Arcadis, a global design consultant, recently released their “Sustainable Cities Mobility Index,” which rates 100 cities around the globe on how sustainable their urban mobility is (full report can be found here). In other words, the report grades cities on their transportation systems and its implications for “People” (quality of life), “Planet” (the environment) and “Profit” (economic growth). According to this rating system, Hong Kong has the best urban transport system in the world. New York is the highest rated American city at 23. Without diving too deep into the specific metrics used to develop their mobility index, I wanted to comment on a few of the conclusions they reached.
It is no surprise to the author of this blog that the transportation system in Hong Kong was rated as the best in the world. The Hong Kong subway, with its astonishing farebox recovery rate, was presented in a previous post as a model of financial and operational performance. Arcadis, which takes public transportation, cycling, pedestrians and airports into account, rates Hong Kong highly for its large international airport and its modern, efficient and relatively inexpensive subway system. Hong Kong’s system is rated as best for people, but suffers under “Planet” because of pollution levels.
Coming in at second in the “People” index is, somewhat surprisingly, the combined transport system for New York City. Subway riders in New York these days suffer through myriad delays and infrastructure shut downs as its 113 year old subway system struggles to modernize, expand and improve. New York’s airports are consistently ranked poorly in comparison to their European and Asian peers, especially when it comes to public transportation access. Average bus speeds for New York buses is the slowest of any major city in the United States, according to the Bus Turnaround campaign. Most users of these transportation services would likely not agree with New York’s ranking in this index, especially when compared to Tokyo, Singapore or Paris.
A particularly surprising component of New York’s high “People” ranking is that it is 100% accessible. In many ways, the NYC Subway is a very geographically accessible system, in that there are 472 stations in four boroughs that provide access to hundreds of miles of local and express track. Further, the vast majority of New Yorkers live within a 10 minute walk of a bus stop. However, as the advocates who started the “Access Denied” project, the 10% of New Yorkers with disabilities and the 13% of the population that is over 65 can attest, New York’s transport system is not very accessible for the disabled. While every local NYC Bus is wheelchair accessible, only 110 out of those 472 subway stations (23%) in New York is equipped with an elevator. And, as the Access Denied project points out, because of maintenance and frequent failures, that number is often lower on any given day.
Though New York’s transport system is not necessarily worthy of its high ranking on the People index, due to realities about its service today and its real levels of accessibility, it is surely deserving of its rank as best in the United States overall. According to patch.com, rating the NYC Subway as best in the country will shock commuters. But, when matched up against transport systems in cities like Washington DC and San Francisco in spite of New York’s recent and continuing problems, I have to wonder, who is actually shocked?
In San Francisco, the next highest rated American city in the index, the BART system operates rolling stock with by far the highest average age of any system in the country. Next, at 42nd overall is Washington DC, which has no permanent funding source established for its transport system and has suffered severe and sometimes deadly problems in its Metro system, prompting the creation of (among other responses) the twitter account @dcmetrosucks. New York surely has its problems, but no one should be shocked that it is ranked higher than any other American city.
I leave Los Angeles out of this comparison because though it is famously car friendly, it is taking the most significant steps of any American city to expand and improve transportation and to replace car trips with bus or train trips. Seattle is also in that conversation as it works to triple the length of its light rail network and has completely revamped its bus system with a combination of large scale and tactical improvements.
Which is all to say that transportation systems of every mode in American cities, whether you agree with Arcadis’s index or not, are falling behind their global peers. This index, if nothing else, should remind urban and transportation planners that all American cities should strive for top-10 or even top-20 rankings in the future to keep them on pace with the likes of Hong Kong (#1), Paris (#3), Seoul (#4) and London (#7).