Transit Rankings Agree: Chicago’s Service Not As Good As Other Big Cities

While the South Loop has a “Transit Score” of 93, the city as a whole has a score of 65, ranking it sixth place in the United States.

A recent analysis of transit service in United States cities found that Chicago ranked #6, behind New York City, San Francisco, Boston, Washington, D.C., and Philadelphia. Transit Score, from the Walk Score company now owned by the realtor Redfin, reviewed public schedules data provided by the transit agencies in each city to study how often trains and buses come to stops near people’s homes.

Analysis from other organizations used different methodologies but made similar conclusions. Regardless of our ranking, transit in the city of Chicago and the region looks to be behind its peers.

Redfin spokesperson Alex Starace said that “for its size…Chicago is lagging in transit options and efficiency.” One reason that could explain why Chicago ranks sixth is that the Transit Score methodology give twice as much weight to run schedules at train stations as bus stops. Chicago has over 10,000 bus stops, and dozens of CTA and Metra train stations that are separated from residences by highways and in low-density areas. Additionally, many Metra stations on the South and West sides of Chicago have low service frequency.

“Rail better than bus”

Their reasoning in weighting this is to essentially say that people are better served by trains than buses. Starace said that the Walk Score advisory board provided input on that decision, describing further that, “bus lines are generally not as valuable as rail lines” because “they’re subject to move or change, which means that no real estate developer would invest in land because it’s near a bus line.”

Additionally, Starace said, “buses, more so than rail, are generally subject to vagaries of prevailing traffic, making their timing, speed and reliability lower than those of rail lines,” and that even if you run larger buses, they “generally hold far fewer people than a rail line can.”

But no developers? There’s a lot more at stake than whether a parcel they want to develop is near a train or bus stop. Is building at Western and the Eisenhower superior to Western and North because the former has a Blue Line station? Existing real estate developers in Chicago currently attract tenants by marketing the nearby express bus routes the CTA runs to north and south lakefront neighborhoods.

Where Chicago ranks, though, is perplexing because none of Chicago’s rail transit lines run in mixed traffic like the light rail trains and streetcars in San Francisco, Boston, and Philadelphia, all of which got the same 2x weight as CTA and Metra stations. Those light rail trains and streetcars are subject to the same “vagaries of prevailing traffic” as buses.

So, even on a route that has subway-like service, which a bus rapid transit project on Ashland Avenue would bring, in the form of dedicated lanes, priority at traffic signals, and prepaid and all-door boarding, Transit Score would still only consider its frequency and stop location. San Francisco and New York City have both made strides to speed up bus service by converting travel lanes to bus-only lanes on some streets, but these still get counted as half a train station.

Transit Score isn’t alone

There are other ways to rank transit service and its effectiveness among big cities. One way is to measure the share of regional jobs that someone could reach riding transit within a certain time period. The Brookings Institution looked at a cutoff of 90 minutes using 2010 data. The Chicago region, they found, is definitely behind the same five cities, and below average for all metropolitan areas in the United States.

To rank higher on the Brookings study means to increase the number of jobs accessible by transit in Chicagoland. We’d either have to build more transit to suburban job centers, which the Center for Neighborhood Technology said to do in its Putting Places First report last month, or move more jobs to transit-served locations.

In a similar vein, the University of Minnesota’s Accessibility Observatory designed a new way to rank transit service in metropolitan areas last year. They measured the accessibility – “the ease of reaching valued destinations” – of places via transit. The weight is placed on the time it takes to get to a job, with jobs accessible within 10 minutes given the highest weight. Jobs were given a lower weight for every 10 more minutes it takes to get to them by transit, up to 60 minutes.

In their transit accessibility ranking, the Chicago area got fifth place, after New York City, San Francisco, Los Angeles, and Washington, D.C. Interestingly, for jobs 30 minutes or way or less, Chicago ranked fourth place, likely because the Loop has so many jobs and so many people live close to there.

Univ. Minnesota Accessibility Observatory Chicago screenshot
Chicago’s transit and jobs are focused on the core, but many suburban job centers cannot be easily accessed by transit. Image: University of Minnesota, Accessibility Observatory

How to rank higher

For the Chicago metro area to rank higher on the Accessibility Observatory’s study, CTA, Metra, and Pace would have to add more runs or speed up runs. Additionally, we could add more transit service to suburban job centers or work with companies to locate their new or expanding businesses near transit – currently, only 21 percent of regional jobs are within 1/4 mile of transit.

The CTA will speed up the local service on Ashland and Western Avenues later this month by consolidating some bus stops. Pace will be adding more frequent service on Milwaukee Avenue between Jefferson Park and Niles, but these improvements won’t help to improve Chicago’s transit score. Metra has no plans to add more service, and CTA has no other plans.

Transit spending per capita in Chicagoland is near the bottom in this group of international cities. Image: MPC

Accessibility Observatory says their methodology improves upon other studies because it considers the travel time to get to a transit stop, and the waiting once one reaches it. Transit Score considers only the number of times per week a transit vehicle arrives.

By any measure, transit in Chicagoland is far from number one, and the Metropolitan Planning Council said our slow rate of investments in transit service is insufficient to match our metropolitan peers.

