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10 Family-Friendly Cities With the Best Public Transit

By Allison KadeMay 22, 2019

Who wouldn’t want to live in a city with fantastic public transportation?

Most Americans, especially families, rely on personal vehicles as their primary mode of getting around. Across the entire U.S., only about 5 percent of workers commute via public transit, probably due to a combination of suburban sprawl and inexpensive fuel.

According to a study from the International Association of Public Transport, North America largely lags behind countries in Eurasia and Europe for the most-used metro services.

But despite the benefits of driving, American families should consider whether public transportation would be a safer, more convenient, more eco-friendly and cost-effective option.


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Public transportation sometimes gets a bad rap for safety. But research shows driving is actually less safe and leads to more congestion and air pollution in cities. In 2017, transit agencies reported just 13 passenger fatalities across 10.1 billion passenger trips. Compare that to 37,133 motor vehicle deaths.

According to the Department of Transportation (DOT), public transit is 40 to 70 times safer than driving. Additional research by Northwestern University confirms the relative safety of public transportation over driving.

bar graph - safety by mode of public transportation, passenger fatalities

Safety is not the only reason why public transportation might be a better option for families. According to AAA, the average cost to own and operate a new vehicle is now $8,849 per year.

Compare that to an unlimited monthly Metrocard for the New York City subway and bus system, which costs only $1,524 per year. A full-service (Muni + BART) Bay Area Clipper Card costs $1,128 per year. Several cities also offer discounted or free fares for children, further decreasing transportation costs for families.

bar graph - annual cost of driving a new car vs. the annual cost of unlimited passes on public transportation in major cities

With all of this in mind, Fabric, a company creating financial products for families, wanted to determine which cities have the best public transportation.

To do this, its researchers looked at data across the most populous metropolitan areas and created a composite score based on nine different metrics. Fabric looked at ridership, reliability, ADA accessibility, safety and public opinion, among other factors (see a complete list below). Here’s what they found:

Key Findings

  • Across the entire U.S., only 46 percent of people feel that their city offers good public transportation. However, in cities like Chicago, San Francisco and New York, more than 70 percent of residents approve of their mass transit options.

  • Residents in cities with the best public transportation frequently use it. The average U.S. resident completes just 31 public transit trips per year, but ridership in cities with the best public transportation options is 2 to 7 times higher. The average New Yorker makes 228 trips per year.

  • Depending on the city, Americans with disabilities and parents with strollers might find it difficult to travel by public transportation. Fortunately, many of the cities with the best transit systems are 100 percent ADA accessible.

  • By reducing the number of passenger vehicles on the road, public transportation helps reduce pollution and improve air quality in cities. Cities that use electricity to power their trains, buses and other mass transit vehicles see even greater benefits. New York and San Francisco lead the pack—in these cities, more than half of all total passenger miles traveled are powered by electric sources.

The following cities and their surrounding suburbs offer the best public transit options in America.

Major Metropolitan Areas With the Best Public Transportation

Photo Credit: Andy Ennis / Alamy Stock Photo

10. Los Angeles-Long Beach-Anaheim, CA

  • Public transit approval rating among residents: 75.7%

  • Annual trips per person (all residents): 48

  • Percentage of workers who commute by public transit: 4.8%

  • Stations that are ADA accessible: 100%

  • Miles traveled using electric power: 9.9%

Los Angeles may be infamous for its congested traffic and heavy smog, but more than 75 percent of Los Angeles residents approve of the city’s public transit options. For example, the Los Angeles Metro runs buses and subway lines throughout the greater Los Angeles County area.

Likewise, the LA Department of Transportation offers DASH buses and Commuter Express buses that connect residents to different Los Angeles neighborhoods and surrounding cities. Students from kindergarten through college are eligible for reduced fares on the TAP card, which can be used on most of the city’s transit lines.

