From taco-rich San Diego to the tortilla wastelands of Boston, we asked you to grade U.S. cities on two critical metrics: Mexican food and public transportation.
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The idea, unsurprisingly, came from a place of hunger. Carter Rubin, a mobility and climate advocate at the Natural Resources Defense Council, was flying back to Los Angeles from an East Coast trip talking about urban transit when he started salivating over one of his hometown’s culinary staples: tacos.
So Rubin tweeted out a silly idea: He draw a very crude graph and asked people to place their cities on a grid based on the quality of their tacos and transit. (Los Angeles, for example, he rated as having excellent tacos and mediocre transit.)
Tell me where your city is: pic.twitter.com/TXopGdZ9YR— Carter Rubin (@CarterRubin) December 5, 2018
“I know how passionate people are about transit and tacos,” said Rubin. “It just seemed fun to pick two completely unrelated metrics and start plotting where we all fell.”
Here at CityLab, we are on the record as supporting both tacos and transit, two of the great amenities of urban living. And while Rubin’s Twitter experiment got a lot of replies, we thought we could take the idea even farther. So we set up a simple survey and got more than 1,000 responses from readers rating their own cities’ tacos and transit on a scale from 1 to 10.
Here’s where America’s major cities landed.
This completely unscientific survey produces a few inescapable conclusions:
U.S. cities are generally good places for tacos
No major U.S. city rated worse than 5 out of 10 in tacos. Even lowest-rated Boston, which is on few lists of can’t-miss Mexican cuisine destinations, managed to scrape out an average rating slightly above 5. A surprising number of respondents—around 20 percent—gave their city an improbably high score of 10 out of 10.
Survey respondents largely limited their answers to U.S. cities, and Rubin speculated that an international version would fill up that left side of the chart with plenty of taco-poor European and Asian cities. (And—perhaps needless to say—towns and cities in Mexico itself should handily defeat all U.S. comers.)
Americans are much more ambivalent about their cities’ mass transit
Plenty of respondents rated their local transit system below-average, unsurprising given America’s rocky relationship with mass transit. The major city with the highest-rated transit system was Chicago, which scored around 8 out of 10. Overall, just 6 percent of respondents gave their city a 10 out of 10 on transit.
Californians and Texans really love their tacos
Houston, San Antonio, and Austin all received average taco scores above 9 out of 10. So did Los Angeles and San Diego. Not too far behind were cities like Dallas, Sacramento, and San Francisco. Both California and Texas have robust taco cultures, and their fans spoke up. A full 75 percent of Houstonites and nearly 60 percent of Los Angelenos rated their cities tacos a 10 out of 10.*
“I've definitely had good tacos in Houston,” said Rubin, from Los Angeles. “I'm willing to believe that that’s how Texans feel about their tacos.”
Chicago may be the best of both worlds
If you demand superior tacos and effective public transportation, your options in the U.S. are decidedly limited. Many of the cities with the highest-rated tacos got mediocre scores for their transit systems. Despite its much-ballyhooed bus system revamp and improving ridership, Houston’s transit system averaged 3.6 out of 10. San Antonio got a 3.1. Los Angeles, 5.5.
Meanwhile many of the best transit cities are burdened with unremarkable tacos: New York City scored a 6.8 for its tacos, as did Philadelphia, while Washington, D.C., got a 5.5.
The lone exception to this rule was Chicago, which paired a survey-best 8.1 rating for its transit system with a very solid 8.2 taco score—slightly better than San Francisco.
“My biggest takeaway is that the taco environment in Chicago is much stronger than I realized, and Chicagoans are very passionate about that fact,” Rubin said.
Chicagoans weren’t quite as passionate about their tacos as Angelenos or Houstonites, but one-third of respondents rated Chicago’s taco scene a 10 out of 10. They also are proud of the L, with about a quarter of Chicagoans giving their transit system a 10 and well over 80 percent rating it an 8 or higher.*
Some cities can’t agree
Most residents of San Diego largely agree their tacos are great, just as people from St. Louis overwhelmingly rate their transit system a subpar 4 out of 10. But other cities showed no such consensus in our survey. For example, is D.C.’s taco scene an 8 out of 10 or better, as 20 percent of respondents thought? Or does it rate 4 out of 10 or worse, as 37 percent claimed?*
Similarly, about as many New Yorkers rated their tacos 10 out of 10 as rated them 4 out of 10.*
Metros like Boston, Denver, Minneapolis-St. Paul, and Seattle all had pretty broad disagreement about the quality of their taco scenes.
What, if anything, does this exercise prove?
As Rubin admits, the relationship between these two metrics is flimsy, but perhaps not technically nonexistent. “A lot of the larger cities in the U.S. with good transit systems are also fairly diverse, international cities with good representation of people from Latin America,” Rubin said.
And perhaps there’s a broader lesson to be gleaned here. Good food is an essential element of urban life—and so is a good way to get to that food. Even if some cities don’t quite live up to urbanist hopes and dreams in their tacos or their public transit, the fact that so many residents think highly of their cities’ efforts on these critical fronts is a sign of hope.
Find out more
CityLab also received hundreds of responses from residents of smaller cities, from Akron, Ohio (two votes, averaging a 2.5 on tacos and 4.0 on transit) to Yakima, Washington (one vote, 7 out of 10 on tacos and 1 out of 10 on transit). To continue teasing out the nuances of the understudied relationship between taco and transit quality, we’re leaving our survey open and will check back in a few weeks to see if new votes warrant an update. If you have a strong take on your city’s tacos and transit, let us know.
In the meantime, here’s a chart of every single metro area to get votes, with some of the smaller cities highlighted:
*CORRECTION: A previous version of this article had incorrect numbers for the distribution of votes in certain highlighted cities, which overstated the share of people giving high ratings.