best u.s. cities for transit?

US News and World Report claims to have identified the 10 best US cities for public transit:

1. Portland, OR

2. Salt Lake City

3. New York

4. Boston

5. Minneapolis-St. Paul, MN

6. San Francisco

7. Los Angeles

8. Honolulu

9 (tie). Denver

9 (tie). Austin

All fine cities.  The methodology:

The rankings take into account per capita spending on public transportation, number of safety incidents per million trips, and the number of trips taken per capita.

But then there was this:

Analysis of data from the Federal Transit Administration and APTA shows which cities are among the best in the country for public transportation. All of these cities' systems have unique features that set them apart. Portland's public transit provides riders with a variety of travel options, including buses, light rail, commuter rail, streetcars, and an aerial tram.

Aargh!  Diversity of technologies says nothing whatever about travel options!  And if Portlanders really did have the options of a bus, a light rail train, a commuter rail train, a streetcar, and an aerial tram all competing for the same trip, that would be a pretty silly network, wouldn't it?

UPDATE:  Followup post is here!

18 Responses to best u.s. cities for transit?

  1. Michael Andersen, Portland Afoot April 30, 2011 at 9:30 am #

    I was pretty interested in this, in part because Portland’s TriMet is, understandably, promoting the ranking heavily. I thought it was great news and wanted to include more details in our magazine.
    So I called Kurtzleben, the reporter who’d compiled it, to ask about her data sources and methodology. After five emails/tweets/phone calls over several weeks, I finally got her on the phone, at which point she said she couldn’t remember exactly how she’d figured the data, except that it came from APTA and the NTD and that it was “very simple.” I asked if she could email me the spreadsheet; she referred me to her editor, who said, bewilderingly, that U.S. News policy is to not share the data it gathers.
    So I tried to retrace Kurtzleben’s steps. Here’s the result; my summary is at the bottom of that page. I pulled the data apart six ways from Sunday, based on the somewhat sketchy description in her article, but couldn’t come up with any scenario that ranked anybody above New York City, whose ridership and funding ranks dwarf all others.
    Her three metrics were total spending per capita, boarding-rides per capita and safety incidents per boarding-ride. It’s not clear what types of “safety incident” counted or how many years of them she analyzed; how she weighted the three metrics into a single ranking. I also suspect she may not have noticed or considered that population data in the APTA handbook is based on population figures from 2000 — the only place to get apples-to-apples population figures is the ACS [American Community Survey], which she didn’t mention using. But even after I ran several variations using the 2000 figures I couldn’t duplicate her findings.
    Another possibility is that she could have failed to fully account for all the spending and ridership at metro areas that have multiple transit agencies; Portland’s relative lack of overlapping suburban agencies would help explain its good ranking. Or she might have calculated population by city rather than metro area.
    At any rate, I think I made a good-faith effort to explain these numbers and couldn’t.
    My one-sentence summary: This article cited out-of-date population figures and was calculated with a methodology that U.S. News refused to explain, based on figures that U.S. News refused to share.

  2. david vartanoff April 30, 2011 at 10:24 am #

    And they got it wrong. New York for all its warts still has the most comprehensive transit of any US city. As to mode choice for entertainment the SF Cable Cars trump everything despite Muni’s general disdain for riders. Leaving out Chicago which like NYC, BOS, PHL, all offer commuter rail in direct competition w/mass transit just shows the author was more interested in flashy light rail than heavily used “legacy” systems.

  3. Zoltán April 30, 2011 at 10:30 am #

    I was recently talking to a friend who is moving to Portland soon, and who has mentioned not particularly liking the need to own a car. So, of course, I mentioned that it might be quite possible to live without a car in Portland.
    She replied that yes, she knew – Portland has streetcars and light rail and things. So I said that actually, they’re not necessarily that relevant – the streetcar goes to very few places, and the light rail is mainly about running quickly to the suburbs; instead, the most important thing about Portland is that a whole lot of the city is covered by frequent buses. And then I linked her to a network map and pointed out the yellow highlights signalling frequent routes.

  4. Zoltán April 30, 2011 at 11:21 am #

    @david vartanoff
    I’ve heard a lot of good and bad things about the muni, so I’m curious; what makes you say they possess a general disdain for riders?

  5. EngineerScotty April 30, 2011 at 12:24 pm #

    As a Portlander, I would happily agree to being in the top 10 in the US, but far from #1.

  6. Fake_gojira April 30, 2011 at 1:27 pm #

    I haven’t spent a lot of time in Austin, but I didn’t get the impression that they had a very good transit system at all. When I was there (note: not-SXSW, which apparently is a whole other nightmare) my experience was that the busses were very infrequent, often late, and had poor hours. Certainly it’s not better than Chicago’s transit system!

  7. Michael Andersen, Portland Afoot April 30, 2011 at 2:05 pm #

    It’s important to note, I think, that with all the per-capita figures, US News was setting out to represent the cities with the best transit systems for their size. This aspires to be a list of cities that punch above their weight.
    I also think it’s important to note that even by this measure, NYC probably has the best system in the country.
    As for the writer’s motivation, David Vartanoff, Kurtzleben is a data specialist, not a transit specialist. I’m certain she wasn’t thinking deeply about mode differences. I suspect she was thinking about banging out a data-driven photo slideshow as quickly as possible and slamming in some plausible filler text. Hence the nonsensical Portland-relatd blurb Jarrett highlights. Not exactly a cardinal sin — I feel for overworked reporters — but not a good thing for US News’s brand, either.

