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Maintenance on Silver’s Transit Line

Late last week, our recent report Missed Opportunity: Transit and Jobs in Metro America came in for some bumps and bruises on Nate Silver’s thoughtful and well-known political blog FiveThirtyEight. Silver is an analytical heavyweight, and he had several good points to make about how best to measure the effectiveness of transit systems.

But Silver’s post also betrays some misconceptions regarding our report. There are some fundamental differences between what Silver seems to think we studied, and what we actually did study. He’s not the first to have those misconceptions, but he is the first to imply publicly that the report might have been “cooked up by four people in a conference room,” or that Brookings is, as the original title of the post put it, a “think tank gone wild.” So bear with us, as this is as good a time as ever to review what we did, why we did it, and what we think it all means.

Metro Areas versus Transit Systems

Silver’s central criticism seems to be that ranking cities’ transit systems based on how many people have access to transit, and how many jobs transit can deliver potential commuters to, ignores a much larger, more important question--is transit a better commuting option than driving a car? He probes the latest Census Bureau data to show that relatively few workers commute via transit in some of the highest-ranking metro areas on our list. How good can these systems be, he asks, if no one is getting out of their cars to use them?

 We agree that this is not a great way to rank transit systems … but our report didn’t rank transit systems. It ranked metropolitan areas on how well their households and jobs were connected via transit. 

Now, one could be forgiven for missing this distinction from reading some media coverage of the report. But we went to great pains in the report to point out that Missed Opportunities is not a mere ranking of big city transit agencies or a simple Ten Best/Ten worst list. Indeed, one of the headlines of the report was that the performance of metro areas in our rankings had much more to do with the physical arrangement of their employment and population centers than with the size or extent of their transit systems. In most U.S. metro areas, decades of low density, spread-out growth have resulted in massive decentralization of jobs, and limited alignment with the location of transit.

Metro Areas versus Cities

What most seems to puzzle/rankle Silver and some other observers are findings such as Modesto, Calif. ranking higher than New York (though only slightly) on our “combined access” score. Our work indeed shows that greater Modesto--irrespective of how its commuters get around today--may be marginally better positioned to get workers to jobs via transit than metropolitan New York.

This is difficult to swallow for city slickers who are, like Silver, “big fans” of iconic transit service such as New York’s subway, Chicago’s El, and Boston’s T. Our report does show that 100 percent of New York City and Newark residents have access to public transit from their neighborhoods, and that the typical resident of those cities can reach nearly half of all jobs in the metro area via transit within 90 minutes. 

But because commuter sheds and labor markets are metropolitan in scope, we focused beyond just central cities, which contain only about one-third of people and jobs in metro areas (Silver acknowledges this in presenting metro-level Census Bureau data on commuting). That’s why we tracked down data for all agencies that provide service within these metro areas—21 alone in the New York metro (i.e., not just the MTA). We found that about one in five residents of New York’s suburbs has no access to transit; and that for those who do, the typical commuter can reach only 22 percent of the region’s jobs within 90 minutes via transit. 

Put simply, a large share of the New York metro area’s people and jobs still lie well beyond the relatively long arms of its network of transit systems. And western metro areas such as Modesto, unlike their eastern brethren, seem to do a better job providing service in suburban areas. More importantly, they have less job sprawl, and more compact employment, than ostensibly transit-rich metros such as Chicago, Philadelphia, and even Washington, D.C.

Transit versus Transportation

Silver’s most important criticism stems from the fact that in many of these regions, taking transit to work is virtually unheard of. In 21 of the 100 largest metro areas, less than 1 percent of workers commute primarily via transit.

By focusing on one mode--transit--our report certainly does not paint a broad picture of how workers get to jobs today, and how competitive transit is as a commuting option. That’s why our upcoming work on this project will focus on important questions including comparisons with the roadway network, the costs of those commute trips, different time thresholds for comparison, and others. We detail these research questions and others in our report.

Nonetheless, we do think this is a moment for public transit in America. Escalating gas prices, concerns about energy independence, and shifting metropolitan growth patterns suggest that things may be changing. Indeed, the latest Census data show that the share of Americans that commute by transit rose, and those who got to work by driving alone fell, both first time in a generation.

The central question our report raises, then, is whether or not U.S. metro areas are ready for what may be increasing near-term demand for commuting alternatives to driving alone. Surely, transit cannot and should not serve 100 percent of metropolitan commuters. The transportation network has different components (e.g., highway, transit, and passenger rail) that should ideally work together to form a balanced multimodal system. Access to jobs by transit should not be the only policy goal; rather, accessibility to employment overall should be a focus of policymakers at all levels.

But with the average commuter in major metro areas such as Atlanta, Chicago, Dallas, and Houston unable to reach 800,000 or more metropolitan jobs via transit, rising energy prices and transit cuts in low-income neighborhoods raise significant concerns for those labor markets. How these workers can get to their jobs is an important public policy question on which our report attempts to shed some light.


While Silver developed his critique of our work from a very different premise than the one motivating our research, he does raise a number of important questions that deserve to be tackled. And in devoting several inches to a serious critique of our report, he has helped to continue an evolving conversation about its findings, still ongoing in the comments section of his post.

We do want to assure Silver and others, however, that rather than cooking up this research alone in a conference room, we benefited from intense and continuing collaboration with a network of practitioners, scholars, and business leaders across the country. Missed Opportunity represents a range of perspectives designed to inform real-world debates in metro areas such as Kansas City, Milwaukee, Atlanta. To that end, perhaps Nate might agree to be a reviewer for the next round of Brookings research to emerge from this project. After all, none of us can resist the occasional study that attempts to rank or rate things, right?