It depends on how far out you look.
What people want in their commute is straightforward: A consistent, affordable way into the city for work and enjoyment. But getting a city to the point where it can offer these things can be much more complex. To truly serve the most people possible, transit systems must maximize usefulness within city limits while expanding service outside the urban core.
Though ridership numbers and station maps give policymakers a sense of how well their systems are performing, these metrics sometimes miss a major element of successful public transportation systems: How many people are near transit in the first place.
That’s the metric at the heart of a new study from the Institute for Transportation & Development Policy. The study measures how many people live within walking distance (1 km) of high-quality rapid transit, either light rail or bus transit, in 26 cities and metros around the world.
The study applies bus rapid transit standards of quality (grade-separated rail, offboard fare purchases, cars that prioritize capacity) and quantity (regular station spacing and frequent service) to assess the reach of transit systems in cities in industrialized and developing countries.
Using these benchmarks, the study compared rapid transit sheds in cities to density maps of metropolitan areas to determine how many people have access to speedy public transportation.
For the 13 cities studied in industrialized countries, the average share of the population near transit came in at 68.5 percent, while metropolitan areas came in at 37.3 percent. The top four cities with the largest populations near rapid transit were Paris, Barcelona, Madrid, and London, reaching more than 90 percent of their city populations. Rotterdam came in fifth, serving 84 percent of its city population. The dense population in these cities affords good transit coverage at their cores, but further transit development has not followed residents out into broader metropolitan areas.
For example, 100 percent of population of the city of Paris has access to rapid transit, but only 50 percent of its larger metro population has access to the rapid transit shed that extends beyond city boundaries. A few of the other top-performing cities have a bit of a better reach into their outer metropolitan areas: Madrid and Barcelona rapid transit reaches about 76 percent of those cities’ metro inhabitants.
The difference between cities in Europe and in the United States is pretty evident, too. The six U.S. cities included in the study averaged a score of 17.2 percent on their metro-area service reach.
New York City unsurprisingly ranks as the top American city serving residents with rapid transit, but that transit is accessible only to 77 percent of its city residents and 35 percent of residents in the metropolitan area. Boston reaches 63 percent of its city residents, but just 15 percent of its metropolitan residents. Washington, D.C., ranks third, followed by San Francisco, Chicago, and Los Angeles. In these cities, coverage within city limits ranges from 57 percent to 24 percent of their populations, and metropolitan coverage ranges from 16 percent to 11 percent.
The study is clear that population differences make it difficult to compare cities in developing countries with those in developed countries: Increased development makes it more likely that a city’s downtown will have a denser population of people close to transit, and still-developing cities reach larger proportions of the overall metro population because the city cores have yet to fill up and sprawl out. Meanwhile, in some cases, cities in developing countries serve rapid transit to a larger proportion of their populations.
Other countries on the list outpace American cities in coverage within city limits. Buenos Aires (65 percent), Chennai (55 percent), Rio de Janeiro (47 percent), Mexico City (47 percent), Manila (46 percent), and Jakarta (44 percent) all outperform San Francisco, Chicago, and Los Angeles.
These other countries often reach further into their metro regions than most American cities, too. Ten of the non-OECD cities have a higher percentage of reach than Boston (with a 15 percent reach), ranging from Jakarta’s 16 percent coverage to Beijing’s 46 percent coverage of its metropolitan area.
Beijing not only beats Washington, D.C., on rapid transit within city limits (with 60 percent service compared to Washington’s 57 percent), it outpaces its metro reach by a lot—at 46 percent coverage to D.C.’s 12 percent. Take a look at the compact development of Beijing on the map below.
The report concedes that its metric has limitations in measuring rail and bus system efficiency, and its authors suggest ways to refine measurements, like including actual walkability or bus/train frequency. But overall, it does give a birds-eye view of why transit systems should be designed around people rather than train tracks.