 2012

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  the DC Metro (by: MJM/Mike, creative commons license)

Which are the best US cities for those who need or prefer to use public transportation?  New York, San Francisco, Boston, Washington, and Philadelphia – in that order – according to the terrific organization Walk Score, whose range of services offered to the public just keeps getting better and better.

Today, Walk Score is releasing its first ranking of city transit systems, revealing which, by their calculations, offer residents the best access to public transportation.  The rankings are based on the organization’s Transit Score, a GIS-based set of calculations that is a companion service to the organization’s flagship walkability rankings.  Transit Score, according to the organization in a press release, “measures how well a location is served by public transportation, and is based on data released in a standard open format by public transit agencies.”

Here are the top 25 cities, listed with the Transit Score for each:

(1)     New York (Transit Score: 81)

(2)     San Francisco (Transit Score: 80)

(3)     Boston (Transit Score: 74)

(4)     Washington, DC (Transit Score: 69)

(5)     Philadelphia (Transit Score: 68)

Chicago's El (by: vincent, creative commons license)

(6)     Chicago (Transit Score: 65)

(7)     Seattle (Transit Score: 59)

(8)     Miami (Transit Score: 57)

(9)     Baltimore (Transit Score: 57)

(10)   Portland (Transit Score: 50)

(11)   Los Angeles (Transit Score: 49)

(12)   Milwaukee (Transit Score: 49)

(13)   Denver (Transit Score: 47)

(14)   Cleveland (Transit Score: 45)

(15)   San Jose (Transit Score; 40)

(16)   Dallas (Transit Score: 39)

(17)   Houston (Transit Score: 36)

(18)   San Diego (Transit Score: 36)

(19)   San Antonio (Transit Score: 35)

(20)   Kansas City (Transit Score: 34)

(21)   Austin (Transit Score: 33)

(22)   Sacramento (Transit Score: 32)

(23)   Las Vegas (Transit Score: 32)

(24)   Columbus (Transit Score: 29)

(25)   Raleigh (Transit Score: 23)  

bus in New York City (by: Stephen Rees, creative commons license)Note the very wide range.  Only ten cities score 50 or above, which may partially explain why Americans use public transportation less than citizens of almost every other country.

In calculating a Transit Score for a particular location, a "usefulness" value is assigned to nearby transit routes based on frequency of service, type of route, and distance to the nearest stop on the route.  City scores are then calculated by applying the Transit Score algorithm block-by-block throughout the city and weighting the scores by population density.  Walk Score’s web site contains a detailed description of the methodology used in the transit ratings.

I’ve been following the evolution of Walk Score’s services from the beginning, and I am continually impressed not just by the services they offer but by the continual improvement the staff puts into them.

There is little question that, with rising fuel prices and shifts in consumer preferences, demand for convenient access to public transit is growing.  This seems particularly true for the Millennial generation (those born roughly between 1980 and 2000), which is driving significantly less than their predecessors.  According to a study conducted by The Frontier Group, a research and policy analysis firm, for the USPIRG Education Fund and released earlier this month, San Francisco's BART (by: John "K", creative commons license)the average annual number of vehicle miles traveled by young people  decreased from 10,300 miles to 7,900 miles per capita--a drop of 23 percent--from 2001 to 2009.  Overall, the average American was driving 6 percent fewer miles per year in 2011 than in 2004.

Meanwhile, according to the same report, the average annual number of miles traveled by 16 to 34 year olds on public transit, such as trains and buses, increased by 40 percent during that period.  The American Public Transportation Association reports that Americans took 10.4 billion trips on public transportation in 2011, and that riding public transportation saves individuals an average of over $10,000 per year.

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Kaid Benfield writes (almost) daily about community, development, and the environment.  For more posts, see his blog's home page.

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Chuck BanasApr 26 2012 05:23 PM

Too many cities were omitted from the list to make it a meaningful comparison. Many regionally incorporated cities were compared to older, smaller jurisdictions. The population/area comparisons therefore make no sense.

