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Transit systems of USA's 25 biggest cities ranked by usefulness

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April 30, 2012

An overhead train of the Chicago 'L' system (Photo: Greg Kieca/Shutterstock)

An overhead train of the Chicago 'L' system (Photo: Greg Kieca/Shutterstock)

Walk Score has ranked the 25 largest US cities by the usefulness of their transit systems. New York sits at the top of the list released by the website, which otherwise provides its users with information about the most walkable inner-city neighborhoods. San Francisco came second in the public transit rankings, with Boston, Washington, D.C. and Philadelphia rounding out the top five.

Walk Score used a method it calls Transit Score to rate city transit systems on a nought-to-hundred scale. The Transit Score is dependent on the "usefulness" of routes in a city, which is quantified by a combination of the proximity of a point to the nearest stop on a route, the frequency of the route and the type of route.

A raw Transit Score is calculated block by block by summing the value of all nearby routes, which are then weighted - with rail services deemed preferable to ferries and cable car/trams, which are preferable again to bus routes. Blocks are also weighted by population density so that areas with more people living in them have a larger effect on the score. This data is normalized to make a comparable score of between zero and 100, calibrated against a notional "perfect score" location based on the average of five city centers where full transit data was available.

The ability to assign a city a Transit Score is dependent on that city publishing data in the GTFS format, so this is the 25 largest cities that make such data available, with Atlanta and Phoenix among the large cities identified by Walk Score is keeping its public transit data under wraps.

The Transit Scores of the 25 ranked cities are as follows:

1. New York (81)
2. San Francisco (80)
3. Boston (74)
4. Washington, D.C. (69)
5. Philadelphia (68)
6. Chicago (65)
7. Seattle (59)
8. Miami (57)
9. Baltimore (57)
10. Portland (50)
11. Los Angeles (49)
12. Milwaukee (49)
13. Denver (47)
14. Cleveland (45)
15. San Jose (40)
16. Dallas (39)
17. Houston (36)
18. San Diego (36)
19. San Antonio (35)
20. Kansas City (34)
21. Austin (33)
22. Sacramento (32)
23. Las Vegas (32)
24. Columbus (29)
25. Raleigh (23)

Interestingly, Walk Score classifies scores of 90-100 as "world class," 70-89 as "excellent" and 50-69 as merely good. That being the case, Walk Score's ranking included no world class transit systems, and only three that are excellent. These include San Francisco, whose transit system Walk Score describes as "dense and uniform," and Boston, which Walk Score notes has commuter rail lines "stretching in all directions."

With a score of only 23, Raleigh falls into Walk Score's lowest band, named "minimal transit."

Source: Walkscore (rankings, press release PDF, blog post), via Treehugger

About the Author
James Holloway James lives in East London where he punctuates endless tea drinking with freelance writing and meteorological angst. Unlocking Every Extend Extra Extreme’s “Master of Extreme” achievement was the fourth proudest moment of his life.   All articles by James Holloway
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12 Comments

Translation: The four American cities with decent public transportation, and the rest of them. I can tell you from experience, Philly isn't even close to NYC or DC.

Jon A.
30th April, 2012 @ 10:56 am PDT

Also, they must be weighted by size, rather than by convenience. Because LA from all accounts completely sucks for mass transit, and they're at 11. Whereas a lot of small cities are fairly easy to get around in by bus.

Jon A.
30th April, 2012 @ 11:01 am PDT

"rail services deemed preferable to ferries and cable car/trams, which are preferable again to bus routes"

I think this hurts the ranking. Bus routes can be quite effective in the short-run spurs while rail works well for between hubs.

And I'd prefer a bus to a ferry, at least for getting somewhere. I prefer ferries for the ride. . . but then I think they may have a slightly skewed perspective.

Certain areas require certain solutions, and mixed environments are pretty much necessary everywhere, which gets hurt in their ranking. On the other hand, looking at the actual integration would be better.

For instance, HOW LONG to get from point a to point b . . . in the LA Metro area, since all trains go into and out of LA, if you just want to get N and S in the Inland Empire, you can't use the metro - it all goes E-W. And buses are not efficient (and not really that safe) around here. I stopped riding a long time ago for that reason.

Nice effort, but I just don't think it's valid cross-environment.

socalboomer
30th April, 2012 @ 11:22 am PDT

I question the accuracy of the scores I have dealt with Denver's Regional Transportation District. traffic flows better when the bus drivers are on strike. RTD = Reason To Drive.

