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Trust content from Portland Afoot, Vol. III

us_news_logoFunny story.

Back in February, when U.S. News and World Report named Portland’s transit system the best in the nation for our size, I was surprised, but thrilled to report the good news. I wanted to know where our network excelled the most, so I rang up the reporter who’d compiled the database to ask for her methodology.

No response.

I called again. I emailed. I even tweeted.

Finally, after three weeks’ pestering, I got the reporter on the horn for an odd conversation in which she said she didn’t remember how she’d made the calculation.

I asked if she could email me the data she used. She referred me to her editor, who refused, saying U.S. News has a policy against disclosing the data upon which it bases its journalism. (I am not making this up.)

I became a little obsessed. I spent an entire day downloading figures based on the reporter’s vague description of her methodology. I crunched a suite of four spreadsheets six ways to Sunday to figure out how Portland could have landed atop the list. Finally, exasperated, I put together my own version of the ranking based on her description. It put TriMet 7th in the nation. From the March issue of our magazine:

We’re #…1? named Portland’s transit system the nation’s best for its size Feb. 8 – confusing anyone who’s visited, say, the nation’s capital. Just one problem: U.S. News cited population data from 2000. When we recrunched the numbers, PDX ranked 7th overall: 8th in funding, 10th in ridership, 11th in safety. The real #1? NYC, of course.”

Meanwhile, TriMet was rolling out an $8,000 marketing effort around the #1 U.S. News ranking, apparently advertising it on 168 buses and trains.

Oops. As reported yesterday by The Oregonian, the #1 ranking was an error. It was corrected by U.S. News three months after the initial ranking and a few weeks after the blog Human Transit reported on my concerns about the ranking.

U.S. News now says Portland belongs at #5, behind Denver, New York, Los Angeles and Boston. The O’s Joe Rose reports that TriMet “is scrambling to pull the self-aggrandizing ads from public view.”

“This is unheard of,” TriMet’s spokeswoman told Rose.

Don’t get me wrong. Portland’s transit system is a good one, and I don’t blame TriMet for promoting itself. But it’s hard not to think here of Chris Distefano’s definition of a “Portland high five”:

Patting yourself on the back.

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