The Ann Arbor Transportation Authority has a vision for the future–but the present already looks pretty good compared to most places.

After a yearlong process that included hiring a national consulting firm, conducting an online poll of planning options, and holding public forums, the AATA recently announced it wants to transform itself into a regional authority to implement a thirty-year “smart growth” plan. That plan, estimated to cost nearly half a billion dollars, includes countywide mass transit and rapid rail to Metro Airport.

The AATA is spending $300,000 on PR during its “master transit plan” public campaign, but to date it’s missed its arguably best selling point: when it comes to riding the bus, Ann Arbor puts other places to shame.

In 2010, folks rode The Ride 5.7 million times, while the U-M’s blue buses carried another 6 million riders. Since some of the most popular AATA routes go to Ypsilanti and environs, we estimate that its service area includes about 150,000 people. Divide that into those 11.7 million rides, and you’ll arrive at a figure of seventy-eight annual rides per capita.

How do other places in Michigan measure up to this bus-friendly rate? They don’t. For instance, DDOT–Detroit’s bus system, the state’s most traveled and most maligned public transit system–logs about 36 million rides a year. But even in its shrunken state the city has 713,000 people, so that’s just fifty rides per capita. Want to consider the SMART buses, which serve the entire metro area? They serve communities with more than 4 million people but carry just 12 million passengers in a year, or less than three per capita. No wonder they call it the Motor City.

Other Michigan cities also lag behind. Grand Rapids, with more than 200,000 people, sees around 8.5 million bus rides a year–forty-two per capita. Kalamazoo, with its two universities, gets 2.2 million riders a year–or about thirty-one per person. In fact, the only place in the state that comes close to Ann Arbor is the land of the Spartans. MSU, with its far-flung campus, once had its own bus system, but it was absorbed by the Capital Area Transportation Authority. CATA recorded 11.3 million rides last year, almost as many as AATA-plus-U-M. But the population of Lansing and East Lansing combined is about 160,000, so Blue wins this match by a squeaker: seventy-eight per capita to Green’s seventy-one.

What about university towns in other states? Last year, Madison, Wisconsin, had more than 13 million bus trips in a city of 236,000–about fifty-five per capita. Eugene, home to the University of Oregon, has 210,000 people including neighboring Springfield served by an area bus system that accommodates 10 million riders annually–forty-eight rides per capita.

So when it comes to buses, Ann Arbor wins our bracket. It just doesn’t get quite the buzz it deserves.

“Ann Arbor has a world-class transportation system,” says Eli Cooper, transportation program manager for the city. “It’s great in terms of the quality of the equipment, the professionalism of the operators–and the buses generally run on time. When you combine something that great with a progressive community culture, where people make conscious decisions to save energy by using mass transit, you’ve got something to celebrate.”

Of course, even here mass transit sometimes takes a back seat to other priorities, like parking. Asked in mid-April when the incoming 12B bus would stop detouring down First Avenue and resume its route through Kerrytown along Catherine, the driver said, “When they fix that pothole on Fifth!