Sunday, November 9, 2014

Public Transit: All About Density

I grew up outside of a small town of about 8,000. If we wanted to go anywhere other than the local crick we needed to drive. Imagine my surprise when I was 14 and visited Montreal: a massive subway system and underground malls! Big city folk had a whole different lifestyle.

Now I live in Atlanta and drive everywhere.

My experience in Atlanta isn't unique. See the graph below, which shows average daily usage of all public transit in a city. (You can filter to a specific type in the bottom right.) New York City has more than twice the per capita public transit usage of any other metro area. Most metros have less than 0.1 daily trips per person. Those trips are unlinked (i.e. a transfer counts as another trip) and don't count return trips, so in most metros less than 5% of the population uses public transit on a given day.



This leads people to say, "the public transportation in city X sucks". We've all heard it. But look at the graph again. New York City has twice the transit usage of any other city, but is also more than twice as dense (denoted by color). Why does this matter? Based on average density, in New York City 6,100 people live within a quarter mile of each metro stop1 while 430 people in Atlanta live within a quarter mile of each metro stop. Also, the alternative (driving) is much worse in a denser city. Traffic may not be great in Atlanta, but its far worse in a city with 15 times the density.

So, how does Atlanta's transit stack up when controlling for density? See the graph below. Atlanta is one of the least dense big metros in America, but compared to similarly dense metro ares, Atlanta has a high rate of public transit usage. For example, observe Jacksonville which also has a little more than two thousand persons per square mile. Jacksonville has about 0.03 daily trips per capita and is right on the trend line (the average for similarly dense cities). Atlanta has over twice the usage of Jacksonville.


This visual is full of other fun information. Washington DC and Boston are the two biggest public transportation over-achievers. Los Angeles, even though it has more public transit than most metros, is one of the biggest under-achievers, along with San Jose and Riverside. Click on the Los Angeles circle to see that nearly all of their public transit comes from bus, or click on the orange segment of the US map to see that western cities fall into two distinct trends of public transit vs. density.

The last visual gives us an idea of how a city's transit use is changing. Raleigh has more than doubled their transit use in the past twelve years, but their current rate (as represented by color-coding) is only 0.02 per capita, so the actual increase was slight. Scrolling down the graphs and looking for color outliers shows that Salt Lake City, Seattle, and New York City all had impressive gains in metro use.



Atlanta's public transit use declined by 9% over the past twelve years and was the only city to see a decline in heavy rail usage. Where does this put Atlanta going forward?

This post is about public transit, but what really matters is quality of life. I don't actually drive everywhere; I live in the Old Fourth Ward and can walk to great coffee shops and parks. I have a ten minute driving commute to my office downtown. Atlanta's Beltline project and related push for mixed use development should make a lifestyle of walkable neighborhoods and short commutes accessible for more people. And as that happens I expect Atlanta to grow in density and public transit.


Notes
  • All population information is from the 2010 census, and uses population-weighted density to be more meaningful. 
  • Transportation data is from the American Public Transit Association, available on their website. (See the monthly data)
  • The APTA uses urbanized areas (UZAs) to report usage, while I only had population-weighted densities for metro areas, which sometimes encompass multiple UZAs. I was able to merge the two with a name crosswalk, but did have to look up a few by hand.
  • I suspect a reporting error in the 2002 APTA data for Austin. Their drop is entirely from 2002 to 2003, and in privately provided public busing.

1 Calculations are totally based entirely on average population-weighted density, and not on actual stop locations.

59 comments:

  1. Hi John,

    I really liked reading this analysis and think its a great use of Tableau. One extra wrinkle could be to look at change in transit usage versus change in density. Then though the question is which comes first? Is it a case of build transport and people will cluster around it? Or do transport planners respond to housing development? I think the former.

    The other big question is around urban planning. Cities in the North have on the whole held back urban sprawl through laws, red tape, taxes etc... where as cities in the South have tended to encourage sprawl through looser planning laws, this in turn has kept land and house prices low and attracted population growth in areas with little public transport. As the trend for younger people and young families is flipping back to inner city living over the suburbs, and as environmental concerns increase it will be interesting to see how cities in the South respond. It sounds like Atlanta is already moving towards higher density and great public transport use.

    It would be also cool to look at this internationally. How do European and Asian cities stack up? Sorry I'm asking more questions - but that's the sign of good analysis :-)

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks Peter! I think once a city is above a certain threshold of density, building rail stations will lead to increased density. But for less dense cities like Atlanta its still faster and easier to drive in most areas so a rail station is less of a draw.

      Another thing your comments made me think of: the graphs in this post default to all types of transit. A lot of folks think of heavy rail when they think public transit, but you can filter to that in the type filters. I didn't get into this, but heavy and light rail have seen pretty big increases in the past twelve years, while bus has dropped.

      Great ideas for additional analyses. But this satisfies my desire for public transit data analysis for now :)

      Delete
  2. This is a terrific post.

    Like PeterG above, I'm also curious about how these trends compare to other countries. But I imagine the source data probably isn't directly comparable.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks! When I was researching this post I saw an international graph of transit versus density in excel, but I'm having trouble finding it now.

      Delete
    2. Here's a chart comparing public transport mode share with population density across 41 US, Canadian and Australian cities. Note the discussion of weighted vs average density.

      http://blogs.crikey.com.au/theurbanist/2011/02/05/index-php4753/

      Delete
    3. Thanks! I hadn't looked at the non-weighted densities. Makes a huge difference.

      Delete
  3. Very impressive analysis. Thanks. What explains the great rise of Raleigh in the last decade?

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. About half of that is population growth- they're one of the fastest growing metro areas. I used 2010 population as my denominator all years. (Bleg: dataset of annual metro population?) As for the rest of the change, remember they still only have about 1% of their population riding the bus.

      Delete
  4. Great viz! I'm learning that the second most-popular category of transport in Seattle is 'other'. Any idea what this encompasses?

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks! Good question. Select Seattle on the scatter plot graph. Hover over the "other" bar, then click the "view data" icon (looks like a little table) in the tool tip. Then click the "underlying" tab.

      Its mostly ferry (~23M per year), and commuter bus (~18M per year).

      New Orleans is the only city with more "Other".

      Delete
    2. Seattle is also the only city to make significant use of commuter buses.

      Delete
    3. I imagine that's related to how their buses also use the light rail tunnel to avoid city-center traffic? (And bridge traffic?) I've only spent a little time in Seattle, but that was really cool.

      Delete
  5. Fascinating, but a few questions.
    1. How did you treat commuter rail systems that span multiple metro areas?
    2. What led you to use weighted population?
    3. A clarification about UZAs in the APTA data versus yours - so would the data for "San Francisco" here include ridership on AC Transit (serving the East Bay / Oakland) for example?

    Thanks!

    ReplyDelete
  6. Hi Jonah, thanks for reading.
    1. I split them evenly between metros. Great question.
    2. Weighted density is the density people actually experience. Otherwise, if a metro area contains some farmland, it throws off the density. Commenter Alan shared a nice link on this topic.
    3. Yea. I found the corresponding metro for each UZA and coded accordingly.

    ReplyDelete
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