UPDATE: This post in its original form happened when I had the Atlantic article article on the new Brookings report, but couldn't find the report itself. As it turned out, the Brookings report is much smarter than the Atlantic article made it sound. In particular, it appears to have been the Atlantic, not Brookings, who decided that this is a "10 best" story. I've made minor corrections to revise the attribution, but watch soon for a series of posts responding to the Brookings report more fairly. I'll have several things to say about it, some of them critical, over the next few days.
The esteemed Brookings Institution US magazine The Atlantic says that America's best city for transit is … <drumroll> … Honolulu!
Sooner or later, everyone ends up on a "10 best" list. This time around (apart from Honolulu) Brookings seems to be reaching out to southwestern cities that feature vast grids of fast car-centered arterials spreading out across any available flat land. Are those the best cities for transit? Well, maybe it's just their turn.
The Brookings top 10:
- Honolulu, HI
- San Jose – Silicon Valley, CA
- Salt Lake City, UT
- Tucson, AZ
- Fresno, CA
- Denver, CO
- Albuquerque, NM
- Las Vegas, NV
- Provo-Orem, UT
- Modesto, CA
As regular readers of this blog understand, "best city for transit" is a meaningless term. There are many ways to define "best," and we don't always agree with ourselves on which one matters, let alone agree with anyone else.
But the Brookings definition, as described in the Atlantic article, is especially perverse, even by "10 best" standards:
Brookings graded each city according to two criteria — coverage (the share of Americans within 3/4 miles from a transit stop) and job access (the share of city jobs accessible within 90 minutes of transit) — to determine the ten best performing cities for public transportation.
I have no idea what "within 90 minutes of transit" means, and the original report doesn't appear to be on the Brookings website. [UPDATE: Now I do. Look for a post on this soon.]
But residential coverage, as a primary indicator of transit quality, is a very loaded way of thinking about "best," especially if you care about transit sustainability outcomes that depend on ridership. Many people are within walking distance of a bus stop but not within walking distance of service that's remotely attractive in terms of frequency, speed and reliability. (Even more are within "air distance," which is what Brookings seems to refer to.)
Due to this definition, the Brookings Atlantic list comes to focus on rather low-density, car-dependent cities that happen to have good transit coverage. The cities listed have transit systems that are complete in terms of getting close to almost every home, but in low-density cities this is usually achieved by sacrificing frequency, speed, and even directness. For example, if you really want to maximise your residential coverage without spending money, and thus satisfy the Brookings criterion, just design routes like this:
This is what "residential coverage" standards encourage transit planners to do! So Brookings needs to explain how an abundance of transit routes that look like this could indicate a "best city for transit."
Then there's a pedestrian environment. Many of these cities are hard to walk in, and transit especially often delivers you to a busy arterial where you'll have difficulty walking to nearby destinations.
Finally, of course, "residential coverage" is about how many people have access to the system, which has nothing to do with who finds it useful. In fact, a transit system that's trying to maximize its relevance is always trying to push residential coverage standards down so that they can focus more service on dense areas where residents are more likely to want to build their lives around transit and other sustainable modes.
UPDATE: Having now perused the Brookings report, I stand by these last three paragraphs, but will expand on them soon. I'm relieved to know that Brookings's framing of the issue is smarter than the Atlantic made it sound.
Still, a report like this from a distinguished institution raises great opportunities to question some of the more common assumptions about how transit should be compared across cities. So I take issue with their reliance on city limits and Metropolitan Statistical Areas, among other things, not to criticize Brookings but simply to encourage more nuanced and coherent explanations of this kind of statistical work. More posts on these critiques in the future, starting here.
I get the feeling that Brookings didn’t actually look at any of the agency’s bus schedules.
As a rider, I place a premium on frequency and span of service. Only Honolulu would qualify. Salt Lake City has really impressed me with its commitment to transit (commuter rail with clock headways!), but outside of Denver, most of those other cities have systems in which 30 minutes is considered peak frequency and it is almost rare to see a bus run past sundown.
