President Obama is calling for $8 billion to go towards high-speed rail, as part of a six-year, $53-billion plan. The administration is hoping that the program will create jobs and boost American competitiveness in the long run. But on a smaller scale, an effective public transportation system can simply increase the quality of life in a city. By transporting people to work, school, local attractions, and healthcare facilities, public transit can reach into nearly every area of city life, from public health to tourism. Statistics show that public transit has experienced rapid growth, providing economic benefits to individuals and municipalities alike.
Public transit systems have become a part of daily life in many U.S. cities; the number of public transportation systems in the United States has increased more than sevenfold in the last 30 years, from 1,044 in 1980 to 7,700 in 2009. According to the American Public Transportation Association, a nonpartisan organization that advocates for public transit improvement, that increase in transit has spurred an increase in economic activity. The association estimates that for every one dollar invested in public transportation, four dollars are generated in economic returns. APTA also reported in January that in major urban areas, individuals on average save $9,656 annually by using public transportation instead of driving.
Analysis of data from the Federal Transit Administration and APTA shows which cities are among the best in the country for public transportation. All of these cities' systems have unique features that set them apart. Portland's public transit provides riders with a variety of travel options, including buses, light rail, commuter rail, streetcars, and an aerial tram. New York is unique simply by virtue of high ridership: in 2008, 4.2 billion trips were taken on New York metro area subway lines, buses, and railroads, six times the number of trips taken in Los Angeles, the No. 3 city. Portland features fare-free transit routes in its downtown areas. And the Salt Lake City area's Utah Transit Authority runs ski transit lines in the winter, in addition to its usual rail and bus services, and also features wireless Internet on its buses.
Additionally, many of the top cities for public transportation are improving their already high-quality systems. The FTA in January approved a 20-mile elevated electric passenger rail system to connect Honolulu with its suburban areas.
According to a U.S. News analysis, the 10 U.S. cities with the best combination of public transportation investment, ridership, and safety are:
6. (tie) San Jose, Calif.
6. (tie) Salt Lake City, Utah
10. Honolulu, Hawaii
Other major cities that came close to making the cut were the Washington, D.C., metro area, at No. 11; San Francisco, Calif., at No. 13; and Chicago, Illinois, at No. 14. Though all three of these systems had relatively high ridership and public investment, they all also experienced far more safety incidents--such as collisions, derailments, and fires--per million trips than the cities in the top 10.
The rankings take into account per capita spending on public transportation, number of safety incidents per million trips, and the number of trips taken per capita. All figures are for 2008, including population counts, which are from the Census' 2008 American Community Survey (however, for the few cities listed by APTA that the census did not list in its 2008 metropolitan area estimates, U.S. News used Census 2000 exact counts as cited by APTA). Cities were ranked on all metrics--cities with higher spending, fewer incidents (includes all safety incidents, injuries, and fatalities as reported in the National Transit Database), and greater ridership received better rankings in each category. Rankings were then totalled, and the cities with the lowest rankings are those in the above top 10. Only metropolitan areas in which more than 20 million trips were taken in 2008 (according to APTA) were included in the final rankings. It should also be noted that the rankings take into account cities' surrounding areas. For example, Boston data includes ridership and population in the metro area that extends into New Hampshire and Rhode Island.
Corrected on : Corrected on 05/17/11: An earlier version of this article used incorrect data from the National Transit Database.