Public Transit Use

By: Liz Medrano

Have you ever wondered how San Francisco’s public transit system compares to other systems in other cities nationwide? FiveThirtyEight published a review of the ridership data of our public transit systems across the United States, based on data from the National Transit Database (NTD). In order to receive grants from the Federal Transit Administration, transit systems of all kinds, such as heavy rail, light rail, buses, etc., must submit this data to the NTD on a monthly basis.

How Cities Are Ranked

The ridership data is aggregated by census-designated urbanized areas and is measured by “unlinked trips.” Unlinked trips means transfers within the same journey count as separate trips. In this report, trips per resident were determined by dividing the number of unlinked trips in 2013 by the American Community Survey’s 2012 population estimates.

The United States has approximately 415 urbanized areas with populations over 65,000, and of those 415 areas, 70 percent, or 290 reported regular monthly data to the NTD in 2013.

What the Numbers Say

In the completed data set, the San Francisco-Oakland area ranked second nationally. With an estimated 2012 population of 3,368,743 in the San Francisco-Oakland area, there were approximately 131.5 individual trips per resident. Coming in third was the Washington, DC-VA-MD area that had 99.6 trips per resident for a population of 4,782,117. Both of these urban areas were significantly lower than the New York-Newark, NY-NJ-CT area, which with a population of 18,617, 730, averaged 229.8 trips per resident.

Among the 290 cities that submitted data, there is a strong association between both trips per resident and the total population, and trips per resident and population density. That said, as FiveThirtyEight points out, the associations are skewed by the handful of large cities in the data set. If you limit the dataset to just the 248 urban areas with fewer than 1 million residents, the associations for total population and population density disappear. The data then reveals a clear geographic trend for transit systems, with the worst systems in the South and the better systems along the West and Northeast coasts.

We know that here at Reset, we can be pretty tough on MUNI and BART, and while there’s definitely room for improvement, it’s nice to see that our transit systems aren’t at the bottom of the heap. Would it ever be possible for San Francisco to surpass New York? We can dream.