Modesto also has a lot of those routes that do the inchworm diagram Jarrett drew.
Heres a map I created of the Fresno bus system. Dont rely on the official map, it sucks.
It only has the top 9 routes (out of 18) but it gives a good idea of system design. Ie, it’s not very good. (Line thickness indicated popularity)
Some of the twists and turns some of the lines make are baffling. Look at 38 (light blue) and 30 (pink). It’s like they tried to maximize left turns as they got closer to downtown.
Oh, and if you want to go east or west? Enjoy your leisurely ride downtown to the transfer center.
The Brookings report is at http://www.brookings.edu/reports/2011/0512_jobs_and_transit.aspx Study is titled “Missed Opportunity: Transit and Jobs in Metropolitan America.”
Cool interactive maps at http://www.brookings.edu/metro/jobs_and_transit/map.aspx
One of the punchlines of the study is, “The typical metropolitan resident can reach about 30 percent of jobs in their metropolitan area via transit in 90 minutes.” Brookings researchers think this is not good performance.
Comment: The tougher standard earlier used in Seattle by the MPO is the percentage of jobs a typical metropolitan resident can reach by transit in 30 minutes. Why 30 and not 90? 30 minutes is the average commute in Seattle area by car, plus or minus a few minutes, and also in most other cities.
I’ve used the Seattle MPO percentage number several times in presentations as a predictable show stopper.
For fraction of jobs reachable in metro Seattle by average resident in 30 minutes, the modeled number is 1% today, and 1% in 30 years with the light rail network completed.
Elected officials actually gasp.
That percentage job access measure is now no longer used by the MPO, perhaps because the Coalition for Effective Transportation Alternatives kept saying it out loud.
Brookings has a point, even with the 90 minute standard they use to keep transit from looking so bad when it competes with the dominant car mode. Think about transit’s geographic coverage and support of work trips in case you’ve read the MPO 2040 Plan and are wondering how Seattle-Tacoma-Bellevue-Everett area can’t move the SOV mode split off of 43% after spending half of its transportation resources on transit over the next 30 years, according to the big computer model, which takes into account land use shifts.
Transit overall around Seattle goes from 3% to 5% market share over 30 years, with light rail assumed to be funded and built even beyond the network that is planned now and short of revenue for completion.
Yeah, I know, thing will turn out differently if gas goes to $10 per gallon and even more people and offices than planned move close to train stations with four-car light rail trains. Place your bet. I’m betting on small, cheap EVs and highway automation. Per the PSRC model results, four times more riders will take buses than trains in 2040.
So what’s the “best” city for CAR?
A good metric would be a ratio of percentage of jobs reachable within a given time by transit versus car, or a ratio of travel time needed to reach a given percentage of jobs by car versus transit. Because, as I’m sure Cap’n Transit will eventually point out here, it doesn’t matter how convenient you make transit if you make driving even more convenient.
If I were cynical, I would suspect that the Brookings numbers were promoted by somebody interested in defunding rapid transit projects.
Honolulu cheats – the share of jobs accessible within 90 minutes of transit is 100%. From almost every point on the island, even in the worst rush hour traffic, you can get to downtown in less than 90 minutes. And the majority of all non-military jobs are part of the tourist industry, which is centered less than 2 miles from downtown.
Although a lot of Honolulu and Oahu are accessible by bus, a lot of the non-urban service is infrequent and slow. And our new rail project was designed to encourage suburban development, rather than to mitigate urban traffic. I could easily name 10 cities with better transit service.
I can’t speak to the others, but SLC and Provo both have high quality transit systems.
No reason to be so harsh on the Brookings study. As far as I know, it’s the first study that analyzes coverage levels across the country and relates them to percent of population and jobs. It puts the spotlight on job sprawl and gets people thinking about how their development policies support (or do not) their desire for transit expansion.
