For most of us, the role of public transportation is getting us to work. Every day, Americans make nearly 30 million trips using public transit, and most of these trips are made between home and the office. But what city's public transit does the best job?
Last week, the Brookings Institution published a massive effort to measure every possible trip made along 371 transit providers (Amtrak, buses, monorail, metro, etc) in New York City, Washington, D.C., Los Angeles, and the rest of the nation's 100 largest metros. 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.
Here they are.
And here are the ten best and ten worst cities at a glance.
"America can't grow the way we've been growing," says Rob Puentes, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and an author of the report. "Cities need to get smarter about connecting to their suburbs and building jobs where transit is available."
Today, U.S. public transportation resembles an elevator that can take you to dozens of floors, but not the one with your desk. The vast majority of Americans live within 3/4 miles of a public transit stop, but 60 percent of metro jobs and low-income housing are in poorly connected suburbs. We've reached a paradox in public transportation, Puentes says: Good transit coverage but poor job access. Across income levels, the paradox is even starker: 89& of low income communities live within 3/4 miles of a transit stop but only 26% of low skill jobs are accessible by public transportation.
Geography divides the best and worst cities for public transit, Puentes says. It's not an accident that 15 of the 20 best cities are in the West, and 15 of the 20 worst are in the South. The reason is a mix of topography and public policy. In the West, smart growth starts with small space. Deserts, mountains, oceans and lakes (or a volcanic island, in the case of Honolulu) hem in cities, forcing governments to build up rather than build out. Western metros also tend to have smarter growth management policies, Puentes said, such as encouraging higher densities and allowing residential and commercial buildings to grow near each other. Above all, many Western metro have invested wisely in transit, including rail and extensive bus routes to connect its cities.
In the South, topography is the enemy of smart policy. Most metros like aren't bounded by mountains and lakes and they're free to grow out ... and out and out. Atlanta's metro area extends into Tennessee. Dallas sprawls into Oklahoma. Many of these metro areas are characterized by low densities and a separation of residential and business construction that forces homes out into the suburbs where transit is either spotty or non-existent. That makes cars necessary for even the most mundane trips.
What is Washington, D.C., doing right or wrong? Puentes said D.C.'s story is a battle between smart, innovative transit policy and complex governance.
"We have very high quality transit in this region and there are smart ideas to improve it," Puentes said, like new plans to connect metro to dynamic suburbs in Maryland and Virginia. The multiplicity of transit agencies -- from Washington metro, to Montgomery County buses, to Virginia railway -- brings both extensive coverage and complicated coordination.
"Washington's suburbs are national models," he concluded. "With Arlington, Tysons and Montgomery County trying to build around corridors, we're taking a page from Denver and other Western metros in being innovative about building and investing in building up and moving people to where the jobs are."