How do you define the success of a transit system? There are several potential ways one might think of, such as number of passengers or number of stations. The problem with such measures is that they will always favor large populations over smaller ones. Over at FiveThirtyEight, Reuben Fischer-Baum decided to use another measure to calculate transit efficiency. Transit agencies report to the government the number of passenger trips taken on their systems. The population of the area served by a transit system can be determined fairly accurately. By dividing the total number of trips by the population, you can determine the number of trips per capita, and use that figure to determine efficiency.
By this measure, New York City comes out on top, with 229.8 trips per person. The city’s extensive subway and bus system and the extremely high cost of driving and parking in Manhattan make using transit a no-brainer. Second place is San Francisco / Oakland California, with 131.5 trips per person. Expensive housing inside the city core that necessitates commutes, and San Francisco Bay, with limited crossing points for cars promotes transit use in the bay area. Third is Washington, DC, with 99.6 trips per person.
What might surprise you is number four. That would be Athens / Clarke County Georgia, with 99.5 trips per person.
What would make Athens a transit paradise? Atlanta has MARTA rail, and only comes in 30.8 trips per person. The FiveThirtyEight story doesn’t offer an explanation, but the answer is apparent if you look at the raw data compiled by the Federal Transit Administration. There are two transit systems serving Athens. The one you are most likely to think of is Athens Transit. That agency had a little over 1.7 million passenger trips in 2013, serving a population of 128,615 people. That works out to be 13.5 trips per person, a little bit better than Albany, with 11.0 trips per capita, and a little worse then Savannah, with 16.1.
The difference is that other transit system. That would be the one operated by the University of Georgia. That system recorded a little over 11 million trips in 2013, taking students to and from campus locations and off campus housing. And when you consider that the system only serves students and employees, roughly 44,000 people, as opposed to the entire metro area, its trips per capita number is 251.6, higher even than New York City.
The situation at UGA is almost ideal for strong transit use: a student and faculty population large enough to make dedicated transit feasible, the entire population works on a campus that is large enough to make riding from one end to the other appealing, and it’s an environment that doesn’t lend itself to cars very well. The presence of a large university might explain why there is such high usage in Champaign, IL (University of Illinois); State College, PA (Penn State); and Gainesville, FL (University of Florida).
As mentioned above, Atlanta averages 30.8 trips per person. That’s just ahead of Buffalo, NY and Cleveland, Ohio, and just behind Miami and Spokane, WA. Transit in Atlanta has often been compared to Washington, DC, given that heavy rail service was launched at roughly the same time, and the population of the two metro areas is similar. Yet, DC has 99.6 trios per capita, more than three times the number of trips than Atlanta. The FiveThirtyEight story says that there is a strong relationship between trips per resident and both total population and population density. While the two cities have roughly the same population Atlanta, with 2,645 square miles is half as dense as Washington, with 1,322 square miles.