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America's Smartest Cities for Transportation Still Aren't Very Smart

Ambitious high-speed rail plans aside, most of the U.S. is lacking in the public transportation arena. That's why the NRDC has chosen to highlight fifteen small, medium and large regions that are supposedly getting transportation right: Boston; Chicago; Philadelphia; Portland, Oregon; New York; San Francisco;  Washington D.C; Boulder-Longmont, Colorado; Honolulu, Hawaii; Jersey City, New Jersey; New Haven, Connecticut; Champaign-Urbana, Illinois; Bremerton, Washington; Lincoln, Nebraska; and Yolo, California. That some of these cities lack anything more exciting than city bus routes begs the question: Is this really the best we can do?

The Natural Resources Defense Council, which wrote the study in collaboration with the Center for Neighborhood Technology (CNT), compared U.S. regions based on public transit availability, use, cost, household automobile ownership and use, and sustainable transportation programs. 

"By and large, 'location efficient' places—with essential services that are nearby or accessible by many transportation modes—lower transportation costs for residents," said Scott Bernstein, president of CNT, in a statement. "Cities and regions that foster compact, walkable, transit-rich communities can reduce reliance on automobiles and help lower at least one expense for households struggling to get by in the current economy."

Some of the cities on the NRDC's list aren't surprising. New York is well-recognized for efficient public transportation (unless you're waiting for the much-loathed G train), and Portland, Oregon is known for its bike-friendly streets. Other choices, however, look better on paper than in real life.

The NRDC lists San Francisco as a smart transportation region, at least in part because the city ranks highest in transit access of any metro region in the U.S., and half of the city and county population commute by public or alternative transportation. But that doesn't tell the whole story.

Having squandered countless hours waiting for late buses (a 45-minute wait for the bus isn't uncommon) that move slower than many people walk, it's hard for me to consider San Francisco's transportation innovative. The city is more bike-friendly than most, to be sure, but anyone taking trolley buses, streetcars, or light-rail trains had better be willing to dedicate time to sitting around.

And while the NRDC touts Lincoln, Nebraska's policy of charging only $7.50 per month to low-income residents for a monthly unlimited bus pass, that doesn't take into account the fact that buses sometimes come only once an hour, or don't run at night. It's enough to make the heartiest of Cornhuskers lose hope of ever getting where they're going.

Should progressive transportation policies be celebrated? Of course. But the NRDC's list reveals more about the generally dismal state of transportation in the U.S. than anything else.

Follow Fast Company on Twitter. Ariel Schwartz can be reached by email.

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  • Jan Kijowski

    I can't objectively comment about every city on the NRDC's "Smarter Cities" Top 15 list, but I can assure you that Champaign-Urbana deserves its spot on the list. The cities in the C-U metro area, the University of Illinois, the Champaign-Urbana Mass Transit District, and the Champaign County Regional Planning Commission have made great strides in improving mode choice and infrastructure in the region and every organization's long-range plans include continuing improvement. Urbana has been named a "Bicycle Friendly Community" by the League of American Bicyclists, long-range plans for area communities and the University include improved bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure, and the Mass Transit District has lowered its annual pass price to $60 while vastly improving service freqency and routing. Complete streets, pedestrian-friendly improvements, and snow removal ordinances make it easier than ever for bicyclists and pedestrians to move about the community. The cities, University, and MTD partnered to bring Zipcar carsharing to the community, the first-ever carsharing collaboration between communities, schools, and a transit provider in the country. Long-range transportation plans include pedestrians, bicyclists, and transit at every level. C-U is a great place to live and its residents and visitors have a full palette of mode choice; the availability of these options will continue to grow and develop as we move into the future.

  • Belles Architecture

    Having taken field trips to some of these Cities, Belles Firm of Architecture must comment.
    While Chicago has a lot of public transportation, we hope this is NOT the best one can hope for. The system works fine, IF you have a 8-5 M-F job. If you are a student, like Suzee, life can be more difficult. Try getting a train that gets you to a 10am, Sunday morning class. You could have a 2 hour wait. Also, the system is not simplistic. A stranger has a difficult time determining how to navigate the system.
    Boston was wonderful to use. It was an easy to understand system. And our student, Suzee, was able to use the system at 6am, 11pm, and on weekends with less than a 15 min. wait - every time.

  • Josh

    This author has clearly not done his research on Portland, Oregon's public transportation. Portland is far more then "Bike friendly streets" We have an unbelievable light rail that covers the metro area in the West and East, and they just put one in for the South East. It connects commuters and even goes all the way to the airport. We also, have a street car that connects the downtown area and inner Portland locations. Finally, the city is now built around public transportation so it is all paint-by-numbers now. Oh and yes, we even have a few bike lanes. :)