Photo Credit: YOORAN PARK / Alamy Stock Photo

9. Portland-Vancouver-Hillsboro, OR-WA

  • Public transit approval rating among residents: 70.5%

  • Annual trips per person (all residents): 61

  • Percentage of workers who commute by public transit: 6.3%

  • Stations that are ADA accessible: 100%

  • Miles traveled using electric power: 17.9%

Portland prides itself on being a “green city,” and the wide variety of public transportation and bike share facilities speaks to this. The TriMet bus and rail system serve the greater Portland area, while C-Tran serves the greater Vancouver area. TriMet also operates the WES Commuter Rail and the MAX light rail for additional transit options.

Photo Credit: Ellen Isaacs / Alamy Stock Photo

8. San Jose-Sunnyvale-Santa Clara, CA

  • Public transit approval rating among residents: 67.7%

  • Annual trips per person (all residents): 28

  • Percentage of workers who commute by public transit: 4.7%

  • Stations that are ADA accessible: 100%

  • Miles traveled using electric power: 13.9%

Public transportation in San Jose works for residents who need either intra- or intercity travel. For those who work in Silicon Valley, the Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority (VTA) offers bus and light rail options throughout the greater Santa Clara area.

Although only 4.7 percent of workers commute by public transit, the system makes it easy for families to escape the city on weekends. Caltrain connects San Jose with San Francisco, while the Capitol Corridor connects San Jose with Sacramento.

Photo Credit: Brian Wolski / Alamy Stock Photo

7. Denver-Aurora-Lakewood, CO

  • Public transit approval rating among residents: 68.4%

  • Annual trips per person (all residents): 38

  • Percentage of workers who commute by public transit: 4.4%

  • Stations that are ADA accessible: 100%

  • Miles traveled using electric power: 23.0%

The Mile High City offers many bus and rail options through the Regional Transportation District. RTD features more than 125 bus routes and rail lines, including direct service to Broncos Stadium and Denver International Airport. With a Youth Special Discount Card, riders ages 6 to 19 receive a 70 percent discount on fares. Children under the age of 5 ride for free when accompanied by an adult.

Photo Credit: Pete Saloutos / Alamy Stock Photo

6. Seattle-Tacoma-Bellevue, WA

  • Public transit approval rating among residents: 64.5%

  • Annual trips per person (all residents): 71

  • Percentage of workers who commute by public transit: 10.1%

  • Stations that are ADA accessible: 100%

  • Miles traveled using electric power: 7.3%

Seattle residents can take advantage of public transportation by land or by sea. The King County Metro offers rail, buses, the Seattle Streetcar and water taxis to help commuters travel throughout the city and its surrounding communities.

Going to the University of Washington? The Link light rail makes 13 stops through downtown Seattle on its journey from the UW campus to Sea-Tac Airport. For frequent riders, the ORCA card is the all-access pass for rail and bus services.

Photo Credit: Huntstock, Inc / Alamy Stock Photo

5. Boston-Cambridge-Newton, MA-NH

  • Public transit approval rating among residents: 68.8%

  • Annual trips per person (all residents): 94

  • Percentage of workers who commute by public transit: 13.4%

  • Stations that are ADA accessible: 79.8%

  • Miles traveled using electric power: 34.6%

Boston’s public transportation system, nested under the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority (MBTA), offers subway routes and buses for intra-city travel. The popular “T” line is widely considered the first subway line in the U.S. and features routes throughout Boston, Cambridge and nearby suburbs. For those traveling from further destinations, the Commuter Rail is another cost-effective option. MBTA routes accept cash or the CharlieCard.

Photo Credit: Dawid Swierczek / Alamy Stock Photo

4. Chicago-Naperville-Elgin, IL-IN-WI

  • Public transit approval rating among residents: 90.7%

  • Annual trips per person (all residents): 68

  • Percentage of workers who commute by public transit: 12.3%

  • Stations that are ADA accessible: 76.3%

  • Miles traveled using electric power: 36.0%

The Chicago Transit Authority (CTA) oversees the second largest public transportation system in the country. The two main forms of public transportation in Chicago are the buses, and the “L” (short for “elevated”) train. Some of the “L” trains run 24/7, making travel at any hour convenient. In addition, students enrolled in elementary and high schools are eligible for discounted fares, making public transportation more cost-effective for families.

