Best Public Transportation
June 21, 2016 6:48 AM   Subscribe

I would like to know the best cities for public transportation outside of the obvious.

Obviously places like Washington D.C and NYC and Chicago have great public transportation. I want to know other places with decent public transportation in the US that I can focus my job search on. Bonus points for anywhere in the eastern portion of the midwest.

*As many may know I do have a vision impairment that prohibits driving but I've never qualified for paratransit services because my vision isn't poor enough so assume I will be riding without any additional services
posted by Aranquis to Travel & Transportation (34 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
Seattle, Portland OR, and San Francisco have pretty decent public transportation.
posted by borsboom at 6:56 AM on June 21, 2016 [1 favorite]

A lot of college towns not only have good public transportation but have decent transpo that links up with the larger transportation world (airports, trains, buses). So ones you might not think of would be Amherst MA, Ann Arbor Michigan and Hanover New Hampshire.
posted by jessamyn at 7:04 AM on June 21, 2016 [4 favorites]

If you live and work in the city, you could live in Pittsburgh without a car. Getting to the suburbs, malls etc is doable but more time consuming on the bus.
posted by nakedmolerats at 7:04 AM on June 21, 2016 [2 favorites]

Boston, Somerville, Cambridge, MA.
posted by Dragonness at 7:05 AM on June 21, 2016 [1 favorite]

If you live and work in the city, you could live in Pittsburgh without a car. Getting to the suburbs, malls etc is doable but more time consuming on the bus.

I had this fairly long comment about Pittsburgh typed up and then deleted it. Pittsburgh rates surprisingly highly in public transit ridership (top 10 in the US). Buuuut it's heavily dependent on where you live and where you want to go. We don't have a city-wide light rail system (our light rail runs from the southern suburbs into town but that's it) so otherwise it's all bus, all the time. Neighborhoods with good transit links tend to be a bit pricier because it's a pretty sweet amenity (especially if you work at one of the universities and colleges, which I think all give students, faculty and staff unlimited free transit trips using your school ID). There's a slightly smaller subset of neighborhoods with both good transit links AND a walkable business district where one could do all one's shopping, entertaining, etc... But if you can afford to live in one of those areas (keeping in mind that Pittsburgh real estate is absurdly undervalued currently but that may change), you could easily go without a car.

One area that Pittsburgh kind of sucks with, though, is getting OUT of Pittsburgh. Amtrak runs one train daily to Philly, DC and Chicago respectively, and the airport is a pain in the ass to get to because it's pretty far out of town.
posted by soren_lorensen at 7:26 AM on June 21, 2016 [2 favorites]

A somewhat systematic way to get a list of candidates to is to look at places that already have a high level of transit ridership per capita. You can get this data independently, but 538 (Nate Silver's site) has a handy piece using 2012/2013 data (which is unlikely to be drastically different just three or four years later), in which they look at the US urbanized areas with the highest level of unlinked transit trips per capita. This is not a perfect measure, but since you're just trying to get a sense of places to look at, it's good enough.

That 538 piece has the top 15 urbanized areas as: NYC by a very significant margin, SF Bay, DC, Athens/Clark County GA (home of UGA), Boston, Honolulu, Champaign (home of UIUC), State College PA (home of Penn State), Chicago, Philadelphia, Iowa City (home of Univ. of Iowa), Seattle, Portland, Gainesville (home of UF) and Los Angeles.

You'll notice that that list neatly bifurcates into either college towns or old, dense and/or expensive cities (they're not all equally old or dense, but the cost of living ranges from moderately high to very high in all those places). This is just sort of a reality of where good transit is in the US for a variety of historical reasons.

In the eastern Midwest, I'd focus on college towns if the lifestyle and job market work for you.
posted by andrewesque at 7:31 AM on June 21, 2016 [6 favorites]

Most of New Jersey is well served by public transportation, even as far as a 90-minute radius outside of NEw York. It's possible to live in a small-town downtown or suburb and enjoy strong transit connections to shopping, NYC, and intermodal hubs with pretty good frequency. Check out New Jersey Transit and note that the region is also served by Amtrak and many ferry lines.
posted by Miko at 7:55 AM on June 21, 2016 [5 favorites]

Other college towns with good enough public transport to go without cars for daily life (I know because I've done it): Madison WI and Ithaca NY.
posted by tchemgrrl at 8:17 AM on June 21, 2016

