Clean Transport

Published on July 23rd, 2015 | by James Ayre


Report: Public Transit Systems Provide Significant, Varied Benefits

July 23rd, 2015 by  

In a finding that will surprise practically no one, a recent report — from Christopher E Ferrell at the Mineta Transportation Institute — has found that public transit systems in the US provide very notable and varied net benefits to the regions where they operate.

The report — The Benefits of Transit in the United States: A Review and Analysis of Benefit-Cost Studies — is the result of an analysis/review of economic evaluation studies examining the estimated benefit/cost ratios of various US public transit systems (spread across the nation).


Here are some of the most notable points made in the new report:

  • Transit system benefits, in general, very substantially eclipse associated costs in rural and/or small urban regions — not only in large cities.
  • Transit systems usually pay for themselves even with regard to only congestion-relief benefits — with regard to middle- to large-sized urban regions.
  • Amongst all of the associated benefits, economic stimulus + new jobs are amongst the top for transit systems.
  • Public healthcare access and outcomes seem to improve, along with an apparent reduction in costs. (It seems likely to me that confounding factors are involved in the apparent reduction.)
  • Public transit systems save a lot of people money — this especially seems to be the case in larger urban areas where more people can rely on such systems without limitations being an issue.
  • Public transit systems of course result in less automobile use, and therefore fewer fatal auto accidents — thus saving lives and reducing public health costs.

Those interested in reading (or perusing) the new report can find it here. Enjoy.

Image Credit: Charlotte Lynx

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About the Author

's background is predominantly in geopolitics and history, but he has an obsessive interest in pretty much everything. After an early life spent in the Imperial Free City of Dortmund, James followed the river Ruhr to Cofbuokheim, where he attended the University of Astnide. And where he also briefly considered entering the coal mining business. He currently writes for a living, on a broad variety of subjects, ranging from science, to politics, to military history, to renewable energy. You can follow his work on Google+.

  • Dan_Burr
  • Travis

    I’d prefer any transit system setup be fully electric, and not very capital intensive (bus rapid transit with dedicated lanes rather than huge train investments with custom infrastructure). Other than long distance trips, transit systems will be made obsolete by automated driving as a service. Practically all trips will be done in single passenger vehicles designed for minimal energy use and the fastest arrival latency, on existing roads.

    • Coboll

      I think it will be hard to meet our population growth targets without mass public transit in the future.

      • Travis

        Autonomous vehicles will obviate the need for mass transit, as autonomous cars will have higher throughput with the same roads. There will be single occupancy vehicles that are smaller so we can fit more per unit of road, because there will be no need for lanes if the cars can handshake and agree not to hit each other but still stay relatively close. Handshaking will also allow for faster speeds while still maintaining safety which also increases throughput. It will also solve the last mile problem which is a big drawback of transit. That said, cars won’t be the only factor in mobility. I do think we should design the centers of cities to adjust to encourage more green space (walking, bicycles, personal electric mobility at lower speeds). Finally, like mentioned above, there will be some need for buses/airplanes/hyperloop like solutions for longish trips.

        • Coboll

          You envision major cities with no buses, trains, subways, or light rail – just self-driving cars?

          • Travis

            obviates the need for almost all mass-transit other than long trips between cities (planes/hyperloop like scenarios).

        • BethRFinch

          But one bus can hold, say, 60 riders. Even if they are small, 60 autonomous cars will take up more room than that. And that doesn’t even include the beneficial effect of subways and elevated trains, which travel on a totally separate “highway.”

          • Travis

            first, make a separate elevated train/subway a a road instead, so that autonomous cars can use it. for the increased throughput from buses argument, how much time/effort does it take to get you to that bus/train on time and reliably? i take the bus every day and 1. it isn’t that full even though it is an express and 2. it doesn’t reliably leave on time and 3. it takes time for me to get to that location and last mile time afterwards to get off. Sure, the last mile gets easier with autonomous cars but any switch is overhead. Autonomous cars will provide the throughput increase for same roads (i’d guess about 5 fold). Anyways, my point is the economics and latency will obviate almost all mass transit, unless the route is *very* highly trafficked (economics) and leaves every couple minutes (latency), or if the distance is long. That means we certainly should not be investing in huge, capital intensive, prone to delays/cost inflating projects for mass transit. Focus on buses+bus rapid transit principles for the short term. Then get rid of the buses/dedicated lanes when they are no longer needed and you haven’t spent that much/wasted time in money that should have been getting us faster to autonomous cars.