It is odd how people keep coming up with new and creative ways to rank “the best” cities for transit? Wouldn’t looking at actual ridership numbers or mode shares be a better indicator of what people think of their local transit system?
Yes, John actual ridership and mode share say more than any rankings.
I discount any study that finds that Portland has a better transit system than Seattle.
As for any place in Honolulu being accessible in 90 minutes or less in rush hour traffic, just let there be one accident on the freeway and that time will go up. Also if there should be a bigger accident with injuries, the police will shut down the road to investigate while commuters wait and fume. (Ah, the price of living in paradise!)
Yes, John actual ridership and mode share say more than any rankings.
Ridership says a lot, but not the whole story. (No single figure of merit tells the whole story, which is why this sort of ranking is difficult and frequently pointless). Ridership may be affected by geography, socio-eonomic factors, and the like–there are plenty of places in the country where large numbers of poor people line up in droves to ride lousy transit.
I discount any study that finds that Portland has a better transit system than Seattle.
While I don’t want to get into an argument with you on this subject (despite being a Portlander, I’ve no desire to get into a regional pissing contest); I’m curious what you think Seattle does better than Portland. (And likewise, what you think Portland does better than Seattle).
Amandaekennedy216, of course the ranking system should be harshly criticized.
Someone linked to their map above. I clicked a tract near where I live, and it says median frequency is 8 minutes. Huh? The only bus that hits the area runs every 60 minutes.
It seems that Atlantic misinterpreted the point of the Brookings report – from what I recall they never claimed their rankings determined “the best cities for transit.” Instead they were looking for the metros where the most jobs were accessible to the most people by transit.
In other words, they weren’t looking at transit’s ability to serve someone who would read a transit planning blog – they were looking at transit’s ability to serve someone who wanted to find the cheapest way to get to work.
There are some noteworthy flaws – they only looked at transit service in the morning rush, assuming that most people worked those hours, which may be true – but I think they mostly achieve their goal of providing a narrow measure of transit system performance. And their database is useful, although I’ve also found some weird anomalies, suggesting data quality issues.
It seems to me that the takeaway from the Brookings study (agreeing with the other Alex who notes that the Atlantic overplayed the purpose of the study) is a comment on land use and the location of jobs, instead of the structure of our transit systems.
What Brookings has done is put all of the US systems into one easily comparable metric. We can debate the biases of the individual ranking, but I do think there’s a lot of good background information that enables apples-to-apples comparisons that were hard to make before.
As I said, the main conclusion I draw from this has nothing to do with our transit networks (since, as noted, they don’t offer much information about speed, frequency, etc), but about land use. Why is it that we’ve decentralized our job base so much? The policy proposals that come from this should focus on growing jobs around transit and moving existing jobs from transit inaccessible locations to transit-oriented places.
Alex, the problem is that they still rated highly cities where most jobs are transit-hostile. Silicon Valley has office parks nearish to infrequent bus lines that are poorly connected to Caltrain. If your methodology says it is transit-accessible, your methodology is wrong.
@JJJJ, as the late John Wooden said, “Goodness gracious sakes alive!”
Fresno has one messed-up service grid. The only thing I can glean from that route structure is that FAX faces a constant funding crisis.
For instance, why the through-running of routes downtown? Is there no place to lay over buses?
Also, when routes run through, is there actually a ridership pattern that at least creates a one-seat ride? Or is it just a case of “Gee, we have an east-west route that needs 20 minute service. Well, so does this north-south route. And while we’re at it, let’s continue it north to Cal State Fresno.”
And for that route, it looks like Fresno’s busiest, what’s the deal with the route deviating from its street to duplicate another street to get to CSUF? What happens north of the mall that warrants no service on the street?
