America’s Top 25 Cities For Public Transportation

the DC Metro (by: MJM/Mike, creative commons license)by Kaid Benfield, via NRDC’s Switchboard

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)

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, 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.

Kaid Benfield writes (almost) daily about community, development, and the environment.  For more posts, see his blog’s home page. This post was originally published at NRDC’s Switchboard and was re-printed with permission.

13 Responses to America’s Top 25 Cities For Public Transportation

  1. fj says:

    Based on a real story, in the recent movie Moneyball starring Brad Pitt, a baseball analyst eventually beat out the highly financed New York Yankees with a much more cost effective team.

    Yes, New York City’s public transportation tops the list but at what cost?

    The service is not distributed and on-demand.

    It costs a huge amount each year and automobiles still play a crucial role.

    Net zero mobility like walking, cycling, and logical extensions thereof provide dramatic solutions to these issues and more and it is likely that any city on this list could easily leap to its top by taking net zero mobility to the logical extreme.

    They might want to move fast since bike share is coming to NYC in July.

  2. fj says:


    Sustainable CUNY Wins EPA’s Highest Award

  3. Tim says:

    I checked the site and I they indicate that “Walk Score ranks public transit access in 25 of the largest U.S. cities”. They only scored the 25 largest cities that provide open public transit data, which is quite a different thing than saying these are “the top 25 cities” (in anything more than city-proper population). As a Texas resident, I simply don’t believe that any city in Texas could possibly make a “top 25” list in public transit.

  4. Corey says:

    Miami at #8?? For real??? Do you live here???? There’s no way Miami could be number 8, San Diego is wayyy ahead in public transportation than Miami. Ask anyone here if they like their public transportation and you’ll know the answer!

  5. Corey says:

    Next time do a research.

  6. Joan Savage says:

    The method to calculate Transit Score doesn’t seem to be explicit about what landscape architects call “connectivity.”

    How few transfers (and how few minutes) are needed to get from home to work or other destination, and back again?

    Technically I could get most places in my city by public transportation, but that is assuming I can walk for blocks in all weather to a bus stop, and use up hours in each direction.

    If the “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,” that fails to say if the route is actually useful for essential destinations at relevant times of day.

  7. Rabid Doomsayer says:

    So much depends on where and when you live, work and play. In my city some corridors are much better served than others.

    The better serviced corridors are so much better patronised. Where the service is minutes apart the busses are nearly full.

    Our public transport system is designed for those who live further from the city than they work and work normal hours. It can be nearly two hours between the first inbound service and the first out bound service in the outer suburbs.

  8. TBone says:

    It is all well and good to rank cities by geographic access. It is meaningless without incorporating *economic* access. DC would and should be far down the list. Why?

    The reality of the DC metro area is that you have 2 choices for living:

    (1) Pay large amounts of money to live in small spaces close to the metro. Metro accessible apartments start around $2000/month for a 1 bedroom. Don’t even think about buying near the metro unless you either (a) like studio apartments, or (b) have more than $700k to spend. Typically people double or triple-up and live in a 2 or 3 bedroom, since the rent does not scale proportionally with bedrooms. This is fine for the millennial generation who are likely still single and can live in shared space (assuming they have a job – not a given). Once one becomes married and has kids, shared living goes out the window.

    (2) Live outside walking distance of the metro and own a car. Now you are back in the world of all the costs associated with a car (including the environmental cost). On top of this, all DC metro stations charge for parking. So if you can’t afford to live on the metro, you can still commute by metro – you just pay $5.00/day in parking, plus another ~$8.00/day for on-peak metro fare (which is about to go up). This is still cheaper than parking in DC ($30-$40/day?).

    It turns out that it is actually cheaper to live outside the beltway and drive to the metro station, even with the parking+fare cost. Sure, you have a 1.5 hour commute, but if you don’t make enough money you have little choice. This is why DC has such horrible traffic – people are forced to drive even when they would rather live in a walk-able community with metro access. When a city lacks affordable housing, the metro is meaningless.

    Joe – that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t celebrate our attempts to make public transport work or trends that show increasing use. But the “triumph” of public transport in Washington, DC is a laughable illusion.

  9. fj says:

    In many important ways moving to net zero mobility is much than solar and the returns are virtually immediate.

    Mass transit in much of the developed world is net zero mobility in the form of walking and cycling — with one-half billion cyclists in China — where cycling is actually three to four times more efficient than walking which translates into range and speed as well; and can be amplified much more with the integration of very modest methods and apparatus with minimal environment footprints and costs. You’ll often hear that “Well that can’t be done with a bike,” and there are two major reasons:

    1. It actually can be done with a bike and we’ve gotten so used to cars — it’s amazing how easy it is to get used to doing things the difficult way — that we don’t realize that it is possible and much easier with a bike or similar vehicle; something that is well known in the developing world because they have no choice and have to figure out how to do it.

    2. The infrastructure is very dangerous and not suited to extremely small light unarmored low-powered vehicles allowing for the monopoly of transportation systems based on cars to prevail.

    Conventional mass transit and transportation systems based on cars are very bad designs and will be rapidly outmoded once these ideas are widely known and are implemented in substantial markets; and, global human mobility will take a major leap forward similar to the disruptively terrific improvement in communications provided by cell phones.

    And, the two simple secrets to net zero mobility are first, to scale vehicles to sizes and weights easily moved by human power and second, make existing infrastructures completely save for the use of these very small light unarmored vehicles while developing and deploying systems directly capitalizing on the disruptively positive improvements they provide.

  10. fj says:

    corrected first line:
    In many important ways moving to net zero mobility is much easier than solar and the returns are virtually immediate.

  11. Joe Romm says:

    Small spaces? That would be relative, globally.
    Lots of folks live in apartments near the metro that are affordable.

  12. fj says:

    corrected last line:

    And, the two simple secrets to net zero mobility are first, to scale vehicles to sizes and weights easily moved by human power and second, make existing infrastructures completely safe for the use of these very small light unarmored vehicles while developing and deploying systems directly capitalizing on the disruptively positive improvements they provide.

  13. TBone says:

    Fair enough – I agree that Americans tend to view the necessity of space as larger than most other peoples, and that we should live with less (for sustainability sake). I think we badly need more high-density affordable housing for this reason. However, I point out that “lots of people” have high salaries (median is $85k, I think) and/or multiple salaries, and have been here longer than a decade. Not so for many in the younger group (high un/underemployment, high student loan debt, etc etc). If you have more than one child one parent might as well stay home – oops, not only do you need more space but now you only have 1 salary. As long as you showed up to DC in the early 2000s, which is probably the majority of people (lots), then you could afford to buy at half the current prices.

    To your credit, I looked around on Trulia and found a couple of places for ~$1500 at 800-900 sq ft near the metro, easily livable for a family. However, most were $2k+. Yeah, you can get studios for less (ie small space). There is no doubt a sliding definition of walk-able, and in my case I would argue bike-able should be included. We need more bike lanes as well.