Let the Debate Begin: NYC, SF Snag Top Spots in First Transit Score Rankings

A Transit Score map of Seattle, the nation's 7th-most transit-friendly major city according to new rankings. The city is buoyed by its dense urban core, where many transit lines converge. Image: ##http://www.walkscore.com/transit-score-methodology.shtml##Walk Score##

Today, Walk Score — developer of the popular method for evaluating neighborhood walkability (and filling out NCAA tournament brackets) — announced its first ranking of cities by Transit Score, a measure of the “usefulness” of a city’s transit system. On a 100-point scale, New York and San Francisco took the top two spots with scores of 81 and 80 respectively, while Boston (74), Washington D.C. (69), and Philadelphia (68) round out the top five (see the full rankings).

Walk Score CEO Josh Herst believes this is an important time to begin evaluating cities in terms of transit, and all the Americans who rode transit 10.4 billion times in 2011 would likely agree with him. “Heading to the gas pump this season is about as much fun as getting a root canal,” Herst said in the official release [PDF]. “With gas prices expected to hit new highs, more people are riding transit, walking and biking to save money. And being able to leave your car at home more often is great for your wallet, your waistline and the environment.”

The company generates Transit Scores using data provided by transit agencies, and takes into account the number of nearby transit routes (weighted differently by mode), how often those routes run, and how far away the stations are from any given point. A city’s score is based on a population-weighted average of all individual point scores. For an excellent discussion of the Transit Score methodology, check out this exchange between transit expert Jarrett Walker and Walk Score’s Matt Lerner from early 2011.

Overall, it’s fair to say that few American cities score well on the system. Of the 25 largest cities that make their transit data available to the public, only ten topped a Transit Score of 50, which is the lowest score qualifying as “good transit,” described as “many transit options nearby.” Most (14) fall into the “some transit” bracket, and the 25th-highest Transit Score among the cities evaluated — Raleigh, NC — is a 23, the upper end of “minimal transit.”

The scale is non-linear; that is, raising a city’s Transit Score from 70 to 80 would take much more work than raising it from 60 to 70. Because of the population weighting, the more people who live in a city, the harder it is to raise the score: As the Walk Score website explains, one additional bus route means a lot more for a small town than it would for a big city.

Furthermore, rail transit (including subways and light rail) is weighted at twice the value of a bus route, with ferries, cable cars, and other modes splitting the difference between the two. These numbers weren’t pulled out of thin air — they reflect research that shows a range of effects of different transit modes on the value of surrounding land.

Because of this, Transit Scores will tend to be higher in the center of cities where multiple rail lines converge, but where residential population may not be at its densest. It’s not hard to see how development near rail stations could make or break a city’s Transit Score.

No doubt, Transit Score is a useful way to compare different neighborhoods within a city, and now entire cities as a whole. However, it primarily reflects how easy it is to get to transit, rather than where you can go and what you can do with transit once you’re on it.

  • In addition to endorsing the alternative methodology that Jarrett Walker suggests, I think Walk Score should start incorporating bike-share datasets into its transit algorithm asap (maybe this is already happening).

    When I go to D.C., I stay with my grandmother near the national cathedral. The Red Line used to be a distant 20-minute walk from her house. Now it is a convenient 5-minute bike-share trip.

    Seems like the bike-share factor will be impossible to ignore in most big American cities in the near future.

  • I am glad that Walk Score and Transit Score focus on actual cities. So many studies use Census definitions of metropolitan areas that can include urban, suburban, rural, and even wilderness areas. When an “average” is extrapolated for the whole area, the result can be quite meaningless. (Two-thirds of the time when a study or report mentions “San Francisco” I find they don’t mean San Francisco at all, but a region that incorporates nearly a thousand square miles.)

  • Davistrain

    I find it interesting that “cable cars” are included in the evaluation, because A) they are only found in San Francisco, and B) they are viewed by many as a tourist attraction rather than an integral part of the transit system.  And it doesn’t surprise me that New York and SF score the highest–I don’t remember the exact numbers, but as I recall, NY has more rapid-transit cars than several US cities put together, and it’s one of the few cities in the US where one can live without owning a car and not feel like a second class citizen.

  • Johnny Lovell

    “The company generates Transit Scores using data provided by transit agencies, and takes into account the number of nearby transit routes (weighted differently by mode), how often those routes run, and how far away the stations are from any given point.”
    Or in other words, scores are based on how a transit system’s service works “in theory,” as if it was perfectly managed. But if “theory” was all it took to provide great transit service, I don’t think that Muni-bashing would be the civic pastime that it happens to be in San Francisco.

  • PRE

    Just another bogus ranking.  There is no way that DC scores lower than SF.  I would trade their Metro for BART any day – and I think about that often during the 20 minutes wait for the next Pittsburg Train.

  • Anonymous

    San Francisco has a transit system that looks great on paper, but in reality it provides far less benefit than it should.  BART is good for commuters, but not useful for getting around the city.  Muni is so slow that on many routes you can walk in equal or less time that it takes a bus to cover the route.  Only the small geographic size of the city makes it negotiable.

  • wanderer

    This article sneaks in a whopper about how rail should be valued over bus because of its effects on land value. But neither the article referred to, nor any other analysis,analyzes the comparative value of rail access vs. bus access. Yes, there’s a premium  for rail access, but, according to the few studies of the matter, there’s a premium for quality bus access as well.  The TCRP study of the effect of streetcars on land value concluded that there simply wasn’t any evidence either way about the effect of streetcars on land values.

    Jarrett Walker has tirelessly pointed out the apples-kumquats quality of bus-rail preference comparisons. They usually effectively run something like “Would you prefer this shiny, fast, new, signal prioritized rail line that will run very frequently or the tired old bus that has to stop at every light?” Gee, I dunno. Rail-bus comparisons that are apples-apples show a much smaller rail preference.

    In terms of transit score, the rail bias skews the results. Some systems like BART, which are in fact fast and frequent, at least within their core area, do deserve strong preference. But then there are the slow light rail lines that run every 30 minutes, which are nowhere near as useful as, say, an LA rapid bus line running on a 10 or 12 minute headway.  

    I think this is a worthy effort, but it definitely still  needs some refinement

  • Anonymous

    Without every agency in the area providing data (a real problem still in Los Angeles) this is not yet a completely reliable measure.

  • These guys seem to have most ACT bus routes, but they are missing all the Transbay ones.  According to them, there are no public transit routes between where my home and work.  But there is quite literally a ACT Transbay bus service that takes me door-to-door, with less than 1/4 miles of walking.

  •  There HAS to be something wrong with a measure of transit effectiveness that puts SF in a practical tie with NYC (81 vs. 80 on their rating scale). NYC’s transit is not 1 point better than SF’s, it is 10 times better.

    Put it this way, I don’t know anybody in NY with a car, but everybody I know in SF has a car. There’s a lot of in-between, I’d say major Canadian cities plus DC and Boston are all an improvement on SF.

  • Guest

    John, it’s for the whole city.  San Francisco as a city looks comparable because it’s 1/6 the size of New York.  There are plenty of areas without great transit in all boroughs besides Manhattan just like out west in San Francisco.  It’s not that surprising.

  • Miles Bader

    @KarenLynnAllen:disqus But by the same token, official city boundaries can poorly reflect the actual way a city works.  I live near Tokyo, and the boundaries of “Tokyo the city” are really pretty meaningless when thinking about transit or the way people live; not only does the “dense urban area” extend way past the borders to encompass surrounding cities—all effectively sharing one well-integrated mass transit system—but the official boundaries include sparsely populated rural areas and even some mountains!).

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