DC Ranked #1 in “The Best Cities for Public Transportation”

by Prince Of Petworth February 24, 2016 at 12:05 pm 43 Comments

public transport crash

Today in studies I’m not quite sure I believe DC has been voted Best City for Public Transportation by smartasset:

“1. Washington, D.C.

The Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority manages public transportation throughout the DC area, primarily relying on buses and below-ground subways. The subway system, known as Metro or Metrorail, handles over 200 million trips per year, making it the second largest system by ridership in the U.S. That is in addition to a bus system that handles another 130 million trips every year.

It isn’t just size that makes D.C.’s transit system the best in the U.S. The typical transit commuter in D.C. spends 36 minutes traveling to work each day. That is 10 minutes below the average for the 136 cities in SmartAsset’s study. It is also just 8.6 minutes slower than the typical commute time for a driver in the District, the smallest difference among cities in which a significant percentage of the population relies on transit.

If there’s one knock on public transportation in D.C., it’s the cost. The District has some of the highest fares for transit of any U.S. city, with a monthly pass costing more than $230.”

  • ***

    “The typical transit commuter in D.C. spends 36 minutes traveling to work each day.” Sure, that sounds good, but did they factor in travel distance and created a weighted average? Because I can say it has sometimes taken 36 minutes to travel from Meridian Hill to Logan Circle. “It is also just 8.6 minutes slower than the typical commute time for a driver in the District.” Isn’t that a negative thing? Wouldn’t the expectation be that public transit gets you there faster?

    • FridayGirl

      100% agree with your questions. It seems they’ve failed to take into account how small the metro area is compared to other U.S. cities. BUT on the bright side, at least we have fairly extensive infrastructure even if it takes forever….

      • Anon X

        Is our metro area really that small? If it weren’t for Baltimore having their own MSA, we would touch Philly suburbs. Dc metro goes to Fredericksburg, into West Virginia, out to the eastern shore and so forth? Additionally our CSA is the 4th largest population and our MSA is 7th.

        That said, it either says a lot about mass transit in this country, or the study was flawed, for DC to get this recognition.

        • FridayGirl

          I wasn’t being clear… I was thinking metro area in terms of where our transportation system actually reaches (so not West Virginia). According to wikipedia (not the best source, I know), DC has roughly 1/8th the amount of subway track length of NYC, for example. So I’m not surprised that our commuting times are significantly shorter.

          • FridayGirl

            … so I take back my comment about extensive infrastructure.

    • anonymous

      While agree that just looking at average commute time without factoring in distance is pointlesz, your second point makes no sense. First of all, as the “study” shows, the 8.6 minutes difference is the smallest such difference, so even if the expectation was that public transportation is faster, we would still be first in that category. That said, why would anyone expect public transportation to be faster? Sure, maybe a metro from Vienna is faster in peak rush hour, but you have to factor in getting to and from the metro. Most public transit takes you out of your way to get where you are going, stops regularly, etc. People use it because it is cheaper not because it is more convenient. Have you ever passed a bus while driving because it was stopped?

      • west_egg

        “People use it because it is cheaper not because it is more convenient.”
        Plenty of people (myself included) choose Metro because driving is a PITA.

      • ***

        “Likewise, if driving is significantly faster than transit, the system is not offering an attractive alternative on practical or economic grounds.” A good public transit system should be able to offer both an economical and convenient system. If driving is significantly faster than taking the metro, people will drive up to the point it becomes cost prohibitive. LA for instance has a metro system (it’s true!) that few people use UNTIL gas prices rise to +$5 gallon, then suddenly everyone is a metro rider.

        • The LA system was surprisingly nice, it just had pretty mediocre coverage for such a huge area.

          • ***

            and cheap too! Well this was back in 2008 when it was still on an honestly policy to pay (which I guess only underscores how underutilized it was). The reality with LA is that there is really no conceivable way to have a metro system like NYC – LA is far too large a metro region for that to happen. The best you can do is have something that gets people to major areas of the city.

  • Anon. No. 5

    They must have counted “NOT IN SERVICE” trains/buses in those trip counts…

    Don’t get me wrong, public transit in DC is better than Atlanta or LA, but better than NYC?

  • AnotherNYTransplant

    This is a study that was designed to generate clicks (which is clearly working since everyone in DC is reposting about how wrong it is) and isn’t particularly rigorous. They helpfully listed their variables they considered in the ranking:

    The average commute time for transit users.
    Percentage difference between average commute times of car commuters and transit users.
    Percentage of commuters who use public transit.
    Total number of commuters who use public transit.
    The difference between the citywide median income and the median income of transit users.

