Rankings that matter: Which cities save the most time and money thanks to public transportation?

Every year the Texas Transportation Institute releases its Urban Mobility Report (aka congestion rankings) and it's rightly pilloried throughout the sustainable transportation media. The single-minded focus on what's good for drivers of private vehicles, and drivers of private vehicles only, leaves much to be desired, but there's a lot of good information in there if you do some digging. Inspired by this article from the Oregonian, which highlights the amount of time and money saved by commuters due to the congestion-reducing contribution of public transportation, I thought I'd see how other metro areas fared. (Portland came in 12th in the country for total savings, not bad for the 23rd-largest metro.)

Rather than just ranking by total savings, however, I decided to calculate savings per person, so that larger metros weren't gaining an unfair advantage. I divided the total savings by both population and by "commuter," a subset of the total population. Interestingly, while nearly every city's "commuter" population is about half that of the total population, according to TTI, the New York metro is a huge outlier with less than a third of its population being considered commuters. I suspect this might be the result of TTI not counting people who walk and bike as commuters, but I can't be sure.

So without further adieu, here are the rankings for the top 25:

RankUrban AreaPopulation (000) Commuters (000) Annual Congestion Cost Increase ($million) Money saved per person ($)Money saved per commuter ($)
1 New York-Newark NY-NJ-CT18,946 6,040 9,586.8 506 1,587
2 San Francisco-Oakland CA4,101 1,931 775.9 189 402
3 Boston MA-NH-RI4,320 1,979 809.4 187 409
4 Chicago IL-IN8,605 3,959 1,542.1 179 390
5 Washington DC-VA-MD4,613 2,011 711.0 154 354
6 Philadelphia PA-NJ-DE-MD5,381 2,406 654.9 122 272
7 Seattle WA3,286 1,659 366.5 112 221
8 Baltimore MD2,523 1,336 248.6 98.53 186
9 Portland OR-WA1,925 932 151.1 78.49 162
10 Salt Lake City UT1,027 538 79.6 77.51 148
11 Pittsburgh PA1,761 926 124.0 70 134
12 Denver-Aurora CO2,348 1,396 127.1 54.13 91
13 Atlanta GA4,360 2,135 232.2 53 109
14 Los Angeles-Long Beach-Santa Ana CA13,229 6,597 695.0 52.54 105
15 San Juan PR2,333 1,235 113.1 48 92
16 Miami FL5,482 2,875 248.8 45 87
17 San Diego CA3,121 1,528 136.0 43.58 89
18 Cleveland OH1,700 857 72.3 43 84
19 New Orleans LA1,065 525 40.3 37.84 77
20 Austin TX1,345 712 50.6 37.62 71
21 Spokane WA-ID383 201 13.4 34.99 67
22 El Paso TX-NM739 387 25.8 34.91 67
23 Houston TX4,129 2,274 144.1 35 63
24 Brownsville TX214 112 7.3 34.11 65
25 Hartford CT905 468 30.4 34 65

(Data from TTI's 2012 Urban Mobility Report.)

A few things stand out right away. First is the huge difference between the savings in the New York Metro compared to everywhere else--the savings are so large, in fact, that if you add the $9.6 billion congestion savings to the $5 billion in farebox revenue that MTA brought in in 2011 you exceed the agency's total budget of $12.6 billion by a full two billion dollars.

The next four metro areas, San Francisco, Boston, Chicago, and D.C. all group together in savings per person/commuter, and, not coincidentally, probably represent the four best transit networks in the country after New York. 

Los Angeles stands out for doing particularly poorly here given its population. They're notorious for being car-centric, although that seems to be changing under the leadership of Mayor Villaraigosa, but given the overall density of the metro area this is a bit perplexing. The LA metro is actually more dense on average than the NY metro, but perhaps the key is pockets of much greater density: the actual city of New York is more than three times as dense as that of LA, and those very dense regions are certainly accounting for a disproportionately high level transit use. Count that as yet another case for density--we get our money's worth when it comes to public transportation spending, both in mobility and savings. Still though, the city of LA is only about 35% less dense than Chicago and yet with five million more people it's got less than half the savings. LA clearly has a lot of catching up to do. If only Measure J had passed.

Bringing it back home: Seattle also gets a lot of flak for having a pretty wimpy transit system (also improving, but still far from ideal), but we can see here that we're getting good value from what we've got so far. As the 15th-largest metro in the country we rank 7th for money saved per person, putting us very cleanly near the top of the "second-tier" public transportation systems. With 1.8 cents out of every sales-taxed dollar spent in King county devoted to transit--besides fare revenue, this is the vast majority of metro funding--you'd have to spend over $12,000 a year to pay back the $221 every commuter saves thanks to the metro system.

All of these numbers, as with the report from which they're derived, should be taken with a grain of salt. At the same time, I think they do a good job of illustrating the value of public transportation in our daily lives. There's a whole range of environmental, health, and social benefits to a robust transit system, but for the most successful networks the economic case can be justification enough for continued investment.