The 10 Best and Worst Cities to Catch a Bus to Work

This chart shows the number of jobs accessible by transit in Atlanta. Red indicates better accessibility by transit. Image: University of Minnesota
This map shows the number of jobs accessible by transit from a given point. Few parts of Atlanta have good transit accessibility compared to the nation’s top performing cities. Map: University of Minnesota

It’s been called “the geography of opportunity.” And David Levinson is trying to make a science of it.

In a new analysis, Levinson, a University of Minnesota transportation engineering professor, and his colleague Andrew Owen have ranked the 50 largest U.S. metro areas based on job accessibility by transit [PDF].

Levinson and Owen used transit schedules and walking routes to chart how many jobs are accessible in each region from a given point within a given amount of time. Adding Census data about where people reside, they were able to calculate the number of jobs the average worker in each region can reach via transit within 10-minute intervals. The rankings are based on those stats — the more jobs a typical resident can reach via transit in a short amount of time, the higher a region performed.

This chart shows job accessibility by 10-minute intervals for the Charlotte region. Image: University of Minnesota
This chart shows the number of jobs accessible via transit for an average worker in the Charlotte region, within 10-minute intervals of travel time. Graph: University of Minnesota

The top 10 cities for job accessibility by transit, according to Owen and Levinson, align fairly well with what you would expect:

  1. New York City
  2. San Francisco
  3. Los Angeles
  4. Washington
  5. Chicago
  6. Boston
  7. Philadelphia
  8. Seattle
  9. Denver
  10. San Jose

The authors said these cities tend to have two things in common: “a combination of density and fast, frequent transit service.”

Chicago's job accessibility by transit, mapped. Image: University of Minnesota
Chicago’s job accessibility by transit. Map: University of Minnesota

Meanwhile, mid-level performers like Atlanta (#30) combine decent transit systems with very low density and a high level of job sprawl. The very worst performers were sprawling — many are concentrated in the Southeast — and had weak transit systems to boot.

The 10 worst regions for accessibility by transit, in descending order, are Kansas City, Indianapolis, Austin, Raleigh, Cincinnati, Orlando, Nashville, Virginia Beach, Riverside, and Birmingham. Some cities, including Oklahoma City, Memphis, Jacksonville, and Richmond, were not ranked due to a lack of transit data.

It should be noted that even in cities at the top of this ranking, transit access to jobs remains poor for many people. For the average Chicago resident, for example, a meager 7.3 percent of jobs are accessible within a 60-minute transit trip. That only looks good in comparison to cities like bottom-of-the-pack Birmingham, Alabama, where the same figure is just 3.3 percent.

  • Aaron Priven

    Considering how generally sprawl-y San José is, I’m surprised.

  • Coolebra

    I wonder if they relied ion bus schedules or real travel times during commuting periods, accounting for the delays in transfers that invariably occur because our buses run in mixed traffic . . .

  • guest

    Philly may have a pretty extensive bus system compared to many other US cities, but I wouldn’t call it a great system. I guess it depends on the time of day and the locations your going to and fro. But especially during rush hour, if you had to go from one part of the city to the other, it’ll easily take well over half an hour IN many cases, walking would probably be quicker. Many of the bus routes also stop literally every block, and once the bus even reaches the intersection and drops off/picks up passengers, you often have to wait until the next green cycle. Their transit also seems to be quite a bit more pricey than many other city transit systems. The “all-day” pass is actually only 8 rides and the transfer fee is $1.

  • Roland Solinski

    No doubt that the cities at the top of the list have excellent transit (for America) but does this list take population into account? Of course New York will have more jobs accessible by transit, simply because it has more jobs overall.

  • Harvey Marx

    Chicago’s a big city. I’m not even sure if you can get from one end of the Red Line to the other in 60 minutes, never mind to jobs in the suburbs. There’s also a big cluster of jobs around O’Hare, which isn’t easily accessible from most parts of the city. You shouldn’t expect the percent of jobs you can get to in an hour to be very high.

  • Steve

    The LA metro has twice as many jobs as the SF metro but it’s behind it. This is really about density and transit, not size.

  • Jake Wegmann

    I think the key to the San Jose MSA is that it mostly lacks residential areas with extremely low densities. Unlike many southeastern metros, where vast suburban areas are made up of houses sitting on lots of an acre or larger, and where to walk from your driveway onto the local collector road (with a speed limit of 40 mph) is literally to take your life into your hands.

  • SamC

    What all-day pass are you talking about? You can get the $12 one & take as many bus/subway/regional rail rides as you need, no limits.

    And the prices seem on par for me with other cities, though way cheaper than DC. This chart’s from 2010 so not quite up-to-date, but shows Philly as either average or on the low-end for most transit costs: http://mbta.com/uploadedfiles/About_the_T/Fare_Proposals_2012/MBTA,%20other%20transit%20fare%20comparison.pdf

  • Wanderer

    I think this is a great study. It builds in transit frequency in a way that most studies don’t. I look at the maps and say the areas that are yellow or red are those with good transit service, the rest of the region doesn’t.

    Metropolitan area size matters and it doesn’t. As a worker/employee, you want to be able to access the most jobs in the least time. That’s the same whether you live in New York or Podunk. But you can use the numbers to calculate the percentage of jobs in a metro that are accessible within say, a half hour trip.

    A shorthand way of doing this is comparing a region’s weighted accessibility rank with its total employment rank. if the weighted accessibility rank is a higher number (worse) than its employment rank, the percentage of jobs accessible by transit is relatively low.

    For example, Indianapolis has a weighted accessibility rank of 38, but its 29th in total employment. That means a lower than average percentage of jobs are transit accessible in Indianapolis. By contrast, Milwaukee has a weighted accessibility rank of 12, but it’s only 35th in total employment. So a higher than average percentage of jobs are transit accessible in Milwaukee.

    San Jose surprised me too. Look at Table 3 in the report,, which shows accessibility rank by length of trip, for an explanation. San Jose has a lower score (15th) in jobs accessible with a 10 minute trip, which is basically a walk trip. It’s not that easy to walk places in San Jose. But for a 30 minute trip, San Jose is 13th, for a 60 minute trip it’s 8th. So transit in San Jose extends well out into those suburbs, which are not as spread out as Northeastern ones.

  • Jack

    Doesn’t this study just emphasize how lagging Chicago’s transportation infrastructure is? Below SF and LA?! really?

  • R.A. Stewart

    Honestly, I was surprised Chicago even made the top five. It’s a commentary, really, on how truly abysmal transit is in the U.S. as a whole.

  • Aquaria

    I can’t take you seriously if you don’t list San Antonio’s transit as the worst in the nation (and possibly the worst in the world), for their horrifyingly bad logistics alone. It is the worst of any transit system I’ve ever encountered. Unless you’re going downtown, you will probably need well over 2 hours to get across town. Forget teaching the earliest morning classes at a college on the northwest side–you won’t get there in time, no matter how hard you try to do it. That’s because none of the buses connect up in a way that will allow it.

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