    So no metrics about service quality or rider assessments. And one major deficiency in DC (namely, the capacity of the road network) is masking another major deficiency (the Metro) in how this particular metric would be calculated:

    Percentage difference between average commute times of car commuters and transit users.

    Basically, DC is getting credit for having a “good” mass transit system because we have horrific traffic. That fact about the road system also drives these two metrics in a way that makes metro look “good” by the set of features this study is using:

    Percentage of commuters who use public transit.
    Total number of commuters who use public transit.

    Basically, this study is not “how good is your mass transit” but really it is a measure of “how much does mass transit improve over vehicular commuting” and I think DC actually does do pretty well in that, because the baseline for car commuting is SUCH garbage.

    Also, for what it is worth, since this is strictly an assessment of commuting and not overall service, the DC metro, while I have innumerable complaints against it, does do the job reasonably well of getting a large number of people from the suburbs into downtown and back again every work day. Unless… you live on the blue line.

    • LittleBluePenguin


    • textdoc

      Agreed on being designed to generate clicks/buzz. I mean, the entity that did this “study” is called SmartAsset. I’d never heard of them before; maybe this is a publicity-generating stunt for them.

  • ET

    Someone is getting bored with generated URLs.

    • FridayGirl

      Hahaha PoP’s amazing URL ideas strike again…

    • It is so much fun for me. I actually did this a few times years ago and nobody ever noticed :)

      • Paul H

        Also props for pic!

  • LittleBluePenguin

    BS. Having lived in NYC, there is absolutely no way DC’s public transit system is better.

    • Anonymous

      I agree but most people don’t factor in Staten Island and outer edges of Queens & the Bronx when considering NYC transit. Traveling to Queens from Manhattan on subway non-rush hour used to be the worst, but at least NY MTA runs a 24hr system.

    • OP Anon

      LOL, you’ve never taken the L train at rush hour? My friends in Williamsburg hate their lives. And the L train might be shut down for nearly 3 years to fix damage to the river tunnel caused by Sandy.
      NYC subway has an enormous number of it’s own issues. I <3 DC's air conditioned Metro stations.

    • This is Awkward

      Did you ever leave the island?

    • reality

      Well, NYC subways are definitely dirtier and more rat-infested. I’ve also witnessed fights, pick-pockets, breakdowns, and construction delays in NYC, similar to people’s gripes about the DC system.

  • eva

    This is mostly just evidence of how poor transit is elsewhere in the country, that our system in it’s current state of disrepair would even be in the top 10. I really don’t know how people who work off hours commute anymore. When I was young and worked a few hourly jobs on nights/weekends I could generally rely on metro to get me there in a timely manner. Now that we’ve virtually eliminated weekend service to any extent that it can be used to get somewhere quickly it’s no surprise that so many people are driving.

    • Anon Spock

      I took the bus many late nights. They aren’t frequent, but the app made it easy to plan ahead for the next one. Far easier than metro with its every changing waits.

  • I’ve taken public transit in pretty much all of the major cities in the U.S., certainly all of the really large ones, and this doesn’t really surprise me. Many of the biggest cities in the country have just really terrible public transportation that you would be surprised existed if you hadn’t used it. We’re really fortunate to have ours, even if it fails us individually from time to time. My biggest personal complaint is that it’s not 24 hours, but given the attacks that happen by kids during daytime hours as is maybe this is a good thing.

    • FridayGirl

      +1000 to this.

    • OP Anon

      DC Metro is pretty great compared to the rest of the options out there. NYC has so many issues once you get out of the tourist areas, it’s maddening. Hello, weekend SHUTTLE bus? Those words are the bane of anyone who lives outside of Manhattan below 96th Street.

      • This is Awkward

        Agree. Or how about how the L line has to be shut down for YEARS (and is the only subway transit serving a huge swath of BK) because we never reinforced our river tubes and now they’re death traps post-Sandy.

  • anon

    Another “study” of things that look great on paper but in practice are quite another story. In the past 20 years I have lived in both DC and San Francisco, and the idea of Metro and Muni being the top 2 public transportation systems in the US makes me laugh so hard I think I peed in my pants a little.

