Listicles that rank cities according to ill-defined criteria are nearly worthless internet click bait, but as usual fivethirtyeight brings some rigor to the process:

The measure used is “unlinked trips,” which counts transfers during the same journey as separate trips. This figure can be converted to “trips per resident” by dividing unlinked trips in 2013 by 2012 population estimates from the American Community Survey (ACS), yielding a figure that’s neatly comparable among cities of varying sizes.

Note that these are metro areas, not single municipalities. As you might imagine, New York blows everything else away, much-maligned San Francisco/Oakland is second, and DC is third.  Then it’s a mix of transit cities and college towns. Atlantic City, NJ is last at #290, with 0.5 transit rides per person per year.

Here are the Washington State results with some interesting reference points thrown in:

10. Philadelphia (67.8)

12. Seattle (63.6)

13. Portland (58.4)

17. Bellingham (49.6)

19. Eugene (46.5)

42. Olympia-Lacey (30.2)

43. Spokane (30.1)

44. Atlanta (29.9)

68. Phoenix-Mesa (20.0)

70. Bremerton (19.5)

75. Kennewick-Pasco (18.7)

91. Houston (16.4)

107. Wenatchee (14.0)

142. Yakima (10.7)

The temptation here is to use metrics like these as a verdict on the worth of a transit system. But in reality, ridership statistics reflect a lot more than the decisions of transit agencies. Land use is arguably a larger input than anything involving the transit system. Due to the methodology here a transfer-oriented system will significantly outscore a one-seat-ride-based system independently of the number of people served. It’s also clear from the list that it helps to be a college town. Unlike population-weighted density, this statistic is very sensitive to boundaries: combine San Jose with San Francisco/Oakland, and that 2nd place finish is doomed. Finally, poverty also builds ridership, and can be a sign of either poor economic management (bad) or openness to immigrants (good). But it’s interesting that the mean Seattle area resident takes about one trip a week on transit.

I do like this metric better than “share of commutes using transit,” which puts a lot of emphasis on peak networks and not the all-day connectivity we argue for at STB.

26 Replies to “Transit Rides per Capita”

  1. Olympia and Spokane are much higher than I would have expected. Not even remotely surprised by Bremerton’s score.

  2. No listing for Tacoma? Or is that subsumed in Seattle? If so, I’m even more amazed we do so well.

    Some transit wonk/nerd should come up with a misery index, which attempts to assign a quantitative value to the degree of inconvenience and unpleasantness of transit use. Looking at the list, I’m pretty sure Seattle would be #1 in the country in rates of transit use in spite of misery.

    1. Short of having NYC’s expansive right of way mass transit infrastructure, there is no way that Seattle with its limited pencil stick light rail system could be number #1.

  3. It’s interesting that Portland’s ride share is lower than Seattle’s considering: how much rail they have and the lower income levels. If you subtract the tiny metros, it appears the correlation with density is very strong.

    1. Not “ride share”; “rides per capita”. That can be affected by the demographics of an area. But your point about correlation with density is spot on.

      1. Sure. You’re right, it’s rides per capita, not share. That may explain it, walking around much of center “city” Portland, you definitely get the feeling there are a lot of people going no where.

    2. We don’t have meaningful express buses or meaningful commuter rail / regional rail here.

    3. King County/ Seattle consistently ranks higher than portland in terms of transit use, whether it is commute mode share, total share of trips, or rides per capita. Portland’s bus network has simply stagnated over the past several decades while they focused on one or two corridors. In portland, you really haven’t seen a mode shift, just transit keeping up with growth. Where you have seen a mode shift in Portland is BIKING, because they focused on a coherent, comprhensive system, not just a small handful of corridors.

  4. But it’s interesting that the mean Seattle area resident takes about one trip a week on transit.

    This means the median is very close to zero.

      1. Well, take a person who lives and works in Kent.

        His use of transit will be for Events like a football game or to the airport.

        But that use will be really beneficial to him and not well represented by averages.

  5. From my experiences with New York and San Francisco, major incentive to very high transit ridership is combination of frequent and convenient transit- and most important, the complete impossibility of making the average trip within the city by private automobile.