Another problem with the Brookings report is their use of MSA’s as the unit of analysis. This advantages not only small, relatively suburb-less areas (such as Fresno or Merced), but it also advantages areas with small counties. One of the reasons that Riverside-San Bernardino are listed in the “bottom 10” is the vastness of the Riverside-San Bernardino-Ontario MSA, which is larger than West Virginia.
More details on my blog: http://ridinginriverside.blogspot.com/2011/05/riverside-one-of-worst-cities-for.html
Also, more weirdness on their interactive map: my hometown, a 3,000-person mountain enclave, is served by a single 90-minute-headway route which often has to be reserved in advance. The town’s two census blocks show median rush-hour frequency of 31 and 27 minutes. My current apartment is served by a 30-minute and a 40-minute route, the latter only weekdays. It shows a median frequency of 15.6 minutes. A block covering the San Jacinto mountain wilderness- an area with, as you might expect, no transit service of any kind- shows a median frequency of 9.8 minutes.
I’m beginning to think that Brookings’ data is entirely crap.
Being from Albuquerque, I can tell you that if Albuquerque is getting on any transit lists, there is something seriously wrong with these lists. So a lot of people live near a bus route, but that doesn’t mean that that bus is actually useful.
I swear these top ten lists are taking bribes from the cities. I stopped paying attention to these stupid things long ago.
The Brookings “frequencies” are not frequencies as we typically understand them. They are the combined frequency of all transit lines serving a given point, during the AM peak. So two lines with 30 minute headways passing by a point would show up as 7.5 minute frequency.
Large metro areas shouldn’t be disadvantaged, because they’re looking at where population is. The Inland Empire scores low because it has both residential and commercial sprawl, and not much transit service.
I looked at Brookings’ access scores vs. transit percentage of commuters. The big, older metro area–New York, Boston, San Francisco–rank much higher for transit commutes than on the access score. That must be the result of higher transit mode shares in transit-served neighborhood and probably more intense use of available of transit vehicles.
I wouldn’t dismiss the Brookings report entirely–it seemed to me that Honolulu has a pretty effective bus system (and it’s got a high mode split too).
I take the Brookings Report as telling me is there any transit at all serving this area, and is it remotely posible to get to work using it–not that very many people are willing to commute 90 minutes (they do provide a 45 minute table I haven’t really delved into). The Brookings folks themselves say that the percentages of jobs accessible are driven more by land use than transit.
San Jose and Silicon Valley were mentioned… I lived there for a year and didn’t once board a VTA vehicle. I could have rode my bike to work (a little over 4 miles), realized I’d forgotten my lock, rode home, got it, then back to work again faster than the VTA would have got me there.
The surprise of that result tells me to look deeper. San Jose has a lot of “dense sprawl” — although there aren’t many super-walkable urban areas, it’s geographically constrained enough that there isn’t much sparse exurbia. There’s not much that’s easy to serve with transit but not much that’s impossible. In, say, Chicago or New York there are some dense urban spaces but also lots of really sparse areas that are impossible to serve with transit. I had a car and a bike, and transit was never better for my purposes than one of the two. But people without those options would probably be better off in Silicon Valley than in the suburbs of Chicago.
I think this report is provocative because it references cities that we don’t usually think about having good transit, but maybe they have been overlooked in the past. Albuquerque, for example, has significantly improved its transit system in the past few years, including adding some BRT lines. It’s service span is still very poor, but it might be OK getting to a job.
Readers of this blog who live in areas with very poor transit service maybe do not realize that many built up areas have no transit service at all, even service that operates every 60 minutes. For example, vast swaths of the suburbs of Detroit have absolutely no transit service whatsoever. A completely built-up suburban environment may require a 5 mile walk to the nearest bus stop! San Jose doesn’t have any areas like that.
2 problems with this report: 3/4 mile is much too long a distance to determine someone has transit access, especially “as the crow flies”. I would redo this report with 1/4 mile “as the crow flies” or maybe 1/2 mile via walking paths if GIS systems have a comprehensive sidewalk database. Another problem is the frequency is combined in both directions – redo it so that the frequency is in one direction only.