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  • david vartanoff

    Checking current schedules for the J14 Jeffery Jump shows 30 minute service from South Shore to the Loop. Why is that not shown? And FWIW the less frequent but slightly faster MED trains do much the same (and historically were even faster 50 yrs ago as well as more frequent).
    Second caveat. . As an SF Bay Area resident, I question how the “transit” capital and operational per capita ## are derived. Do they include the East Bay area from Richmond through Hayward which are in NYC terms Brooklyn and Queens?

  • Chicagoan

    It seems like the best thing Chicago can do is continue to attract companies to the downtown area, where the L and Metra are a strong commuting option. I still prefer Chicago over Boston, Philadelphia, and San Francisco for transit service. As previously discussed, Chicago’s size hurts it in competition with those cities.

    Does our hub-and-spoke model potentially hurt us? The L is focused on moving North, South, and West side workers downtown, leaving bus service and cycling as our primary options for getting east/west & north/south outside of The Loop area.

    BRT on Ashland just seems so vital. Hopefully it’s a smashing success and we eventually see it on Western, as well as some other thoroughfares (Cermark? North? 31st?).

  • The hub-and-spoke model doesn’t inherently hurt us. The hub is where the most jobs are, and the highest density of people live near the hub.

    I think the problems that push us down the rankings is (1) lack of frequent service in many areas, and (2) people living away from trains/trains not going to where people live densely.

    I believe that BRT would help improve our rank (not enough to actually move us up a whole level), because it would provide more transit service between homes and jobs. Transit Score should take a second look into how it weights the modes.

    The Ashland BRT would be a higher quality service than many sections of the San Francisco Muni light rail train because those lines run in mixed traffic about as much, or more, than they run in exclusive right-of-way.

  • “As an SF Bay Area resident, I question how the “transit” capital and operational per capita ## are derived. Do they include the East Bay area from Richmond through Hayward which are in NYC terms Brooklyn and Queens?”

    What capital and operational per capita numbers are you referring to?

  • planetshwoop

    Many suburban office parks run private coaches to encourage transit. My last job in Lincolnshire did this; my father’s job in Glenview did too. I’m sure others do too. The fact that these are “dark” means the score could be higher if those services were public. E.g. how many people ride the uic shuttle or Aon shuttle?

  • david vartanoff

    the two color bar graph in the article. Unlike NYC or Chicago, the Bay Area has multiple transit agencies overlapping each other sometimes cooperating sometimes not.

  • Chicagoan

    I just can’t believe they put San Francisco’s light rail on the same level as Chicago’s heavy rail. To compare a system that at no point operates in mixed traffic to one that operates in it quite a bit is silly.

    There needs to be a separate category for BRT/light rail.

  • BlueFairlane

    An interesting thing is that San Franciscans actively fight those exact kinds of private services. From what I can tell, it’s mostly a knee-jerk reaction to gentrification fears (Mountain View workers driving up city rents), but they sometimes float an argument that people on private shuttles aren’t participating in public culture or contributing anything to public transit in the city where they live. It seems a stretch to me, but the shuttles only exist because San Francisco’s patchwork agencies can’t effectively move people between the city and the jobs.

  • Separated right-of-way needs to be weighted separately from drives-in-traffic.

  • Cameron Puetz

    The issue is that many of the jobs are in the suburbs and the transit system breaks down rapidly outside the city limits. San Fransisco proper is a much smaller part of its metro area than most cities.

  • BlueFairlane

    San Francisco is, in fact, absurdly tiny, little more than a square six miles on a side. It’s small enough that it would be walkable were there no transit at all. And really, that’s the root of most of their problems, as the central core has no place to grow (they fight hard to avoid building up), and the pseudo-suburban places fencing them in feel more like carving out their own fiefdoms than contributing to make the place a more centralized whole. And to be fair, the city fights to keep itself separate from the fiefdoms just as hard.

  • Chicagoan

    Agreed. I’d imagine that would vault us up this ranking quite a bit?

  • Well, it’d be walkable if you wanted to do all those hills ;)

  • Anne A

    It’s also done by downtown buildings and businesses in locations where CTA doesn’t connect the dots well between those locations and Metra stations. Northwestern Hospital, Aon/Prudential and others run shuttles in the Loop every weekday. Their effectiveness varies depending on which Metra station/line you use.

  • Anne A

    It hurts us for connecting points outside the Loop. We could see much stronger growth in areas away from the Loop if we had at least one western bypass option beyond the Paulina connector.

  • planetshwoop

    I know too well — I’ve had many rides on “The Free Enterprise System” as my employer runs a shuttle btwn the South Loop and downtown campus. But I figured these wouldn’t much improve the score bc the Loop itself is well served.

  • My guess is that Transit Scores algorithms have not been updated since 2012. Since then BRT has become much more of a recognized as a premium service by many more people across the U.S. I would agree that a dedicated lane BRT should be ranked just like rail at 2x times population density decayed by distance from the station times the weekly frequency. (That is my understanding of how it works. Correct me if I am wrong.) Interestingly besides buses and rail they have a third category called cable-cars and ferries which they use a multiplier of 1.5. What that says is that there would be plenty of room for tweaking if someone were willing to do the work. But since their goal is real estate ranking rather than transit ranking they have no incentive to do it.

