These U.S. Cities Offer the Best Job Access to Transit Riders

Philadelphia ranked seventh in the nation on the number of jobs accessible to the average resident via transit. Image: University of Minnesota
Philadelphia ranked seventh in the nation on the number of jobs accessible to the average resident via transit. Image: University of Minnesota

How well does your city’s transit system connect people to jobs? A new report from the University of Minnesota lays out how many jobs are accessible via transit in major American cities.

These cities offer the best accessibility to jobs via transit Chart: University of Minnesota
These cities offer the best accessibility to jobs via transit. Chart: University of Minnesota

New York, San Francisco, Chicago, and D.C. offer the best transit access to jobs, the authors concluded. In addition, Seattle and Denver are two regions that punch above their weight, according to co-author David Levinson, a University of Minnesota civil engineering professor.

The research team analyzed transit schedules and walking distances to transit stops for every Census tract in the United States. Then they measured how many jobs were accessible via transit to the typical person in the region within 10-minute intervals. So for each region, they calculated how many jobs the average resident could reach on transit in 10 minutes, 20 minutes, and so on, up to an hour. The rankings are based on an average of those numbers, with more weight given to jobs accessible via shorter transit commutes than longer ones.

Both Seattle and Denver have devoted significant resources to transit expansions recently (with Seattle making especially strong progress enhancing transit in the central city). But transit accessibility is influenced by other factors in addition to the extent and frequency of the rail or bus network. Land use — or how close jobs are to workers — is another big component.

Portland, for example, probably performs well more because of its urban growth boundary than its relatively recent streetcar additions, the authors say. And San Jose may owe its high ranking to “a lot of jobs in the San Francisco metropolitan area accessible from the San Jose metropolitan area,” Levinson said.

The boundaries of regions as defined by the Census do add an element of randomness to the rankings, Levinson notes. But while small regions have fewer jobs than big regions, and thus fewer transit accessible jobs, rankings tend to hold up when you adjust for size. In the lowest-ranking region, Birmingham, Alabama, just 3.4 percent of nearly 500,000 total jobs are accessible within a 60-minute transit commute for the average resident, while in New York City, about 14 percent of the region’s 8.5 million jobs are transit accessible.

Levinson and his colleagues have been using this type of analysis to rank cities on job accessibility via walking and driving as well. In every U.S. metro region, the average resident can access more jobs by driving than by transit. “But the advantage is smaller in large cities (like New York) than smaller cities,” said Levinson.

Accessibility, Levinson says, is a more useful metric to analyze transportation systems than measures like congestion, or annual hours of delay in traffic, which transportation planners have relied on for decades. “We build cities to maximize access, so that people can easily reach other people, goods, and ideas they care about,” he said. “Without the benefits of access, there would be no reason for cities at all. So accessibility is how we should assess how well infrastructure is serving our cities.”

  • vnm

    I’m shocked to see L.A. ahead of Boston and Philly, but then again they HAVE been investing in transit there.

  • war_on_hugs

    Los Angeles is also denser than people give it credit for, even with its sprawling nature – especially including the fairly dense “mini” downtowns that are found throughout the metro area. I noticed that LA does particularly well in the “within 60 minutes” timeframe, which jibes with observation.

  • toofatforyou

    Let’s discuss best practices for financing transit. The state legislatures in St. Paul, Albany and Salem did the best jobs — they used a balanced set of revenue-raisers and built out their respective main metro regions’ light rail and bus systems in an efficient manner. Anyone think other states’ legislatures’ did better than those?

  • Please, all this needs to be taken with a grain of salt.

    I lived in Buffalo. Of course, it ranks towards the bottom because outside of the medical complexes, most businesses left downtown for the burbs just when the light rail system opened up. Therefore, most people drive.

    San Francisco #2? It’s all relative. You can easily spend 60 minutes on the Muni system to travel less than 5 miles. The Bay Area is also #2 in traffic congestion.

  • Alex Brideau III

    Also, LA has many, many bus lines with lots of local stops. As to whether those lines have 10-minute headways, I’m not so sure.

  • Richard

    Theoretically yes they are 10 minute headways with a local and a rapid both on 15 minute or better on virtually every major boulevard in LA City. LA Metro is trying to restructure a bit so all the rapids are on 10 minute or better.
    In practice…..

  • Richard

    LA does really well in within 60 minutes but pretty badly in the within 15 minute catagory.

    Also with such a huge sprawling nature, a ton of people drive over an hours each way each day to work, passing by hundreds of thousands of jobs along the way.

  • Richard

    LA County is doing a pretty good job of financing it’s metro system without much state help. Of course LA County by itself is larger than most states.

  • toofatforyou

    LACMTA does a good job of getting fed grants — it just got a big one for the Purple Line. Its unaccountable board has a propensity for pimping sales tax hikes though. That’s what one can expect from a municipal board controlled by political appointees: the most economically-vulnerable households are targeted for disproportionately great financial impacts. Best practices for financing transit involve little or no sales tax impositions.

  • bolwerk

    New York? Ha. We have good rail penetration in the NYC region, but nearly all of it was built before World War II. The New York governor and legislature play Russian roulette with transit funds every year.

    Buffalo, Syracuse, Rochester, and Albany might all be regions condign for rail transit, but the two major post-war attempts (that I am aware of anyway) that went into operation have been uninspired at best. Buffalo’s light rail still exists, and seems to be a good system, but it needs a lot of investment to grow into a regional network starting 30 years ago. Syracuse OnTrack was an infrequent boondoggle that used 1950s mainline passenger equipment, ran only on weekends, and had double digit ridership. It might have made a lot of sense as a frequent light rail network, at least with some investment to actually reach residential areas.

  • toofatforyou

    I was referring to how Albany finances the MTA — the efforts in the sticks you reference may well be sub-par. Albany set up a reasonable means of financing the MTA projects and operations in and around NYC. Tolls and other user fees pay for about 42% of it (eg, those who use the facilities pay a fair proportion of if). A fair blend of taxes is used: commercial property transfer taxes, a small amount of sales tax, employer taxes, etc. Transit usage there is the highest in the nation, both in overall terms and when you look at the percentage of the population that uses it regularly. The MTA issues debt, but that financing structure involves policies set in Albany that don’t allow the local transit services provider to haul in excessive general tax revenue — the state legislature in Albany determines the need and supplies that amount of tax revenue to service the debt. Compare that to Sound Transit: it pledges scores of billions of dollars of tax collections just as security for its debt — far more than needed for expected capital costs and operations subsidies. Goldman Sachs set up this scheme in the mid-1990’s and it has been set into law and built upon since. It’s abusive as f*ck.

  • bolwerk

    The tax mix may be nice, on paper, but in practice it’s largely financed with unsecured debt.