The Accessibility Observatory at the University of Minnesota has released the most useful transit commute rankings you're likely to see for some time. "Access Across America: Transit 2014" ranks 46 of the biggest U.S. metros based on how many jobs a resident can access by transit during the morning rush of 7 a.m. to 9 a.m. Let's jump right into the top 10 then step back and see how the rankings were done:
- New York
- San Francisco
- Los Angeles
- Washington, D.C.
- San Jose
Not a terribly surprising list, but digging deeper it proves to be an incredibly insightful one. The rankings use both city geography and transit schedules to capture the full door-to-door commute experience: from the first mile it takes to reach a bus or train station, to the wait once you're there, to the travel time itself, to the last mile reaching the office. They are also weighted by time, with shorter trips favored over longer ones. So a 10-minute commute gives a city more accessibility points than a 60-minute commute.
In broader terms, that approach gives these rankings two key advantages. First, they capture the importance of transit frequency across an entire system. The rankings take into account accessibility at every minute between 7 and 9 in the morning. Systems that run a lot of buses and trains, therefore, perform better than those with inconsistent or infrequent service. In this way, the list captures the way most of us run our lives: Real-time transit updates aside, we leave for work when we're ready to leave, not at an exact hour and minute.
Second, the comprehensive door-to-door approach also captures the importance of transit-oriented development and walkability. A 30-minute bus ride becomes an hour commute with a 15-minute walk on both ends. But it becomes a far more manageable 40-minute commute when homes and offices are located closer to transit stations. So two cities with the same service frequency can still vary considerably in terms of job access based on the type of density and land use that occurs at either end of the trip.
In effect, then, this is the carless commute ranking to end all carless commute rankings.
Now, let's take a closer look at some of the rankings broken down by time. The following chart ranks the 10 metros with the most access to jobs within a 10-minute transit commute. Given how long it takes to arrive at a bus or train stop, wait for the ride, then reach the office, these rankings essentially reflect pedestrian commutes (which could also be achieved by cycling). In other words, this is accessibility via walkability.
Next, let's look at job accessibility within a half-hour morning transit commute. Thirty minutes is slightly more than most people want to commute, but it's not quite to the point of being an unhealthy commute time. It's also the halfway point of the hour or so that's often considered an average person's travel time budget for an entire day.
And, for good measure, here are the accessibility rankings within a 60-minute morning transit commute.
What's especially interesting about these rankings is how some cities rise or fall depending on the desirable transit commute time. Los Angeles, for instance, is ranked 7th on 10-minute transit commute access but rises to 2nd on 60-minute access. That tells us one thing we already know: L.A. doesn't exactly have a dense, walkable core. It also tells us something we often fail to appreciate, which is that the city has a pretty vast and reliable transit system (at least by American standards), as well as a number of job centers.
Several other cities display similar trends. San Jose is ranked 15th on 10-minute access but 8th on 60-minute access. Atlanta ranks 39th for 10-minute access but 28th for 60-minute access. Las Vegas and Phoenix rank 42nd and 34th for 10-minute access, respectively, but 20th and 19th for 60-minute access. We tend to think of these metros as sprawling, car-dependent places. That's true to a large extent, but the hour-long rankings also suggest that once these places push transit-oriented development around job centers, accessibility should make a big leap.
Some cities trend in the opposite direction. New Orleans and Austin are two great examples. These cities rank 22nd and 24th, respectively, in terms of 10-minute transit commutes. That makes sense: Both places have very walkable cores, and New Orleans has a streetcar system that does enhance pedestrian access. But the cities drop to 38th and 41st on the 60-minute rankings, meaning that their transit systems don't do a great job expanding access to different parts of the city, especially for those who don't live in the center.
All rankings have their limitations, but with "Access Across America: Transit 2014," the shortcomings seem easily addressed with more time and data. It would be nice to know transit commute accessibility at times outside a morning rush-hour window, for instance, and to know accessibility to places other than jobs, too. The rankings also look at jobs in a blanket sense; a break-down by industry and wage or salary might give us great insight into transit equity.
But for the moment, the rankings top any commuting metric out there. Andrew Owen, director of the Accessibility Observatory, told CityLab earlier this year (for a post that describes the ranking methodology in great detail) that he wanted to evaluate not just how transit moves people through cities but how well the systems "connect people to the things they want to reach," such as jobs. In the end, that's really what good transit is about.