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Public transportation systems

Evidence Rating

Scientifically Supported

Health Factors

Public transportation systems include buses, trains, trams, trolleybuses, ferries, or rapid transit (e.g., light rail transit (LRT), bus rapid transit (BRT), or metro services) that are available for use by the general public and run on a scheduled timetable. Community-wide transportation systems are most common in urban areas and are often supported by federal and municipal funds (US DOT-FTA). 

Expected Beneficial Outcomes (Rated)

  • Increased access to public transit

  • Increased use of public transit

Other Potential Beneficial Outcomes

  • Increased physical activity

  • Reduced vehicle miles traveled

  • Reduced emissions

Evidence of Effectiveness

There is strong evidence that introducing or expanding public transportation systems in urban areas increases access to and use of public transit, especially in dense, centralized cities (, Baum-Snow 2005, Boarnet 2013, , , TRB-Polzin 2003). Introducing or expanding public transportation systems can also increase physical activity (Sener 2016, , MacDonald 2010), particularly when implemented as part of a multi-component land use approach (CG-Physical activity), and increase access to safe, healthy, convenient, and affordable transportation (CDC-Transportation, ).

Introducing new rail lines in urban areas can increase transit use in cities where many commuters drive to a central business district, and significantly reduce trip time for commuters and other travelers (Boarnet 2013, Baum-Snow 2005). Model-based research suggests that subsidizing and investing in public transportation infrastructure can also limit urban sprawl, reduce car use, and promote active transit (). Increases in use of public transit may be associated with increases in housing development near suburban rail stations ().

Transit users appear to have higher levels of physical activity than their peers (, ). Light rail transit (LRT) appears to increase physical activity (, MacDonald 2010), particularly for new riders (). LRT may also reduce body mass index (BMI) and decrease the likelihood of obesity (MacDonald 2010).

Reducing fares and increasing the frequency and quality of transit service appear to be the most effective ways to increase use of existing public transit systems (Taylor 2013, ). Frequent, reliable service with few transfers may also make public transit more appealing to drivers () and may increase rider satisfaction (). Real-time bus tracking may modestly increase ridership and revenue (), and improve rider satisfaction (, ). Distance-based fare reductions may increase ridership among low income households and elderly and minority individuals, who often use public transit to travel shorter distances than wealthier, younger, or white riders ().

Public transportation systems produce significantly lower emissions per passenger mile than private vehicles, especially when operating with full passenger loads (US DOT-FTA Transit and climate). Introducing or expanding a LRT system can reduce vehicle miles traveled (VMT) and greenhouse gas emissions among households living within half a mile of a LRT station (Boarnet 2013). Emissions reductions for LRT and bus rail transit (BRT) systems can be affected by local regulations and component technologies ().

Expanding public transportation infrastructure may decrease disparities in access to services, employment, and recreation opportunities for individuals with low incomes, individuals with disabilities, and the elderly (CDC-Active living strategies 2013). However, new public transportation stops can make a neighborhood more attractive, leading to increased rents and, potentially, displacement of long-time residents if policies to preserve affordable housing are not in place (MAPC-Displacement).

Public transportation (bus, rail, and general transit) accounted for 0.4% of US transportation fatalities in 2015 (US DOT-BTS Fatalities). 

Impact on Disparities

Likely to decrease disparities

Implementation Examples

US transit systems were used for 10.5 billion passenger trips in 2015; buses accounted for roughly half of all passenger trips (ASCE-2017 Report card). In 2013, just over 55% of US households reported having access to public transportation; access was highest in Northern and Western cities and lowest in Southern cities (ASCE-2013 Report card).

Many municipalities have introduced or expanded public transportation systems. New York, NY (NYC MTA); San Francisco, CA (SF MTA); Boston, MA (MBTA); Washington, DC (WMATA); Philadelphia, PA (SEPTA); Chicago, IL (CTA); Seattle, WA (Seattle Transit); Baltimore, MD (Maryland MTA); Los Angeles, CA (LA Metro); and Portland, OR (TriMet) are examples of cities with heavily used, multi-faceted systems.

As of 2016, most states receive some federal subsidies for mass transit (AASHTO Transportation Funding 2016).

Implementation Resources

ALBD - Active Living by Design (ALBD). Increasing physical activity and healthy eating through community design.

APHA-Transportation toolkit - American Public Health Association (APHA). APHA online toolkit: Transportation and health toolkit.

TDM-Public transit - TDM Encyclopedia. Public transit improvements. Victoria Transport Policy Institute.

APTA-Resources - American Public Transportation Association (APTA). Resource library.

ESPA - Easter Seals Project ACTION (ESPA). Accessible community transportation in our nation.

ULI Building healthy places - Urban Land Institute (ULI) Building Healthy Places Initiative. Building healthy places toolkit: Strategies for enhancing health in the built environment.

APTA-Transit facts - American Public Transportation Association (APTA). Where Public Transportation Goes Community Grows. Transit facts at a glance.

Citations - Evidence

* Journal subscription may be required for access.

CG-Physical activity - The Guide to Community Preventive Services (The Community Guide). Physical activity.

MacDonald 2010 - MacDonald JM, Stokes RJ, Cohen DA, Kofner A, Ridgeway GK. The effect of light rail transit on body mass index and physical activity. American Journal of Preventive Medicine. 2010;39(2):105-12.

Su 2008* - Su Q, DeSalvo JS. The effect of transportation subsidies on urban sprawl. Journal of Regional Science. 2008;48(3):567-94.

Taylor 2013 - Taylor JC, Johnson RK. Farm to school as a strategy to increase children's fruit and vegetable consumption in the United States: Research and recommendations. Nutrition Bulletin. 2013;38(1):70-9.