What’s especially bizarre to me is that Salt Lake City ended up both here and on the U.S. News one.
NOTE: The updates to this post date from just before Chris’s comment above. Jarrett
Transit going close to your home does not make up for crappy service, but fast, frequent, and reliable service can make up for the nearest stop being 1/2 mile or even as much as 2-3 miles away.
In Seattle, I use the Sound Transit express buses quite frequently, even if I have to walk, run, or bike a minimum of 1-2 miles to get to the nearest bus stop. On the other hand, the only local bus that goes within 1/4 mile of where I live, I almost never use because it’s slow and windy, and everywhere that bus goes, I could get to faster on a bicycle.
Wow. I have lived in Modesto, Fresno, Orem, Salt Lake City, and San Jose. I have owned a car in only 1 out of the 5 cities, and in each case I regretted not having one.
I got around best in SLC without a car, but outside of the TRAX the frequency is a nightmare. Everywhere else is just a joke.
“there are plenty of places in the country where large numbers of poor people line up in droves to ride lousy transit.”
Scotty has clearly been to Baltimore.
Baltimore is only one of many examples… and it’s been over two decades since I visited there. But yes, it came to mind.
Nate Silver at FiveThirtyEight has an interesting take on the Brookings Study:
Wad, youre right, as the city has grown massively over the past decade, routes have been cut. 18 now, from 22, even though the population went from
“For instance, why the through-running of routes downtown? Is there no place to lay over buses?”
I’m not sure. Part of it is historic, part of it is some obsession to make as many buses as possible hit the transfer center downtown. Yes, 40,000 people work downtown….but the urban population is 1,000,000.
They dont even lay over there, they just idle for a bit, and then move on.
“Also, when routes run through, is there actually a ridership pattern that at least creates a one-seat ride?”
Not really. I mean, they force you downtown because of the odd routing. Like the 28. Want to get from Kings Canyon and Willow to Shaw and Willow? You chose between a 1 hour, one seat ride via downtown, or 3 transfers. And with 30 minute headways, you dont want to transfer.
“Or is it just a case of “Gee, we have an east-west route that needs 20 minute service. Well, so does this north-south route. And while we’re at it, let’s continue it north to Cal State Fresno.”
And for that route, it looks like Fresno’s busiest, what’s the deal with the route deviating from its street to duplicate another street to get to CSUF? What happens north of the mall that warrants no service on the street?”
Thats exactly it. 28 is the busiest route because it serves three distinct corridors. Kings Canyon is THE commercial street in the south (poor) side of the city, so it has very heavy ridership there (a planned BRT system would run on it).
And then on the complete opposite end, it hits CSU, which has a decent student ridership. Are students going to Kings Canyon and vice versa? Absolutely not.
The deviation is to hit the second big transfer point (Manchester Mall). Note that some routes double back on themselves to hit the transfer. 28 then proceeds to the next “empty” street as to not run on a street with another line.
The airport line (26, dark green) also makes no sense. It goes from airport, to downtown to riverpark (giant mall-thing). Again, it’s running three completely separate lines, but one bus is doing it.
The system cant decide if it wants to be point-to-point or lines on a grid. Right now it doesnt do either well.
“The Brookings “frequencies” are not frequencies as we typically understand them. They are the combined frequency of all transit lines serving a given point, during the AM peak. So two lines with 30 minute headways passing by a point would show up as 7.5 minute frequency.”
I guess theyre counting the ONE morning trip operated to a high school. The line runs at 7am (one trip) and then 3pm (one trip). For the teachers Id guess, because there is yellow school bus service. So I guess adding that to the bus that runs every 60 minutes makes the frequency 8 minutes somehow during their morning rush calculation.
JJJJ, perhaps you could answer me some other questions about Fresno.
