Special Report

America’s Best Cities for Public Transportation

Detailed Findings

Some of the best public transportation systems are often found in college towns. Universities are generally responsive to student demand and will often invest in their host city’s transit system to provide the student body with access to the surrounding city and community.

Unitrans, the public transportation system of Davis, California, was founded in 1968 when the Associated Students of UC Davis purchased two historic London double-decker buses to operate along two routes. The system was opened to the general public with partial funding from the city government in 1972. In Champaign, Illinois; Bloomington, Indiana; Ithaca, New York; and Davis — college towns where students comprise between 30% and 50% of the population — transit authorities encourage ridership by providing free fares to university students.

In the United States, public transportation is divided along income lines. In 9 out of 10 urban areas, the median earnings for commuters who use public transit is less than the median earnings of commuters who drive alone. Nationwide, the typical public transit rider earns $4,000 less than the typical car commuter annually. In cities with quality public transit infrastructure, a diverse range of income levels ride the bus, train, or commuter rail. Many of the city’s highest earners may rely on public transit to reach high-paying jobs in nearby metropolitan areas, or may prefer the exercise, freedom, and financial benefits afforded by public transportation.

In Antioch, California, the typical public transit rider earns $1,500 more than the typical commuter who drives alone. In Bremerton, Washington, the city with the second best public transportation infrastructure, the median earnings of public transit riders is $21,000 higher than earnings of commuters who drive alone.

While the largest, densest cities often have the most comprehensive public transportation systems that serve millions of passengers a year, many are still unable to accommodate the large demand of the rapidly growing populations. Of the nine urban areas where more than 1 in 10 commuters use public transit, only three are among the cities with the best public transportation.

Many of the largest urban areas consist of several smaller transit systems that may be poorly maintained, lowering the metro area’s overall ranking. For example, while the San Francisco-Oakland urban area consists of highly rated transit agencies such as Bay Area Rapid Transit and the San Mateo County Transit District, other authorities such as the Peninsula Corridor Joint Powers Board — which operates the Caltrain — and San Francisco Paratransit deflate the city’s overall ranking. Similarly, while the New Jersey Transit Corporation and MTA New York City Transit are some of the highest rated transportation agencies in the country, authorities such as the Metro-North Commuter Railroad Company and MTA Long Island Rail Road reduce the New York-Newark urban area’s overall ranking.


To determine the cities with the best public transportation systems, 24/7 Wall St. created an index of various measures related to transit infrastructure and ridership. Data on total passenger miles traveled, total passenger trips, average trip length, and average fare per trip from the Federal Transit Administration’s National Transit Database are for July 2017 and were included in the index. Data on the average age of the vehicles used in public transit, breakdowns per 100,000 revenue miles — miles traveled during commercial operation, average vehicle speed, average number of passengers per hour, revenue miles lost to mechanical failures and other unscheduled activity, revenue hours lost to unscheduled activity, and the ratio of revenue hours to deadhead hours — hours traveled without passengers aboard — for fiscal 2015 also came from the FTA’s NTD and were included in the index. Data was aggregated by the transit agency level from the transit mode level, and ultimately aggregated to the urbanized area level using annual passenger miles and trips for weighting. Data from the U.S. Census Bureau’s American Community Survey on the share of commuters using public transit, the median earnings of public transit riders as a share of median earnings of commuters who drive alone, the average travel time for public transit riders, and the percentage difference in average travel time between public transit riders and commuters who drive alone are all five-year averages for urbanized areas for the period of 2011 to 2015 and were included in the index. Only urbanized areas in which more than 5.1% of commuters — the U.S. average — use public transportation were considered.