Photo Credit: simon leigh / Alamy Stock Photo

3. Washington-Arlington-Alexandria, DC-VA-MD-WV

  • Public transit approval rating among residents: 67.5%

  • Annual trips per person (all residents): 92

  • Percentage of workers who commute by public transit: 12.8%

  • Stations that are ADA accessible: 100%

  • Miles traveled using electric power: 37.2%

The Washington D.C. public transit system spans not only the nation’s capital, but extends to parts of Virginia and Maryland. The Washington D.C. subway system is known as the Metro and features six lines. Aside from the Metro, commuters can use other railroads like the MARC train in Maryland and the VRE in Virginia. These transportation options make it easy for families to commute into Washington D.C. from the suburbs for work or play.

Photo Credit: Scott Wilson / Alamy Stock Photo

2. San Francisco-Oakland-Hayward, CA

  • Public transit approval rating among residents: 79.3%

  • Annual trips per person (all residents): 126

  • Percentage of workers who commute by public transit: 17.4%

  • Stations that are ADA accessible: 94.8%

  • Miles traveled using electric power: 53.9%

Although San Francisco may have been the origin of ridesharing companies Uber and Lyft, public transportation is still one of the main ways that residents get around. San Francisco is known for its cable cars, but has expanded its public transportation to include a light rail system (called the BART, or Bay Area Rapid Transit), buses and San Francisco Municipal Railway (Muni) trains. More than half of public transportation miles are fueled by electric power.

Photo Credit: Victoria Lipov / Alamy Stock Photo

1. New York-Newark-Jersey City, NY-NJ-PA

  • Public transit approval rating among residents: 77.5%

  • Annual trips per person (all residents): 228

  • Percentage of workers who commute by public transit: 31.0%

  • Stations that are ADA accessible: 48.1%

  • Miles traveled using electric power: 53.7%

New York City operates an extensive network of subways, buses, railroads and ferries to help commuters go from one destination to another. The most common form of transportation is the New York City subway, which is operated by the Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA) and features 24 subway lines that extend through Manhattan, Queens, Brooklyn and The Bronx.

New Jersey cities such as Newark, Jersey City and Hoboken have a similar subway system called the PATH train to help commuters reach Manhattan. Railroads such as New Jersey Transit, the Long Island Railroad, the Metro-North Railroad and the Staten Island Railway bring public transportation options to the suburbs and outer boroughs. Ferry service to Manhattan is available from New Jersey and Staten Island, and the Staten Island Ferry is free.

Methodology & Full Results

Public approval ratings of public transportation systems are from the U.S. Census Bureau’s 2015 and 2017 American Housing Surveys. Statistics on income, commute time and share of commuters using public transportation are from the 2017 American Community Survey 1-Year Estimates.

All additional public transportation data is from the Federal Transit Authority NTD Data Reports. To compute metropolitan-level statistics, data for each individual agency was aggregated by the primary metropolitan area it serves.

The overall rankings are based on the following weighted metrics:

  • Public transit approval rating among residents: 15%

  • Annual trips per person (all residents): 15%

  • Percentage of workers who commute by public transit: 15%

  • Difference in earnings between public transit and car commuters: 15%

  • Difference in commute time between public transit and car commuters: 5%

  • Passenger miles traveled using electric power: 10%

  • Mechanical failures (breakdowns) per passenger mile: 10%

  • Stations that are ADA accessible: 10%

  • Safety and security incidents per passenger mile: 5%

Note: Due to the extremely small number of safety and security incidents tracked by the Federal Transit Authority, this metric was deemphasized.

table - which large U.S. cities have the best public transportation?


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Written by

Allison Kade

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