The Benefits of Public Transportation

Understanding the Many Benefits of Public Transit

Worldwide, transit plays a huge role in moving the human race. Despite automotive inroads, it’s still true that fewer than ten percent of the planet’s people own cars. That makes buses and trains transport mainstays for most of the globe. In India, bus trips account for about 40 percent of urban journeys. In Moscow, over 85 percent of motorized trips are on transit. Even in car-dependent countries like the U.S., millions of people ride transit. About 35 million U.S. citizens use transit on a regular basis, including ten million who use it every workday. In transit-rich cities like New York and Chicago, transit carries up to 70 to 90 percent of travelers into and out of central business districts. All this travel has a range of advantages over using cars.

Public transportation cuts congestion and pollution

During World War II, when saving energy meant survival, governments encouraged used of transit and carpools as a way to conserve. “Fill those empty seats!” exhorted Uncle Sam posters. “Car sharing is a ‘MUST’!” Transit’s energy-saving potential is indeed high. In general, transit uses fewer British thermal units (BTUs, a measure of energy) per passenger mile than do cars and light trucks. While a single-occupant car uses over 5,000 BTUs per passenger-mile, a train car carrying 19 people uses about 2,300 and a bus carrying the same number only about 1,000. Transit can also cut emissions. Going by bus instead of by car cuts nitrogen oxide pollution by 25 percent, carbon monoxide by 80 percent, and hydrocarbons by 90 percent per passenger mile. Taking rail cuts nitrogen oxide by 77 percent and carbon monoxide and hydrocarbons by more than 99 percent. While some transit may be more polluting- diesel buses, for example, emit high levels or particular matter-growing numbers of cleaner transit vehicles are far better. Buses powered by compressed natural gas (CNG), for instance, produce almost no particular pollution. And putting more trains and buses in congested urban corridors cuts traffic and increases travel speeds for both transit riders and motorists. One full 40-foot bus will take 58 cars off the road, which would otherwise clog 68 city blocks at 15 m.p.h. As a slogan for British Columbia’s transit agency says, “Relieve Clogged Arteries, Go Transit.”

Transit saves land

Unlike freeways, which disperse development as sprawl, transit – especially rail- encourages compact development. This also saves money and energy and cuts pollution, since less sprawl requires less infrastructure. Where cities introduce rail, “an immediate process of urban consolidation begins,” writes Australian experts Peter Newman and Jeff Kenworth. After Vancouver’s Skytrain was build, for instance, new development began to cluster around several stations. At New Westminster, about 14 miles (22 kilometers) from downtown Vancouver, new housing and commercial space joined an older town center and rebuilt public market to revitalize the station area. Development also clustered around he Metrotown station, which has a center with hotel, theaters, apartments, and shops linked to the station with raised pedestrian concourse.

Transit helps increase jobs and the economy

One study estimates a $3 to $3.50 increase in business revenues for every dollar invested in transit. A study by Bates College economist David Aschauer showed that transit investments improved productivity possibly twice as much as road building. Aschauer’s conclusion: “Public transportation spending carries more potential to stimulate long-run economic growth than does highways spending.” Labor-intensive transit creates local jobs, and more of them. Spending a billion dollars on transit creates more than 7,000 more jobs than spending a billion on roads. And by providing low-cost access to jobs, transit has been an important part of helping people transition from welfare to work. For instance, the suburban communities of Deerfield and Northbrook, Illinois, have used transit vans that shuttle between a commuter rail station and local businesses, transporting workers from Chicago’s inner city who would otherwise have no access to suburban jobs. 

Public transportation saves money

Transit users spend from about $200 to $2,000 a year for travel, much less than the usual cost of a car. It’s possible to compare fuel costs to transit fares and not see much difference, but that ignore the fixed costs of driving. With fixed costs included, transit often comes out cheaper, and can even cost less than out-of-pocket driving expenses alone. The 120-mile round trip I used to take from Santa Rosa to San Francisco cost $8.00 on the bus; driving cost about $5 for gas, $2 for bridge toll, and anywhere from $2 to $16 for parking. That’s a minimum of $9 out-of-pocket, likely more. Depreciation and other ownership expenses would raise the car trip’s cost to at least $21; that $8.00 bus fare looks better all the time. Trains too, can save money. Especially on shorter trips, Amtrak fares are often comparable to out-of-pocket driving costs and cheaper than flying.

Transit saves time, hassle and lives

Leaving the driving to someone else might mean a longer trip overall, but you can spend the time doing something else: reading, writing a letter, catching up on world, having quality time with your kids. Sometimes, too, transit can be faster than driving by car…And according to the National Safety Council; transit is one of the safest ways to travel. Where the average death rate per 100 million passenger miles is about 0.95 for autos, it drops to 0.04 for trains and 0.01 for buses. 

Public transportation restores community and equity

Transit can help restore community by bringing people out of meta-box isolation and into more contact with one another. Transit gives a wide range of people safe, independent mobility, helping integrate your, old, poor, disabled, and other non-drivers more fully into community life. Without transit, such people fall through the cracks. Instead of fostering road rage, using transit encourages common courtesy. And because of the way transit influences land use, it can help communities be more cohesive by nature of their compactness. Shared transportation is also the most equitable way a society can provide mobility to people, regardless of income, age, and ability. This equity can be cost-effective in unexpected ways. When Orange County, California, looked at cutting transit vans for seniors, an analysis showed that without the vans, many elderly users might be forced into nursing homes at an annual public cost of $35,000 per person. The vans allowed many of these people to stay in their own homes. 


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