  8. Marty April 30, 2011 at 2:30 pm #

    UN&WR is at it again. As with colleges, it’s best to ignore their rankings which are always based on questionable methodology/weighting.

  9. BBnet3000 April 30, 2011 at 2:42 pm #

    I generally think these things should go by per-capita ridership, as well as some livability measures like operating hours and frequency.
    If a system is actually good I would think that would be reflected in people actually riding it. See the Seattle/Portland example
    Also, does Per capita spending = Per capita public spending? To me that implies that systems with a high farebox recovery ratio would rank lower.

  10. Alon Levy April 30, 2011 at 4:56 pm #

    Per capita ridership is good. Mode share is better, since APTA’s numbers are horrendous overcounts because of the linked/unlinked trip problem.
    But per capita spending is a metric that could be used to make Portland look more comprehensive than Madrid or Tokyo or any other non-US city with order-of-magnitude-lower-than-in-America construction costs. It rewards commuter lines at $100,000 per rider and penalizes cities that build LRT for under $5,000 per rider. In context, it’s completely useless.

  11. david vartanoff April 30, 2011 at 8:01 pm #

    @Zoltan and all, Muni has had serious issues for years, but scan these blogs for other opinions.

  12. Paul McGregor April 30, 2011 at 9:05 pm #

    @Michael Anderson Thanks for the effort you made to replicate the data. I think the key statement from the reporter was simple. Everyone thinks you can take data and somehow jump to the conclusion that you are number one etc, is a farce. I thought US News was a good magazine but now I start to have my doubts.
    I live here in the Salt Lake City region and boy is the Utah Transit Authority take this claim to heart. They have a blog and I tried to engage some dialogue with them about the shortcomings but alas to no avail. The Salt Lake Chamber even paid to have some ads placed on the outside of the rail cars claiming their #2 finish. Since when does anyone pay for an ad that claims you are #2?

  13. Eric May 1, 2011 at 7:52 pm #

    Salt Lake City? Austin?? And they elbowed out DC??? …That’s all you have to tell me about this list. Yes, in Austin they have Capital Metro. The end of line is a parking tundra in a cow pasture.
    My gut reaction to the question “What are the best cities for transit?” is that, yes, place should matter in this discussion, but it’s not your ambient coolness factor.
    If we took it as a question about form, that would really be an interesting discussion. Albeit, “Top 10” lists tell you nothing really. More informative, really, is comparing cities side by side and asking the question which one is dealing more effectively with their internal frameworks and regional constraints. Which city is better for transit? DC or Seattle? That would be a wonderful discussion, for example.

  14. John May 2, 2011 at 6:36 am #

    Is more money spent per capita actually better if it doesn’t result in more trips taken per capita?

  15. Zoltán May 2, 2011 at 3:50 pm #

    If money spent per capita without trips taken per capita corresponding, then quite possibly the opposite.
    Large amounts of spending per trip could mean some lovely trains with reclining seats and a butler for each carriage serving champagne, but in most often instead means an inefficient network of slow, rambling buses that not many people want to catch. If you’re providing good transit, chances are for every vehicle you pay to put in service, you’re carrying a lot of passengers over a direct route, and hence it costs less per trip.

  16. John May 3, 2011 at 4:56 am #

    Completely agree. That was the point of my comment. If the US News method (which isn’t fully known) used investment and ridership as two separate criteria, then it missed what I would argue is a more important cost effectiveness measure.

  17. Ted K. May 3, 2011 at 8:49 am #

    @Zoltan – Re : SFMuni
    Here’s an example of the system’s management clueless-ness. Many of the bus shelters in San Francisco have ETA displays. But three major nodes – Forest Hills Stn. (36/43/44/52/K/L/M/T), Balboa Park Stn. (8X/29/43/54/88/91/J/K), and Stonestown Galleria (17/18/29/M/*) – do NOT have those displays except for the LRV platforms under Forest Hills and at Stonestown and the M-Ocean View platform near Balboa Park. That leaves the bus riders at those nodes in an information dark spot. Same goes for the J-Church and K-Ingleside riders at Balboa Park. What makes Forest Hills and Balboa Park especially bad is that SFMuni has a major structure in addition to the shelters at both locations. Personally, I would have any spot with four or more lines be on my Do-These-First list.
    * The shelters for the #28 along 19th Ave. tend to have ETA units. This accentuates the crossing service’s shortchanging.
    A sort of arrogance can be seen in the removal of a bus shelter near Mission + Norton (near Ocean, across from Brazil). The shelter had an ETA display for south-bound 14’s and 49’s. The adjacent south-bound displays are at Silver (3-4 blocks North) and Onondaga (two blocks South). A sensible system would have mounted some sort of notice on a nearby pole (these are electric trolleys) giving the date when the replacement shelter is scheduled to be built.
    SFMuni seems to be a favorite of Janus. When it works it’s decent but when they drop the ball it can be Humpty-Dumpty city. Maybe they should choose the Archaeopteryx as the system’s mascot / totem animal.

  18. Wad May 7, 2011 at 4:45 am #

    Paul McGregor wrote:
    Since when does anyone pay for an ad that claims you are #2?
    Avis Rent-a-Car, to great success.