    Clearly BRT could have been ranked at 1.5 rather than the bus ranking of 1. But even more clearly they could adjust not only the line ranking as a whole but instead rank the station or stop. So a rail stop in mixed traffic might get a multiplier of 1.2 or 1.7 instead of 2. But then someone would, as I said, have to do some work. And naturally since there is no profit in it the someone should be our public government. But alas governments are not in favor at this time of misguided austerity economics.

    I agree with the widely understood notion here at Streetsblog that Metra possesses a tremendous potential for better and therefore more widely used service. Up the frequency and increase stop density at strategic places and viola.

    And yet another game changer is PACE’s burgeoning buses-on-the-shoulder services. It is in essence a BRT service. The new tollway out to Rockford for instance was just rebuilt with BOS capability. PACE to Rockford anyone?

    I believe that Chicago’s 86 ranking suffers from another subtle issue. While I don’t fully understand it, the rankings were normalized to fit between 0 and 100 by using an artificial perfect 100 as the average of five cities, San Francisco, Chicago, Boston, Portland, and Washington, D.C. I believe that since Chicago much less dense than those cities that our ranking got skewed against us. Of course, since I don’t totally understand it perhaps our ranking would have been lower without having been used in the normalizing scheme. See here ->

    As for the private corporate transit buses my guess is that it would be a wash as every city at this point likely has them.

  • Chicago Person

    These rankings seem pretty much ‘right’ to me. I would be very interested to see what kind of transit scores cities in Europe, Asia, and South America with truly functional, RAPID MASS TRANSIT systems would get — cities like London, Paris, Moscow, Madrid, Berlin, Tokyo, Seoul, etc. What would be super useful would be to see maps all made at the same scale showing cities’ transit systems and, importantly, the station locations. Headways/frequency are obviously important but starting out by comparing the ‘coverage’ or ‘density’ of the stations of different subway systems would be very useful and revealing, I think, since subways tend to have shorter, more consistent headways/frequency. In cities/urban areas with really great transit, the density of the stations is high pretty much everywhere (where there is urban development), regardless of specific “land use” The problem is many parts of U.S. cities are not really “cities” at all! See page 26 of this presentation:

  • BlueFairlane

    I may live in the flatland now, but I was born in hills. I’ll take’em!

  • Cameron Puetz

    Here’s several cities systems drawn at the same scale. It doesn’t show stations or how transit corresponds to land use.

  • Chicago Person

    Thanks. I had found the maps you link to a couple of years ago and had contacted the author asking for such maps WITH THE STATIONS too, but he — nor anyone else that I could find — had (done) this. The stations density indicates the “access” (convenience) of the system, just like bike share station density does.

  • I wouldn’t say that Metra and CTA are in cooperation with each other. I wouldn’t say that Metra actually cares about its passengers, whereas CTA does intend to run system for riders.

    That being said, the Bay Area does seem to have too many transit operators, and I believe not all of them are yet integrated with the Clipper fare card (their version of our Ventra).

  • Not necessarily, because it still realistically takes 45min/1hr or more to get from somewhere that isn’t downtown to somewhere that isn’t downtown (or to get from somewhere farther than a 30min El trip, to downtown).

    That 30min limit on the top map is definitely accurate, but 30min is NOT a reasonable expectation for transit trips in Chicago unless you both live and are going to the very most-centrally-interconnected areas.

  • You understood it perfectly.

    For those who want to know more about what it takes to get 100 points on the Transit Score scale, here goes:

    A perfect 100 score is equal to the average of the score for the center of San Francisco, Chicago, Boston, Portland, and Washington, D.C. Every score for every neighborhood in every city, then, is normalized against that number.

    What center did they use for each city? Their methodology page doesn’t say.

    Hopefully your city has the best transit at that point in the city!

  • “Patchwork” is right. The Clipper card (Ventra for that region) works on 17 different transit agencies! Cool for having a single fare payment, but not cool for having so many transit agencies’ rules, fare policies, schedules, and routes to know.

  • Yeah, same here. They also weight “cable cars” (probably suspended ones, not the kind in San Francisco) and ferries at 1.5x, so 50% “better” than buses.

  • I think the two alternative transit ranking methodologies (from Brookings and UMinn) are superior because they represent something more tangible: Will transit be helpful for me to find and maintain a job away from my home?

  • Anne A

    I don’t think that Metra cooperates much with CTA or Pace. On the other hand, I’m seeing a bit more cooperation between CTA and Pace in recent years in locations where their routes meet or overlap.

    Some Metra employees seem to care a lot about passengers, though Metra overall doesn’t seem to give a damn. I’ve met some very nice folks working for CTA and Pace.

  • neroden

    Metra’s attitude is disturbingly “siloed”. I don’t know how that can be changed.

  • You see how Mayor Emanuel takes credit for everything the CTA does. The CTA is a state-owned authority, like Metra. What do you think would happen if Emanuel paid as much attention to Metra as he does CTA?



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