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.