Philadelphia's public transit is decent.
posted by bearette at 8:35 AM on June 21, 2016 [1 favorite]

The light rail system in Minneapolis is growing quickly and could probably enable one to go car-free with careful planning. Winters would be hard.
posted by sideofwry at 8:43 AM on June 21, 2016

I wouldn't call San Francisco's public transit "decent" at all. It's slow and unreliable. The whole system is falling apart and there's not enough money to support it.
posted by radioamy at 8:59 AM on June 21, 2016 [2 favorites]

Portland, Oregon is developing a pretty impressive light-rail network in addition to all of the buses.
posted by colfax at 9:05 AM on June 21, 2016 [1 favorite]

Chapel Hill, North Carolina. The bus system is free and extensive. (Though, if you want to leave Chapel Hill, things get dicey).
posted by joycehealy at 9:07 AM on June 21, 2016 [1 favorite]

Well, it's not the eastern portion of the Midwest, but Denver's public transportation system is pretty good. My boyfriend's lived and worked here for over a decade and has almost always taken the bus for work, including sometimes on last-minute temp assignments, and the buses seem to be on-time and reliable for the most part. The city's also started upgrading our light rail system over the last few years. There's now light rail to the airport, which is in the middle of nowhere!
posted by jabes at 9:15 AM on June 21, 2016 [1 favorite]

The buses in Chapel Hill are OK if you only want to go to and from the university. Otherwise, you pretty much have to go to the university anyway, then take another bus to your destination. Oh, and there are buses that run _within_ the university to get from one point to another -- it's not like there's a central depot. So, maybe three buses to get from my place to most restaurants or the co-op grocery store.
posted by amtho at 9:18 AM on June 21, 2016

Columbus, OH has decent bus transportation if you are focusing on the main routes through town, including going to and from the university (Ohio State) and downtown.
posted by ChuraChura at 9:21 AM on June 21, 2016

Some areas of Los Angeles would work well, though other areas would be a nightmare. If you live in a walkable area near the metro and work along the same metro line (or are willing to transfer), you definitely don't need a car.

You could also consider any city where you could live somewhere that allows you to walk everywhere you need to go - I like using
posted by insectosaurus at 10:12 AM on June 21, 2016 [2 favorites]

Philly works if you live/work in the subset of neighborhoods that my friend calls "the donut:" the first ring of denser areas surrounding Center City. (Center City itself works too, but that's expensive.) The catch is remembering that Philly extends way farther than you think, and that the transit options in the outlying parts are more limited. For example, it took me nearly two hours round trip (train-train-bus) to get from my old house straight south of Center City to a class I was taking on the far northeastern edge of Philly proper.

The good news is that the various donut neighborhoods have very different characters, so you'd have choices in terms of amenities, price points, types of housing/number of roommates, etc.
posted by ActionPopulated at 10:38 AM on June 21, 2016

I wrote a long answer, then somehow pasted something over it. I don't plan to recreate it. The short version is that much of California has surprisingly good public transit. I will recommend that you pick almost any city with at least a few 10k population and look at their transit website if you have other reasons for being interested. Amtrak also makes city to city travel pretty accessible here.

The buses in Fresno have an automated announcement system that I think would serve your needs particularly well. Feel free to memail me for more details if you are interested. I am pretty impressed with the bus system here.
posted by Spanish Ash at 10:43 AM on June 21, 2016

I am happy with the transit options in Seattle and Kitsap county, which is where I live. The Amtrack north and south to Canada and Oregon are also great. I cycle everywhere and can catch a bus, ferry, and light rail easily.
posted by 10ch at 10:49 AM on June 21, 2016 [1 favorite]

I've spent a lot of time in both Iowa City and Ames, IA, both major college towns. I can vouch that you can totally go sans-car in both places. They may be smaller than you're looking for but they both boast better than average city services and culture. Both towns have made a serious effort to be ADA compliant which means being a pedestrian feels safe and few surprise curbs to trip you up. And people in Iowa are really nice!

I've also spent a buttload of time being touristy in Seattle and I love their public transit. I've never once felt the need to rent a car and I have been all over the place there.