CDC-Transportation - Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). CDC transportation recommendations - brief.

CDC-Active living strategies 2013 - Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). A practitioner's guide for advancing health equity, community strategies for preventing chronic disease: Active living strategies. Atlanta: US Department of Health and Human Services (US DHHS); 2013.

Baum-Snow 2005 - Baum-Snow N, Kahn ME. Effects of urban rail transit expansions: Evidence from sixteen cities, 1970–2000. Brookings-Wharton Papers on Urban Affairs. 2005;(6):147.

TRB-Polzin 2003 - Polzin SE, Page OA. Ridership trends of new start rail projects. Transportation Research Circular E-C058: 9th National Light Rail Transit Conference. Transportation Research Board (TRB); 2003.

Taylor 2009* - Taylor BD, Miller D, Iseki H, Fink C. Nature and/or nurture? Analyzing the determinants of transit ridership across US urbanized areas. Transportation Research Part A: Policy and Practice. 2009;43(1):60-77.

TRB-Puchalsky 2005* - Puchalsky CM. Comparison of emissions from light rail transit and bus rapid transit. Transportation Research Record: Journal of the Transportation Research Board. 2005;1927(1):31-37.

Boarnet 2013 - Boarnet MG, Hong A, Lee J, et al. The exposition light rail line study: A before-and-after study of the impact of new light rail transit service. University of Southern California. 2013.

Wener 2007* - Wener RE, Evans GW. A morning stroll: Levels of physical activity in car and mass transit commuting. Environment and Behavior. 2007;39(1):62-74.

Cao 2014* - Cao X, Schoner J. The influence of light rail transit on transit use: An exploration of station area residents along the Hiawatha line in Minneapolis. Transportation Research Part A: Policy and Practice 2014;59:134-143.

TRB-Callaghan 2007* - Callaghan L, Vincent W. Preliminary evaluation of metro orange line bus rapid transit project. Transportation Research Record: Journal of the Transportation Research Board. 2007;2034(1):37-44.

US DOT-BTS Fatalities - US Department of Transportation (US DOT), Research and Innovative Technology Administration, Bureau of Transportation Statistics (BTS). National Transportation Statistics: Transportation fatalities. Washington, DC.

US DOT-FTA Transit and climate - US Department of Transportation (US DOT), Federal Transit Administration (FTA). Public transportation's role in responding to climate change. 2010.

MAPC-Displacement - Metropolitan Area Planning Council (MAPC) Massachusetts. Dimensions of Displacement: Baseline data for managing neighborhood change in Somerville's Green Line Corridor. 2014.

Saelens 2014* - Saelens BE, Vernez Moudon A, Kang B, Hurvitz PM, Zhou C. Relation between higher physical activity and public transit use. American Journal of Public Health. 2014;104(5):854-859.

Brown 2015a* - Brown BB, Werner CM, Tribby CP, Miller HJ, Smith KR. Transit use, physical activity, and body mass index changes: Objective measures associated with complete street light-rail construction. American Journal of Public Health. 2015;105(7):1468-1474.

Dong 2016* - Dong H. If you build rail transit in suburbs, will development come? Journal of the American Planning Association. 2016;82(4):316-326.

Brakewood 2014* - Brakewood C, Barbeau S, Watkins K. An experiment evaluating the impacts of real-time transit information on bus riders in Tampa, Florida. Transportation Research Part A: Policy and Practice. 2014;69:409-422.

Brakewood 2015* - Brakewood C, Macfarlane GS, Watkins K. The impact of real-time information on bus ridership in New York City. Transportation Research Part C: Emerging Technologies. 2015;53:59-75.

Farber 2014* - Farber S, Bartholomew K, Li X, Páez A, Nurul Habib KM. Assessing social equity in distance based transit fares using a model of travel behavior. Transportation Research Part A: Policy and Practice. 2014;67:291-303.

Chakrabarti 2017* - Chakrabarti S. How can public transit get people out of their cars? An analysis of transit mode choice for commute trips in Los Angeles. Transport Policy. 2017;54:80-89.

Wan 2016* - Wan D, Kamga C, Liu J, Sugiura A, Beaton EB. Rider perception of a “light” Bus Rapid Transit system - The New York City Select Bus Service. Transport Policy. 2016;49:41-55.

Sener 2016 - Sener IN, Lee RJ, Elgart Z. Potential health implications and health cost reductions of transit-induced physical activity. Journal of Transport & Health. 2016;3(2):133-140.

Citations - Implementation Examples

* Journal subscription may be required for access.

ASCE-2013 Report card - American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE). 2013 Report card for America’s infrastructure findings. 2013.

NYC MTA - New York City Metropolitan Transportation Authority (NYC MTA). Transit information.

SF MTA - San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency (SF MTA). Transportation choices.

MBTA - Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority (MBTA). Transit information.

WMATA - Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA). Transit information.

SEPTA - Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority (SEPTA). Transit information.

CTA - Chicago Transit Authority (CTA). Travel info.

Seattle Transit - City of Seattle. Transit.

Maryland MTA - Maryland Department of Transportation Transit Administration (Maryland MTA). Transit information.

LA Metro - Los Angeles Metro (LA Metro). Transit information.

TriMet - TriMet. TriMet provides bus, light rail, and commuter rail transit services in the Portland, Oregon metro area.

ASCE-2017 Report card - American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE). 2017 Infrastructure report card: Transit report.

AASHTO Transportation Funding 2016 - American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials (AASHTO). Survey of state funding for public transportation, final report 2016, based on FY 2014 data.

Date Last Updated

Jun 29, 2017