To wit: Minneapolis wasn't considered one of the 25 largest municipalities, but has a Transit Score of 69. Buffalo has a score of 47. Pittsburgh has a 55. St. Louis has a 46. And most of the scores near the bottom of the list (like #22 Sacamento, Transit Score 32; or #25 Raleigh, Transit Score 23) are just plain pitiful.

Clay ForsbergApr 26 2012 05:52 PM

Good piece Kaid. I would like to raise a couple of questions though.

The first is kind of a "chicken or egg" thing. Do people in areas with good public transportation take it more because it's good, or do areas with good transportation use it more because the demographics are more prone to use it. New York and San Francisco are more liberal and younger ... which I would guess takes public transportation more. Also the geography of city will dictate its use also. For example Los Angeles is spread out, and connecting everything is extremely costly, ultimately leaving gaps in the service.

And second, I don't believe gas prices have a whole lot to do with ridership. I believe it's more of a generational thing. It's well documented that the Millennials don't own as many cars and don't drive as much as their parents do. Also young people are much more tolerant of people of other races and color. And because of socio-economical reasons minorities make a larger share of riders.

I spent many years in Los Angeles and often took public transportation. Once you spend the time to get to know it, it'll get you where need need to go, at an affordable price. But for too many people, gas prices could hit ten dollars a gallon, and they wouldn't take a bus ... ever. They just have to have their car, and more time than not ... their car driving alone.

Kaid @ NRDCApr 26 2012 07:10 PM

Thanks, Clay. I suspect you are right with regard to people who have choices.

For many trying to support families on working class wages, though, I suspect they will do what is cost-efficient and most convenient. It it's transit, they will use it. But if the transit isn't convenient, they will drive because it's the rational choice given limited options.

Justin HornerApr 26 2012 11:33 PM

Oakland gets an 85. Just sayin'

Matt LernerApr 27 2012 12:15 PM

@chuck Matt from walk Score here. To rank cities we need to pick some type of boundary or criteria to define the area we include. We chose the official census city boundaries (incorporated places) since this is what most people think of as a city. We looked at metro areas, transit sheds from the center of the city, or other measures -- but this seemed best to us. Curious what you think a better definition of a "city" would be -- thanks for the comment!

Veronica PApr 27 2012 12:27 PM

Miami? Now THAT is a joke!

Jarrett WalkerApr 27 2012 06:17 PM

Matt and the WalkScore team do a great job without a lot of resources, and I applaud them for all they've achieved.

Having said that, Transit Score is the only WS product that I can't recommend. My critique (and that of others) is here:

A better product will require a lot of processing power, but that's mostly a fundraising problem!

Chuck BanasApr 28 2012 11:53 PM

@Matt: I understand that one can never find a truly homologous method of comparing cities. But why choose what may be the worst metric out of all of them?

There is just too much arbitrary variation between cities' incorporated areas. Some cities have, over time, annexed adjacent territory. Others annexed only a little. Yet others hardly at all. Some cities are incorporated with the surrounding county or counties, and therefore the "city" includes suburban and even rural areas, thus artificially lowering their transit score. Other cities that haven't annexed territory or incorporated suburbs have a good transit score, but were omitted from the list because the city population is ranked artificially low.

I'm sure you see the problem. When doing a ranking study, the idea of course is to compare similar things—apples to apples. As far as cities and census data are concerned, I'd have suggested comparing MSA/CSA data, or perhaps better yet, Urbanized Area data. But this study seems to based on the most arbitrary, inconsistent census metric out of all of them. The metro or urban area is really the only meaningful economic and cultural unit anyway, and it's all broken down by ZIP code, so as I understand it, it would be relatively easy to calculate transit score for the aggregate areas I suggested.

Kindly correct me if I've made any erroneous assumptions or claims. But as I now see it, it would be difficult to find a more statistically arbitrary method than the one you chose.

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