I've spent the last year camped out in San Diego and OMG transit is shit here. Excellent example, the airport is smack in the middle of the city and I live about two miles away, so, really close. It would take me less time to walk there than to take a bus. OR, I could take a bus that takes an hour to get to a transit center that takes me five minutes by car where I could catch a trolley that goes right by the airport but DOESN'T STOP on it's way downtown. OK, I am done bitching. Between the nasty sidewalks, crazy traffic, and shoddy transit, Southern California is very difficult for anyone with visual impairments.
posted by Foam Pants at 10:59 AM on June 21, 2016 [3 favorites]

Be careful with Portland: while it has what appears to be an impressive light-rail system, it's also very focused on getting suburban commuters into downtown and isn't that useful for getting around town unless you're going to and from very specific areas. It also runs infrequently--MAX relies on interlining to give the appearance that frequencies aren't bad (but they are.) It's also pretty slow and stops way too often, especially downtown and Lloyd Center.

Honestly? Besides New York, I can't think of a single American city that equals the freedom one experiences in European cities. Relying solely on transit in any American city except for New York is always going to feel like a bit of a sacrifice.
posted by Automocar at 11:10 AM on June 21, 2016

If you live in a walkable area near the metro and work along the same metro line (or are willing to transfer), you definitely don't need a car.

Yes! With homes in the hills and the canyons (not to mention the rings of suburbs) there's always going to be a "last mile" problem but the days of "no/joke public transportation" in L.A. are over, and will get better. With things like dedicated/high volume traffic bus lanes and coordinated street lights the busses are pretty reliable, and now the light rail goes from dtla to the beach. The "subway to the sea" has broken ground and will get finished no matter how hard Beverly Hills resists. All over my neighborhood I have access to busses from two municipalities (Santa Monica & L.A.) and two miles up the road I can pick up a third (Culver City.)

I could go on forever, I'm a huge public transit booster. I've been car-free for three years, and if I wasn't so cheap with the Uber it would be almost seamless.
posted by Room 641-A at 11:12 AM on June 21, 2016 [1 favorite]

West LA is pretty good with the buses and Uber as long as you live and work in West LA! Once the subway is built it'll be sweet. Other LA neighborhood are similar in that they are very walkable or have good local transit, the trick is to not need to commute to work.

Uber has really changed LA and made it more accessible. Taxis barely existed before.
posted by fshgrl at 11:22 AM on June 21, 2016

This breaks my heart a bit because I am a big transit booster buuuuut I would exercise caution about Washington DC. Not ruling it out, because our job market is substantially stronger depending on your field than many other cities, but our transit system is actively in the midst of an extended maintenance crisis so I would be VERY choosy about where you live in relationship to where you work, and that gets expensive. Basically, if you can finagle a transferless bus ride commute, you're probably fine, otherwise, BIG FLASHING CAUTION SIGN. I do not have confidence that things will improve by next spring.

Signed, the person who now spends 3-4 hours a day on transit.
posted by bowtiesarecool at 11:51 AM on June 21, 2016 [2 favorites]

West LA is pretty good with the buses and Uber as long as you live and work in West LA!

Hard to believe, but to arrive in Hollywood at 6:30pm from the beach takes slightly longer by car. It's even faster if you get to Wilshire/Western and hop on the Red Line. It's 41 minutes to/from dtla and the beach. How long by car with traffic?
posted by Room 641-A at 1:20 PM on June 21, 2016 [1 favorite]

"Ann Arbor Michigan"

We've lived over 20 years in Ann Arbor without a car. I've found two major drawbacks:

First, the pattern of development isn't terribly friendly to non-drivers: everyday retail has mostly fled the center of town for the outskirts, so some simple shopping trips may require a bus or two when you might be able to manage on foot in another city. And downtown neighborhoods have resisted new residential development, so downtown housing can be quite expensive and/or student-targeted. You can work around this but need to carefully choose where you live.

Second, Ann Arbor itself, while it has a lot of employment and entertainment opportunities for a town its size, is still fairly small, and getting to, say, Detroit, or other destinations in the wider region, is kind of a pain without a car. Examples: we've got some nice museums associated with the University, but if you want to go to the Henry Ford museum (a 45-minute drive), or the zoo, you're out of luck. Lots of classical concerts and smaller acts, but if your favorite stadium-selling-out band comes through, that's out of town.