But first, if anyone else wants in on this exchange, have a look at the FAX system map. It’s transit’s equivalent of a Rorschach test.
You could go on for days picking the illogic of each of its routes.
Without further ordure …
1. What is the deal with Ashlan (45)? At Blackstone, it turns away to go to the mall, goes south and west and becomes a north-south line along Fruit. Why can’t an Ashlan bus go west and connect with routes 26, 45, 22, 20 and 41 in that giant gap of service?
2. Why does Clovis have its own bus system?
3. Why do the Maple (33) and Van Ness/Fulton (28) buses not continue on those streets? You’ve explained what 28 does, but north of the mall, it duplicates other routes while leaving a gap on Maroa? Why doesn’t the 33 continue on Maple north of Belmont?
4. Would it be possible to cobble together services along Herndon and Clovis for a single contiguous line on those streets?
5. Why don’t 30 and 34 serve River Park?
#2 is easy – Fresno and Clovis transit are city departments. The County chips in its sales tax (TDA) to the closest appropriate agency to service unincorporated areas. There are no other incorporated cities in the urbanized area, and I suspect each city likes their independence. There was no need to form a JPA or special distic, since all transfer arrangements are through reciprocity and not through other revenue sharing.
In what American transit systems are concerned any “best transit system“ratings cannot be but “weird” because transit systems here are weird.As this blog’s author noted in his “cities vs suburbs trope” post , what we call city or urban area in the United States defies what notions such as city and urbs are meant to denote.
Therefore, it should not surprise us that to design a functional transit system for one of these “urban areas” is not only a challenge but it may lead to the most unusual results. From this perspective, the only area that I am familiar with- SLC – is a model for transit service because it is successful in serving ten times the “city” population , most living in sprawl areas, i.e. suburban/exurban areas adjacent to the “city”.
I understand the mess on the city bus system in Fresno. I suspect the routes are borked up that way because there is almost no funding for Fresno Transit. They are always in a budget crisis. Route 28 should continue north on Maroa, putting the stops ONLY at STOP signs where the road narrows, then turn left on Herndon, then go up Ingram, turn right on Nees, turn south on Fresno Street to El Paso then Blackstone and turn back around the way it came. Kings Canyon would then get served by route 29, doing the job that 28 is now doing. Route 45 is doing the job of 3 routes, why there will probably never be a 45 going west on Ashlan past Blackstone. (long ago, there was a partial route once serving the part of Ashlan from Hughes to Blackstone, but I don’t remember what the number was) Bus 24 on Fruit got such low ridership that it got cut and taken off the map and Fresno does not want a crosstown bus on Herndon, hence doing the job of 3 routes. There should be a bus 40 going on Maple, Belmont bus service got cut, that is why bus 33 runs a short way on Maple. Bus 33 was supposed to go all the way down to Clovis/or Fowler ave, not turn on Maple. Fresno wont put an independent north south route going up Chestnut diagonal, then going north to Nees on Willow. It never made sense to me to stop Maroa bus service on Shields [same for Chesnet] Putting a working route on Maple is awkward, but doable even though the street does not go thru. You just need to turn left on Dakota, then right on Sierra, and just go out to Perrin Ave in order to make up for the missing segment of Maple ave.
If there are any changes, Fresno may cut even more bus service. There is a definite need to go regional. There is a plan to cut route 58 and have Clovis west no longer served by that route. Not enough ridership. Fresno is running their bus routes on a shoestring budget, but they have built so many freeways going to nowhere just to save 10 minutes of driving. Get used to it, Fresno will always be a CAR city.
On another note, Clovis has its own bus system since they don’t want Fresno going into Clovis. They are building a new Walmart superstore on Sunnyside and Herndon, but you can be sure Fresno wont put a crosstown bus on Herndon to service that area. Clovis is political, and doesn’t want FAX buses going into their town. They want you to turn on Willow.