    One of Seattle’s early names was “New York Alki”- hence name of the neighborhood, where women on early pioneer ship reportedly burst into tears at sight of miserable settlement through pouring rain. According to account, Alki was local tribe’s word for “In a little while.”

    Also probably Brooklyn for “In ya dreams!” So maybe answer is a hundred more years of immigration from places in the world the rest of the country can’t stand, like Ireland, Italy, and my people’s Jewish parts of Eastern Europe.

    Add some serious plate tectonics and we’re almost there.

    1. From my experiences with New York and San Francisco, major incentive to very high transit ridership is combination of frequent and convenient transit- and most important, the complete impossibility of making the average trip within the city by private automobile.

      You can get around in San Francisco with a car, especially if you are willing to pay $5 to park. The issue isn’t as much getting around, but dealing with the car. For example:

      1) Do you have a parking spot? Is a parking spot worth some number of hundreds of dollars a month to you? Are you willing to pay hundreds of dollars a month for a parking spot that is several blocks away?

      2) Are you willing to deal fairly random/capricious parking tickets? New York has this, too.

      3) If you park your car on the street overnight, are you capable of dealing with break-ins? My car was broken into so many times when I lived there I eventually stopped locking it and had a sign “no valuables in car”. A homeless man took this as a opportunity. As Frank Costanza said “They don’t nap. They make it their home! THEY URINATE IN THERE!” I feel like this might be less of a problem in New York, depending on where.

    2. I think it is the opposite — can you get by without a car. Obviously there are people who do so everyday, in every city. But what cities have people of means who basically say, “I don’t need a car”. New York is the obvious one, and so is Chicago. San Fransisco is also on that list. Seattle is not, although it isn’t that far away (from my reckoning).

    3. New York is the only American city I’ve seen where the majority of people don’t have cars, and nobody I met had one unless they lived outside the city. But a surprising number of people in San Francisco and Chicago have cars and don’t take transit, or only take it occasionally. I’ve seen people drive practically between two BART stations or two El stations on the same line. They must know the stations are just around the corner. It’s hard for me to understand, but it’s the same as all these people on southwest Capitol Hill who drive everywhere and don’t know the bus routes. What bothers me is when they fill up the street parking (especially with SUVs taking up 1 1/2 spaces) so that visitors and disabled visitors can’t find a space. Move to Bellevue if you want to drive everywhere!

  6. BART is much maligned, as is some of the zoning decisions of San Francisco proper, but I think most people would agree that the Bay Area (especially Oakland, Berkeley and San Francisco) do quite well when it comes to transit. As I said before, I would love to see a comparison of west coast transit systems. BART is only a small part of Bay Area transit, despite its name.

  7. Go San Fran! I lived there for six years, and at 5pm you’d be carried by the crowds at embarcadero station if you didn’t walk fast enough. Multi level labyrinth stations for muni and BART. Everyone took transit to work, even our senior and executive management teams. No one drove, ever!

    1. Sounds like you should move back. Me? After 30 years living in crowded cities, using public transportation and breathing dirty air, I moved to Seattle for a single family home, small garden and a car.

      1. Well, I live in downtown seattle which is looking every day more like SF in terms of increasing densities .Can’t wait until more link lines and stations open, and we have a true multi line rail system.

  8. I’m reasonably impressed by the location of Honolulu on the list. They haven’t even finished their first metro line yet. Except for university based small town systems, they are doing the best of bus based systems.

    1. The Bus (Honolulu’s transit system) is not particularly intuitive except for the fact that pretty much every line goes to Ala Moana mall–the website is difficult at best for finding out route information and schedules–but it’s pretty cool to be able to plop your $2.50 in and head off to the North Shore beaches or just on an around-Oahu ride.

      Just give yourself an hour to figure out if that bus to the airport actually STOPS at the airport….

    1. The NTD table they linked to by fivethirtyeight includes both KC ferries and WSDOT ferries in the Seattle urbanized area. Obviously WSDOT ferries serve areas outside the area, but the bulk of the passengers probably pass through Fauntleroy, Coleman Dock, Edmonds and Mukilteo.

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