Slowburn
30th April, 2012 @ 11:33 am PDT

Great article but where did they go wrong,....................they could of had this..........http://www.maglevmovers.com

Graham Cockroft
1st May, 2012 @ 06:05 am PDT

Transportation involves some factors that must be considered. Can you work odd hour shifts and get home? How well does the system function 24 hours a day? Are there restrooms convenient either on the transport or at numerous stops including the distance between the drop off point and your destination? Do you get to the end of a ride and have to walk in a war zone? The basics are that in many cities public transportation is a sick joke. The user must adapt his entire life around when transportation will work decently. Some cities cut services to the bone all day Sundays. If there is a transfer it can take several hours to make a short trip and you may wait for hours for the bus to make the transfer portion of the trip as well.

Jim Sadler
1st May, 2012 @ 12:03 pm PDT

@Jim Sadler...Amen! I wonder how price played into it. In my oppinion, and I know this may be some utopian fantasy, but until we charge very, very little, say like 10 to 25 cents, we are failing at public transportation. The masses will ride public transportation when it is free or so close to free that it is just too desirable to not use it. Who will pay? Tax the ones driving at the pump.

And while you are at it try and keep a 24/7 approach, and whatever you do, don't run late!

Paul Anthony
1st May, 2012 @ 02:02 pm PDT

This subject is a real can of worms as presented. If they truly wish to rate public transportation, they should have at least the following categories:

1. Hours of operation - number of hour per day available and start/stop times.

2. Average distance from a stop in commercial areas.

3. Average distance from a stop in residential areas.

4. Average distance from stop to entrance/exit of grocery stores.

5. Available space allowed for customers with packages. I have actually been on buses where it was crowded and people were expected to hold all packages in there laps.

6. Available bus schedules just for grocery shopping.

7. Average time to main transfer nodes.

8. Average time between most extreme coverage locations.

9. Cost.

10. Speed of primary node services.

11. Frequency of service going to/from a node.

12. Frequency of service between nodes.

13. Availability of toilet services. In my area for me to see one of my doctors it is a 166/158 minute bus then train then bus going to/from. That requires an all day pass or 2 tickets each way. There is no toilet facilities available unless I leave the vehicle and have to wait for the next to continue the ride.

14. Comfort of transportation.

15. Ability to group, especially on buses. It is ridiculous when children are scattered across several rows because only one seat available in a row.

16. Length of time for stops. I have seen doors close on subways when stopping at busy stops and one or more children stuck on the train with the parents off loaded. It is not fun comforting a 3-5yo that is suddenly separated from their parent or guardian. Not to mention get security so arrangements can be made for parents and child[ren] to be re-united.

17. Reliability of vehicles. Getting parked in a mall while waiting for another bus to arrive to continue trip is NO fun.

18. Handicap services.

19. Bike friendly.

20. Ability to be on schedule (no more than 5 minutes late and if early not leaving until scheduled time).

The metric should then provide a detailed and/or summarized information for each category then a over all rating, that would have to be normalized.

NatalieEGH
1st May, 2012 @ 04:18 pm PDT

LA's transit system is pretty damn decent, We have railways that all the way from LAX to Long Beach to Rancho Cucamonga and farther. The only problem is that, traffic gets really back up at 8-10am and 4-6pm. The freeways are the worse place to be during these times.

Brooks Hubbard
2nd May, 2012 @ 12:51 pm PDT

I really couldn't comment on your analysis or the criterian since I left USA for good in the early eightees. At that time I would swear by Chicag's RTA and would say NY system sucked big time.

But I just wonder how these cities would compare to 25 best public transport cities in Europe? I can quite confidently state that not a one would make it into the list regardless of the criterion !

pmshah
5th May, 2012 @ 10:05 pm PDT

I agree with most everyone in that there are many complex variables that constitute a good mass transit system. However, in most major cities today, rail is the only reliable way to travel due to auto traffic. I live in one of the worst cities in the world for MT (Atlanta, GA - where it is only good for getting to or from the airport), but having spent 18 months in Shanghai, the city that in my opinion has one of the best MT systems (although I can only account for the rail - all of the bus and route identification is in Chinese, and that would have resulted in disaster had I tried to figure that one out). The key is to convince people to give up their cars for MT. That would (should) free up enough roadway to make busses attractive transportation to most. Better yet, if you live in a walkable city - walk.

erock5000
8th May, 2012 @ 12:25 pm PDT

The author writes: "Interestingly, Walk Score classifies scores of 90-100 as "world class," 70-89 as "excellent" and 50-69 as merely good. That being the case, Walk Score's ranking included no world class transit systems, and only three that are excellent."

Fine, but this only looks at entire cities. One must look more deeply at the data for a clear picture. For example, most of Manhattan scores a world-class >90/100, while Statan Island scores are even under 50.

My little zip code in downtown Jersey City scores a world-class 94 while Hoboken above us scores 92. There are many "world class" places in the US that aren't averages of entire top-50 cities.

MB Provenzano
11th July, 2012 @ 03:43 pm PDT
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