          • BethRFinch

            In heavy traffic areas, I prefer mass transit. When I go into a large urban area (say, San Francisco), I prefer taking the train. I avoid the crunched highways with the solo drivers, and when I get to the city, I can catch a cab to my final destination. The cab ride alone saves me a bundle in parking fees. And the train fare is much cheaper than that 50 cents a mile it costs to operate my car. I seriously doubt that you will get many autonomous cars on the road in the near term. First, a large proportion of the population would have to buy them — after they go into mass production. And second, most people hold on to their cars for at least ten years… and often longer. So even if 85% of the population bought them at some time, it still would take at least ten years to make much of a difference… if any. Cars on the road are still cars on the road, even if they drive themselves. You say they would be smaller, but families don’t buy small cars. Heck, I’m single, and I drive a sedan because I need the room for garden supplies, hardware, groceries, suitcases, etc. … not to mention my friends and family. Driving closer together won’t mean much during commute hours, when the crunch happens, because people already are bumper-to-bumper. How much closer can they get?

          • Travis

            You are right it will take a while, that much more important to not waste money on capex intensive mass transit projects. We won’t own cars. We will order them as a service a la Uber, but without the drivers. Also means use your garage space for something useful not storing your car. if you want to order a car to pick up an item from grocery store/etc (assuming you don’t order it remotely and have it sent to you), you can order one of those at greater cost per trip, but at that point we are not talking about mass transit (one rarely brings their garden supplies/groceries on the bus, especially in the most density constrained corridors). The main question is: do buses/trains add to the throughput of a corridor or not when compared with handshaking autonomous cars that are quite close to each other (maybe not bumper to bumper, as you say). If so, i say it is negligible without the drawbacks of having to switch from car to bus to car again in the last mile. i also think trips should charge on which roads are the most expensive to maintain/have most traffic to allow you to make the best choice given a target function that includes cost and latency. thanks for your perspective.

          • BethRFinch

            You’re welcome. Thanks for yours, too.

          • neroden

            I don’t think you understand the roadspace problem. It’s simply a fact that trains vastly add to the throughput of a corridor over “handshaking autonomous cars” (which are vaporware). Trains are also much more energy-efficient than rubber-tired vehicles.

            Trains only make sense when you’ve got lots and lots and lots and lots of people to move — several hundred at a time, minimum. When you do have that level of demand, you cannot do better than trains.

          • Travis

            if you consider autonomous cars vaporware then how can you assert any fact about comparing them to anything else?
            Assuming they are not vaporware or at least we can contemplate how they would work. For throughput, keep in mind trains still have a large of amount of distance between each train, and take up the width of two or more small single occupancy cars. I would still argue the throughput difference would be minimal, considering handshaking cars at 60 mph need not have a distance of more than 15 feet between each other, maybe less, with little need to slow down because they have worked out the optimal allocation to ensure maximum throughput.
            Energy efficiency is a valid concern. Light-weighting composites and smaller cars (suited to carrying only as many passengers as necessary, almost always one) will mean rolling resistance is practically a nonfactor at low-ish speeds (50-60 mph).

  • Thanks for the heads up. I’ll read the report. Those of us who live in crowded cities know that homes near transit and workplaces accessible by public transportation are valued more highly than those not. If you don’t believe me, here’s what realtors say:

    The figure below is Chicago’s hub and spoke system. EVs including cars (user owned or not) and buses have a huge potential to connect all those people living within transit spokes. To connect to rail transit or to go from suburb to suburb. Chicago’s loop (business center) is experiencing a boom for office and residential building.

    • eveee

      Yes. Chicago has a pretty good transit system. Chicago seems to be undergoing a transition common to many large cities. Concentration near transit hubs and a reduction of sprawl. Public transit is a part of that.

      • Coboll

        I think you man, “a lessoning of sprawl growth”. No suburbs are closing down or getting smaller as a result of “infill”.

        • neroden

          In shrinking cities, suburbs *are* closing down (turning rural), but that’s another matter…

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