Here’s what’s so great about Washington’s Metro system: you can have a trendline of declining ridership; you can have a safety record that’s so scary the Feds have to step in; you can be so down on your luck that it takes a year to hire a new general manager to run the thing; you can even have a series of high-profile crimes, including Tuesday’s midday shooting on the Green Line — and yet still rank as the No. 1 transit system in the U.S.
The people at SmartAsset, that’s who. The financial analytics firm crunched Census Bureau data to find the nation’s best public transit systems. Metro came out on top. Second place went to San Francisco, followed by Boston, Chicago and New York City.
And we know this has to be accurate because we reproduced these results with a dartboard. Also, Buffalo, N.Y. comes in dead last, which is usually where Buffalo lands on most lists. (Except snowfall — and, yes, Tripping anticipates hearing from the good people of Buffalo that at least their transit system remains open when it snows.)
We know there must be some Metro riders who are surprised by these rankings. We bet plenty of people at the Washington Area Metropolitan Transit Authority are surprised too.
How did this happen?
SmartAsset is a New York-based financial technology company that bills itself as a provider of “transparent, automated, and accurate advice on big personal finance decisions.” And this is true because other articles on its Web site also analyze the “The Best Cities for Beer Drinking” and “The Economics of Craft Beer.” Right on!
SmartAsset says it used Census data on the use of public transportation for every city with a population of at least 175,000 people, or 136 cities in all.
Let’s let the firm explain:
We considered the following five metrics in particular:
- 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.
The first two metrics reflect the efficiency of each city’s transit system. Shorter commute times for transit users reflect a more efficient system. Likewise, if driving is significantly faster than transit, the system is not offering an attractive alternative on practical or economic grounds.
The third and fourth metrics reflect the availability of transit. More people using public transit indicates a system with greater coverage and more capacity. The fifth metric reflects the overall quality of the system. In many systems, transit serves as a citywide backup plan. It is used primarily by people who cannot afford to own a car or to drive. A smaller income gap reflects a system that provides an attractive option for all commuters.
In an interview, Nick Wallace, SmartAsset’s data editor, said this is the first time the firm has done this study, and it plans to do it again in the future.
Wallace wouldn’t say whether the results were a surprise. But he did say the formula doesn’t take into account the tale of woe that Metro has been dealing with in the past few years and instead focused just on the data. And the data don’t lie, especially on some key criteria.
“The metrics that D.C. really rated well for [were] average commute time in minutes and the percentage difference in commute time between public transportation users and drivers,” Wallace said. “On those metrics it beat almost every other city in the country.”
All of this makes perfect sense. And yet…
Not to sound like a smart asset too, but we’re wondering whether the firm conflated the research on craft beer with the research on Metro.