We've managed, with the help of the AAATA, the UM bus system, Uber, Lyft, etc. And, to a lesser extent, Zipcar, Maven, and traditional car rental--which probably aren't posible for you but are usually how I'd work around the lack of regional transit.

Anyway, that's a lot about the particular example of Ann Arbor, but that example suggests to me that you may need to think in more detail about what sort of things you like to get you and what sort of housing and neighborhood you want to live in.
posted by bfields at 1:30 PM on June 21, 2016 [1 favorite]

Depending on where you live (which seems to be true for most of these answers), Cleveland has decent infrastructure. Three light rail lines connect straight into downtown, while a bus rapid transit connects the medical hub with the downtown via the entertainment district. Downtown has the Smile & Ride trolleys, which are free. Cleveland's airport is the terminus of the Red line rapid, so you can leave the city without needing a car. There's also a bus network to move people around from the major axes.

*n.b.: My Cleveland info may be out of date, but a quick google implies it isn't.
posted by miguelcervantes at 1:42 PM on June 21, 2016

LA can work if you stay on the Westside or near Downtown or something. If you are crossing from central/Hollywood/etc to the Westside, there are no good options and car is the best of the bad (Room 641-A's experience does not match mine, from my house in Hollywood to Santa Monica by bus/train is about 2x the time by car even in rush hour, because (a) routes suck, and (b) even the train has to stop for traffic sometimes).

But I know lots of people on the Westside (Santa Monica / Venice / etc) who are happily (?) carless. However, you will not be able to enjoy all of LA without a car (although even with a car, "enjoy" only works if you basically like driving, I guess).
posted by thefoxgod at 2:02 PM on June 21, 2016

Here in Minneapolis, I know tons of happily car-free people. But being car-free rules out a ton of different jobs, and even entire career paths because so many entire industries are in non-transit-accessible suburbs. My friends who are car-free just happen to be OK with not pursuing those jobs. (If they weren't, they'd just get a car.)

Even though Minneapolis has OK transit, I would never advise you to move here on that basis, since it only works if you carefully arrange your life around it and I don't know if you're interested in or motivated to do that. I think that goes for a lot of the other small or medium-size cities here -- they're OK if being car-free is a lifestyle choice, but if you want to have access to every possible career option, they're not going to work for you. For that you really need a huge city with a dense transit grid.
posted by miyabo at 2:11 PM on June 21, 2016

Like most cities, Providence, RI has a bus system that goes many places but not everywhere. It has several colleges and universities, and the students get around somehow. Also easy access to NYC and Boston.

This may not matter to you but the older cities, especially NYC, were built before the notion of accessibility was invented. So you can get around if you can walk, and you may have to walk quite a distance. Younger cities like Tampa or Phoenix present fewer obstacles to the pedestrian, though they are probably more car-oriented.

In your place, I would start by picking a state or states to concentrate on by what requirements, benefits, etc they have that affect your situation. There are so many govs out there cutting spending at any cost to the disadvantaged, and I think you want to avoid those states.
posted by SemiSalt at 2:25 PM on June 21, 2016

Northern Virginia has pretty good public transportation, both in terms of buses and numerous opportunities to live on multiple metro lines that'll take you all around the DC Metro area. There are lots of job opportunities, but it's got an insane cost of living, and competition for jobs is fierce.
posted by the thought-fox at 2:58 PM on June 21, 2016

I just want to throw some extra love Los Angeles' way. Beyond having a truly impressive and dense network of busses, as well as several great train lines and more all the time, LA is also fairly modernized in terms of transit infrastructure for an American city. Between GPS on trains and busses, apps for official schedules, a ton of different city systems that connect to one another via one RFID fare card system (that you can load online), plus new bikeshares and (functional!) escalators/elevators, I have been thoroughly impressed since I moved here a year ago.

For reference, before moving to LA I lived in Philadelphia for eight years and Chicago for five, always without a car. In terms of cost, ease of use, speed (with respect to distance), and extensiveness of lines, Los Angeles has both of them beat, hands down.

(Rent is SO expensive though. Despite SEPTA's comparative badness, I still miss my Philly rent.)
posted by CtrlAltDelete at 12:31 PM on June 23, 2016 [1 favorite]

You may find this article about access to transit vs. access to high-frequency transit interesting. It only covers 28 cities, but it's useful data for those 28!
posted by sibilatorix at 7:55 AM on June 26, 2016

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