    • Anony

      Besides the obvious NYC answer, what areas have better overall transit. Seriously there are not many places in the US you can easily have no car. Chicago maybe is better because of its extensiveness

      • This is Awkward

        It makes no sense to compare large urban areas to suburban areas with little to no transit. Instead, we should be comparing large metropolitan areas globally (basically I’m harkening back to the comment that rightly pointed out this “study” was hardly more than click bait).

        For all its problems, I’ve found DC transit to be fairly reliable and useful. All trains have timers so I actually know when to expect them, I hardly ever have to wait more than 6 minutes for a train (not counting construction times), and if I can’t get there by train I can almost always get there by bus. My biggest gripes with DC would be the exorbitant pricing (esp for a monthly pass) and the related fact that there are is no free transfer system in place.

        I have lived in NYC and Chicago and can say the transit systems in both are pretty inadequate. Chicago, however, has been ahead of NYC for years in terms of realizing what it needs to do to improve and doing it. Their reliance on above ground “el trains” is a bit more antiquated, but systems-wise they seem to know what to do. It is also easier in some senses to have a car in Chicago because the city burned down and was rebuilt with appropriately wide roads, parking, and alleyways/garages.

        Pull up any recent article on the woes of NYC transit-or better yet try to use it outside of Manhattan- and you’ll quickly realize what deep trouble the system is in.

  • Darryl

    The rating comes from New York-based SmartAsset, which published a strangely similar list of the best mass transportation systems in America just last month. On January’s list, though, the District was nowhere to be found.

    So let’s review what’s happened between then and now to make Metro suddenly rise to the top: A man allegedly exposed himself on a Green Line train, six teens were arrested for brawling on the Red Line with a 35-year-old man, a report showed that Metro ridership has decreased significantly, Metro’s second in command resigned, a man was shot at Anacostia Metro, and more.

    What they did consider, though, were these five factors: average commute time for transit users, percentage difference between average commute times of car commuters and transit users, percentage of commuters who use public transit, total number of commuters who use public transit, the difference between the citywide median income, and the median income of transit users.

    So, basically, Metro topped the list because it somehow has shorter commute times than other cities, covers a lot of ground, and is accessed by people of all economic backgrounds.

    That’s great, but still … a forthcoming report conducted by consulting firm McKinsey & Company shows WMATA as a system of “plummeting ridership, unreliable rail service, railcar maintenance delays, and unsustainable finances,” according to WAMU.

    So while it’s nice to have taken the lead on a list created by an outsider, District residents might prefer a reliable transportation system to a meaningless prize.

  • JohnSmith

    I ditched DC public transportation in general (still occasionally ride) 7 months ago and will never go back. The minimal increase in my transportation cost (gas, maintenance, parking, etc) is worth it, for me at least. My fiance followed suit shortly after and feels the same way. The skyrocketing fares and the unreliability of both metro rail and bus are not worth the minimal savings I would gain from using public transportation.

    • Anony

      “skyrocketing fares” really? Good for you but stress is lower than driving and being able to walk daily is a great thing for us who have desk jobs.

      • JohnSnow

        “skyrocketing fares” really? Yes, really. In the past 6 years, both bus and rail base-rate peak fares have increased increased 23% (approx). https://www.wmata.com/about_metro/docs/History%20of%20Fare%20Increases%20FY2015.pdf
        Meanwhile, the price of gas has dropped has dropped 37% (approx) during the same period. http://www.gasbuddy.com/Charts . Riding the metro cost me roughly $30 a week, while gas for my car cost only cost me $10 a week. I do agree with you about the importance on walking/ exercising daily but there are other ways to get it without walking to and from public transit.

    • metro

      if everyone did this, the roads would be overwhelmed and your commute would be horrendous.

      • anon

        As a car commuter within the city limits, I can attest that traffic has gotten worse in the past year or so. I leave at 4:00 most days and traffic is a lot more heavy than it used to be in past years. I figured it’s because more and more people are ditching Metro and I can’t really say I blame them (seeing as I too did so).

      • JohnSnow

        Valid point.

    • reality

      Great, 2 more cars on the road emitting CO2 for all us bike riders and walkers to breathe. Adding to the congestion and noise. Congrats!

      • JohnSnow

        Get off your high horse. Its no feasible for everyone to ride a bike everywhere. Some of us don’t have the luxury.

  • This is Awkward

    Having used mass transit in most of the “winning” cities on this list, I can confidently say that these Texas A&M researchers need to go back to (another) school.

  • reality

    I think it’s more of a reminder how bad it is everywhere else.


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