CA Public Transit Service Tops National Rankings. Sort of.

 

Here's some flattering news about the state of urbanism in California: the freeway capital of the world is also, apparently, one of the public transit capitals of the country. A recently released study by the Brookings Institution entitled "Missed Opportunity: Jobs and Transit in America" ranks four California metro areas in the top ten out of 100 metro areas studied, according to at least one metric. 

The study ranks metro areas according to the percent of the working-age population with reasonably convenient access to transit. With 97% coverage, Honolulu took the top spot, with a slew of western cities following it. Cities in the bottom ten, many of which are in the South, had no better than 35% coverage. 

California dominates the top-10 with these four metros: 

  • No. 2 Los Angeles-Long Beach-Santa Ana, with 96% coverage. 
  • No. 3 San Jose-Sunnyale-Santa Clara, with 95.6% coverage
  • No. 5 San Francisco-Oakland-Fremont, with 91.7% coverage
  • No. 6 Modesto, with 90.4% coverage

Other California cities fared nearly as well: Stockton ranks 15th, the San Deigo area ranks 16th, the Sacramento area ranks 19th, Bakersfield ranks 21st, and Riverside-San Bernardino ranks 23rd. Some of these areas rank considerably lower when frequency of service is factored in. 

That's the good news. The bad news is that, in many of these cities, the buses and trains that residents can board so easily won't necessarily take them where they want to go, or get them there in a timely manner. The study places a premium on the ability of commuters to go from home to work in less than 90 minutes. According to this metric, San Jose-Sunnyvale does great with 58.4% and a No. 3 ranking. But L.A.-Long Beach-Santa Ana falls to 69th place, with only 25% accessible. In the Riverside-San Bernardino area, only 6.6% percent of jobs are served by transit, ranking the area 96th. 

It's probably not worthwhile to fret about individual rankings all that much. However, Brookings' methodology -- and its implicit statement about what transit planners' priorities ought to be -- is compelling, especially as California regions attempt to reduce their vehicle-miles traveled in accordance with SB 375. 

California clearly has a lot of transit, with buses and trains going every which way. But the polycentric nature of all of these areas means that jobs are spread out and optimal routes are hard to come by--hence the "spatial mismatch" that can confound transportation planners. The Brookings research in many ways seems to dovetail with a study put out by the Public Policy Institute of California, which contended in its report "Driving Change" that the success of SB 375 depends in part on orienting transit towards employment centers rather than towards residential centers. It thus implied that TOD should focus more on offices than on apartments. 

Put together, these two studies illustrate a concept that most planners have known all along: transit and land use planning must be coordinated for either to be efficient. California's transit agencies have done a great job covering vast amounts of territory. Now it's time for them to serve vast numbers of people. 

--Josh Stephens