Sunday, May 15, 2011

Riverside: One of the Worst Cities for Transit?

As reported in Time, Riverside has been named by the Brookings Institution as one of America's top-ten worst cities for public transit to work. On the face of it, you might think this is an intuitive outcome. After all, I'm here on the blog complaining about transit out here a few times a week. However, there's some digging to be done into the methodology behind this report. Of course, top ten lists are always flawed (as noted recently by Human Transit), but this particular report has a particular bias against us here in the IE which I'd like to note.

The report does two things that are methodologically questionable. First, in a laudable attempt to be objective, they rank each city in accordance with three metrics: coverage, measured by the percent of working-age population near a transit stop; median rush-hour frequency; and the percent of jobs reachable in 90 minutes on transit. A quick glance shows that Riverside does poorly on only one of these metrics- the percent of jobs reachable in 90 minutes on transit. I'm assuming this is because the report looks at the jobs that people residing in the area currently hold, and we do have our fair share of truly epic commuters out here. This disadvantages Riverside, however, because it essentially measures the rate of out-of-area commuting. You'll note that the inhabitants of the top 10 positions on this list are all relatively small self-contained centres rather than suburbs. Further, the results are extremely sensitive to this measurement flaw: if we disregard the jobs measure, Riverside compares favourably to Provo-Orem, UT, number 9 on the top 10.

Second, the report measures not cities but "Metropolitan Statistical Areas." The Census bureau divvies up the counties of the U.S. into MSAs, and this works pretty well for most places. Counties in most areas are relatively small, cohesive economic units. The Riverside-San Bernardino-Ontario MSA, however, encompasses the entirety of San Bernardino and Riverside Counties. That means that everything from Montclair to Needles, from Corona to Blythe is included in the MSA, and therefore the Brookings report.

To put this in perspective, San Bernardino County is 51,934 km², making it the largest county in the lower 48 (exceeded in area only by several Alaskan Boroughs.) It is larger than 9 states, and larger than the smallest 4 states combined. Riverside County is no slouch either, clocking in at 18,667 km² (still larger than RI, DE, and CT). The Riverside-San Bernardino-Ontario MSA, then, is 70,601 km², larger than West Virginia. The portion of this region that might count as a "city," however, is at best limited to parts of the RTA, Omnitrans, Sun Transit and VVTA service areas.

While there are other reasons to think that this report isn't capturing what we mean when we think about "good public transit"-- for example, both Merced and Fresno rank higher than New York City or San Francisco-- the ways in which it particularly slights the Inland Empire are worth pointing out.

UPDATE: The inestimable Human Transit has covered the more general weirdness of the Brookings measures.

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