5 Best U.S. Cities for Taking the Bus or Train

PORTLAND, Ore. (TheStreet) -- Gas prices aren't a $4 nightmare anymore, but that $3.55 average price we're dealing with now isn't exactly inspiring General Motors to revive the Hummer, fill the tank and let drivers burn through the price of an average National Football League ticket.

As the latest Department of Energy numbers indicate, fuel prices have been inching steadily upward since hitting a low of $3.13 in November. Take it out to the West Coast and you're already looking at $3.80 a gallon.

Meanwhile, car use is slowly inching down as the days of $2 gas seem like a pipe dream. The share of new cars being bought by Americans between 18 and 34 is down 30% in the past five years, according to auto pricing site Edmunds.com. A Pew Research Center study notes that people under 35 bought 12% fewer cars than in 2010.

That's not just some recession leftover, either. The Department of Transportation notes that just 28% of 16-year-olds had driver's licenses in 2010, with just 45% of 17-year-olds claiming the same. That's plummeted from 50% and 66% respectively in 1978.

Overall, as DC Streets Blog and the Frontier Group and the U.S. Public Interest Research Group Education Fund point out, Americans are driving roughly 6% fewer miles than they were in 2004. That's partially, as Census Bureau data show, because more people are living in cities than they were a decade ago. It's also because fewer Americans want to put up with the $818 a year in lost time and gas money sucked away by the average commute, according to the Texas A&M Transportation Institute's Urban Mobility Report.

So what's the alternative? Transit! Now, before you get all huffy about having to buy cards, stand in line and adhere to schedules, there are a few perks in it for you. First off, the National Association of Realtors found that home values fared 42% better when they were located near public transit. As an American Public Transit Association survey discovered in Boston, homes near public transit outperformed the region by 129%.

Don't believe a transit group? Fine. According to AAA, not living near public transit costs you $9,859 in auto maintenance and fuel every year on average. That's basically what you'd spend on a $135,000 mortgage.

The good people at WalkScore, a site dedicated to determining and rating the density of amenities and resulting "walkability" of various cities, revised their list of top cities in the country for public transportation recently. While their list is limited to cities with populations of 500,000 or more, it provides a basic blueprint of what to look for in a smaller-scale transit city.

The following are the Top 5 cities on WalkScore's transit list:

5. Philadelphia
Transit score: 67

Philly manages to score above Chicago, Minneapolis/St. Paul and other cities with burgeoning transit systems, but gives the transit system that put it there nothing but grief.

Any tourist who's seen Independence Hall and stopped into a Wawa for Tastykakes and directions can tell you that the city's most walkable neighborhoods in Center City, the Old City and along the riverfront near Penn's Landing are some of the easiest to navigate in the country. What locals probably won't tell the average cheesesteak-chomping out-of-towner is just how easy it is to get around South Philly and its surrounding neighborhoods. Let the new folks have Manyunk and Northern Liberties if they must, but Brotherly Love has to end somewhere.

Except for the extreme northeast, southwest and northwest corners of the city, much of Philadelphia's fairly easy to get around. About 95% of the city is easily accessible by means other than a car.

But there's no shortage of cars in this town, and the city's conflicted relationship with the Southeastern Pennsylvania Transit Authority may have something to do with it. SEPTA's bus, subway, light rail and commuter rail services handles nearly 330 million passengers each, including travelers taking the airport line right into Center City -- but few who'll admit to taking it. Even worse, that's still less than the ridership of a Boston MBTA that covers a city nearly one-third Philadelphia's size and a metro area of about 1.5 million fewer people.

Bicycles, cabs and other alternative transportation picks up the slack, but the unfairly negative views of SEPTA held by Philadelphians and scared suburbanites alike prevents it from being an even more useful system.

4. Washington, D.C.
Transit Score: 70

If D.C. residents managed to score a place in Dupont Circle, Logan Circle, Downtown, Foggy Bottom, Mount Vernon Square or the U Street Corridor, just about everything they could ask for is within walking distance.

The neighborhoods get a big assist from D.C.'s Metro, which handles around 410 million riders on its buses and subways and takes a lot of the traffic and tourists off the road to Reagan International by bringing them there directly. The city's park space and long streets and blocks meant to draw people into its center make it pedestrian friendly by design, even if the original blueprints didn't call for high-speed vehicles and intersections that require good sneakers, stamina and sense of one's mortality.

