This is my reply to an article on nowpublic where someone rated the top 10 transit systems. The post got a good bit of responses and I tossed in my 2 cents after someone requested to link some of my MTR photos to it.
The photostream this brought about is very impressive.
What Makes Good Transit?
The top 10 list of world transit would include no US transit systems. I'm not saying this to be snobby, I've worked on building or improving many of them in the US.
However, a good transit system requires four main components:
1. Wayfinding - A city with good transit is impossible to get lost in. Hong Kong, Tokyo, and Berlin fit this nicely. There are so many stations all attached to the system, that only minimal wandering is necessary before finding a station and re-orienting yourself. This is vital especially for Americans who are afraid of the small windy streets of HK or Tokyo. It is much easier to find your way around there because both cities have ample signage.
2. Coverage - A city with good transit makes it easy to get around without a car or a cab. This means enough of the city is covered by transit to make its use unavoidable.
3. Comprehesibility - When you look at a subway map, you need to know where you are and where you are going. For most US systems - which are mostly bus - this is very difficult even for experienced users. Headways in the US (length of time between buses) are seldom less than 20 minutes. This means you have long wait times and the need to micromanage your trip goes up. Transfers become more problematic. The selection of the perfect succession of buses becomes imperative. This increases your travel time beyond merely the travel - you have to invest time up front to figure out exactly when you need to appear in specific locations to make your trip. This drastically decreases the usability of the transit system. In many cities world wide transit is a convenience. In the US it is a hindrance.
4. Popularity - I have been a transit user in almost every major city in North America. I can't say any are personally popular with me. The top of the US for me are: Portland, Oregon - the Bay Area (only because BART finally goes to the airport) - Boston - Washington DC. But you can't really call any transit agency popular when our rider marketshare is so universally low. In Hong Kong, the cleanest place in town in the Subway. The MTR is clean, safe, efficient, convenient, and indispensible. It is extremely popular and universally used throughout by people from all income classes. It's also privately run.
Blogged at Gray Hill Harbor Offices in Seattle using Windows Live Writer