Accessibility Observatory to provide annual rankings for cities

(reprinted from CTS Catalyst November 2013: Accessibility Observatory to provide annual rankings for cities)


Major American cities get a report card each year on their mobility, focusing chiefly on how fast motorists can drive on their highways. In coming years, however, cities will have another way of understanding their transportation systems thanks to the work of the Accessibility Observatory at the University of Minnesota.

The new Observatory will go beyond congestion rankings to focus on accessibility: a measure that examines both land use and the transportation system.

“Focusing solely on mobility and traffic delay doesn’t provide a complete picture of how thetraffic system is functioning,” says Professor David Levinson, the RP Braun/CTS Chair in Transportation and principal investigator for the Observatory. “Travelers may be able to reach their desired destinations in a reasonable amount of time despite congestion because their cities have greater density of activities. In short, these travelers enjoy better access to destinations.”

The Accessibility Observatory, a program of CTS and the Department of Civil Engineering (CE), will focus on the research and application of accessibility based transportation system evaluation. It will be guided by a threefold mission:

  • To advance the field of transportation system evaluation through research of new data sources and methods for accessibility evaluation.
  • To develop standards and tools to facilitate the use and communication of accessibilitybased metrics in transportation planning, engineering, and evaluation.
  • To apply its tools and expertise in support of continual improvements in the planning, design, engineering, and analysis of transportation systems.

The Observatory’s initial goal will be the development, application, and continuous improvement of a system for multimodal accessibility evaluation, says Andrew Owen, the Observatory’s director and a CE research fellow. Outputs from this system will be publicized through annual reports summarizing trends in accessibility across major U.S. metropolitan areas.

The first such report came out this past spring. Access Across America, published by CTS, evaluated the accessibility provided by the road and highway systems in 51 U.S. metropolitan areas. “The study was the first systematic comparison of accessibility to jobs by car,” Levinson says. “It demonstrated the feasibility and the value of applying consistent accessibility evaluation methods across many cities.”

The Access Across America report was widely cited by transportation policy practitioners and commentators. For example, Reihan Salam of the National Review Online wrote that focusing on “accessibility rather than infrastructure spending levels as such will get us much closer to tackling the frustrations that plague commuters.”


Access Across America provided aggregate metro-level accessibility metrics. The Accessibility Observatory will expand on this work by providing accessibility evaluations that can be analyzed at much smaller areas, Owen explains.

The Accessibility Observatory will also build on earlier work conducted at the University of Minnesota, including the Access to Destinations research study. The study, a multi-phase, multidisciplinary effort incorporating theoretical as well as practical research, built local expertise and prepared the University for next steps into the future of accessibility research and evaluation. CTS led the study; funding sponsors included the Minnesota Department of Transportation, Hennepin County, and the McKnight Foundation, in cooperation with the Metropolitan Council.

CTS is creating and hosting a new mobile-friendly and dynamic website for the Observatory. The site includes an interactive map/calculator, research reports, and other materials.

Related Links