That's great for Georgetown, Friendship Heights and Chevy Chase residents, whose neighborhoods are kind to the car free, but 20% of the city still needs a car to get around. Some of the improvements to rail stations and systems heading out to the suburbs have been greatly appreciated, but the nation's capital could do more to get commuters off its highways and lost, driving commuters off already clogged streets.

3. Boston
Transit Score: 75

Live in Boston and don't have a CharlieCard permanently fused to your wallet? What's the matter with you? Even with recent fare increases, the T is one of the best bargains in mass transit and a far better deal than New York's Metropolitan Transit Authority. What, just because Boston has a few World Series titles it doesn't like one-upping its Northeast Corridor rival anymore?

C'mon, Boston, you have it great. Your Commuter Rail is only a hassle because lots of people take it, your T is a bit slow on some of the trolley-laden green lines, but the orange, red and blue lines take more grief than their everyday speed and reliability warrants. Sheesh, residents of the Back Bay, Beacon Hill, the South End and Fenway whose neighborhoods weren't built for cars never have to take one.

In fact, this is a terrible city for driving. Streets stop halfway through town and pick up in a completely different location elsewhere. Few of the city's streets are laid out on anything resembling a grid. Somebody got the idea to slap the name Washington Street on every fifth street in Greater Boston. Former Mayor Thomas Menino called the town's winding streets "cow paths" because those Colonial-era roads started out as just that. It's great when it all comes together in a historic city that needed proximity and density to survive. It's terrible if you are ever forced to take the wheel in this town.

Thus, the oldest subway system in America has helped make it easier for Bostonians to get from place to place, but is an aging system whose grumpy riders might rather ride cattle if given the choice. The Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority moves more than 370 million riders through its light rail, commuter rail, ferries and buses each year, with 150 million of those riders taking a subway that has had portions running since 1897.

2. San Francisco
Walk Score: 80

Maybe Google employees prefer taking their glorified school buses off to campus, but the rest of the Bay Area makes due with a transit system that works out just fine for workers whose "do no evil" companies didn't opt for sprawling office parks.

This town was built on a small layout and has never been keen on letting the car expand its footprint. The city's compact, concise layout didn't take the car into consideration when it was incorporated in 1850 or rebuilt after the 1906 earthquake. Even while the rest of America was having a love affair with the car during the 1950s, local protesters were busy stopping freeways from running through town.

As a result, 17 of its neighborhoods rank among the top 150 most walkable in the country, with Chinatown and the Financial District sitting behind only New York's TriBeCa, SoHo and Little Italy. Only 1% of the city lives in areas dependent on cars.

This has made the city's mass transit especially vital. The Bay Area Rapid Transit subway system carries more than 100 million passengers each year and the San Francisco Municipal Railway takes on another 210 million. That doesn't include other commuter rail and bus service that adds more than 20 million riders to the mix.

1. New York
Transit Score: 81

How do you make an already great and useful system even better? By making the Second Avenue subway a reality instead of a fantasy.

Manhattan's 16 miles long and two miles wide and has been walkable since the days the only other transportation option involved an animal. Densely packed areas such as Brooklyn's Fort Green, Park Slope and Carroll Gardens and Bay Ridge, Queens' Sunnyside and Astoria/Long Island City and the South Bronx, University Heights and Fordham neighborhoods in the Bronx have caught up to Manhattan thanks to tightly packed areas that are only increasing in density.

The Metropolitan Transit Authority is feeling every bit of that growth, too. The MTA moves more than 3.2 billion riders with its buses and subways, with more than two-thirds of that total riding the rails. That doesn't even count the 81 million commuter rail riders taking the Metro-North, another 95 million on the Long Island Railroad, 4.3 million on the Staten Island Railway and millions more coming in from New Jersey on PATH and NJ Transit trains.

Not only the overwhelming majority of New York eminently walkable, but only 2% of all New Yorkers live in neighborhoods that require owning a car. While just about none of them live on Manhattan, the Second Avenue Subway on the island's East side opens up a whole lot more possibilities while pretty much closing the door on ever being able to afford an apartment in Manhattan right out of college.

-- Written by Jason Notte in Portland, Ore.

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Jason Notte is a reporter for TheStreet. His writing has appeared in The New York Times, The Huffington Post, Esquire.com, Time Out New York, the Boston Herald, the Boston Phoenix, the Metro newspaper and the Colorado Springs Independent. He previously served as the political and global affairs editor for Metro U.S., layout editor for Boston Now, assistant news editor for the Herald News of West Paterson, N.J., editor of Go Out! Magazine in Hoboken, N.J., and copy editor and lifestyle editor at the Jersey Journal in Jersey City, N.J.

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