Individual incentives for public transportation

Evidence Rating  
Some Evidence
Evidence rating: Some Evidence

Strategies with this rating are likely to work, but further research is needed to confirm effects. These strategies have been tested more than once and results trend positive overall.

Health Factors  
Decision Makers

Incentives such as free or discounted bus, rail, or transit passes reimbursements, partial payments1, or pre-tax payroll deductions2 decrease consumers’ cost to use public transportation. Incentives are typically offered by employers as a commuter benefit and can be part of transportation subsidy programs, deep discounting, or transit pass incentive programs1.

Expected Beneficial Outcomes (Rated)

  • Increased use of public transit

  • Increased physical activity

Other Potential Beneficial Outcomes

  • Increased active transportation

  • Reduced obesity rates

  • Increased mobility

  • Reduced vehicle miles traveled

  • Reduced emissions

Evidence of Effectiveness

There is some evidence that offering individual incentives for public transit increases public transit use1, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7. Such incentives can also increase physical activity for individuals who use non-motorized travel to and from transit stops8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13. However, additional evidence is needed to confirm effects.

Combining incentives such as discounted passes with improved transit service and higher private vehicle user fees (e.g., increased parking costs) can increase public transit use and reduce automobile use3, 14. Individual incentive programs that combine discounted transit passes with parking reimbursement15 and efforts to market incentives to employees can also increase transit use3. Transit pass incentive programs have been particularly successful in increasing use among college students5, 16. High gas prices17, 18, 19, not having children, and having a flexible schedule or one that matches transit availability also increase the likelihood of using a transit pass19.

Model-based research suggests that reducing fares may generate small increases in transit use, while increasing fares may significantly reduce use20. Overall, price sensitivity to fares depends on whether a traveler is transit dependent3, 21, the type of trip, time of day, and geographic conditions such as population density and the character of the built environment3. 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 riders22.

Transit users have higher levels of physical activity than non-transit users8, 23, 24. Incentives for public transit use have been shown to increase active travel options such as walking and cycling10, 25, which may reduce the likelihood of becoming obese9, 11.

Individual incentives are a suggested strategy to reduce single occupancy vehicle trips, vehicle miles traveled (VMT), and emissions4, 26, 27, 28, 29, and may be a cost effective strategy to reduce greenhouse gas emissions30. Public transportation systems produce significantly fewer emissions per passenger mile than private vehicles, especially when operating with full passenger loads31.

Incentive programs may increase transportation revenue27, reduce transportation costs for employers and individuals16, 27, and cost less than providing parking spaces for commuters15, 32.

Impact on Disparities

No impact on disparities likely

Implementation Examples

The federal government has a transportation subsidy program in place for any federal employee in the National Capital Region that uses public transportation to commute to work33. Some states (e.g., Oregon) award energy tax credits to businesses or organizations that offer financial incentives to encourage employees to use public transportation or alternatives to single occupancy vehicles for their commutes34. Municipalities can adopt transportation management plans that include incentives to encourage public transportation use, walking, or bicycling, and reduce single occupancy vehicle use, as in the City of Alexandria, Virginia35.

Other individual incentives, such as transit pass incentive programs for employers, students, and state or city employees are available in many municipalities, including Austin, TX; Seattle and Olympia, WA; Monroe County, PA; Nashville, TN; Portland, OR36, and Yolo County, CA37.

Implementation Resources

HPBD - Healthy Places by Design (HPBD). Advances community-led action and proven, place-based strategies to ensure health and wellbeing for all.

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

WisDOT-Public Transit - Wisconsin Department of Transportation (WisDOT). Travel by public transit.

VTPI-Litman 2017 - Litman T. Evaluating public transit benefits and costs: Best practices guidebook. Victoria, BC: Victoria Transport Policy Institute (VTPI); 2017.

SC DHEC-Air quality - South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control (SC DHEC). Your air.

NCTR-Commuter benefits - National Center for Transit Research (NCTR). Commuter tax benefits. Center for Urban Transportation Research (CUTR), University of South Florida (USF).


* Journal subscription may be required for access.

1 Bueno 2017 - Bueno PC, Gomez J, Peters JR, Vassallo JM. Understanding the effects of transit benefits on employees’ travel behavior: Evidence from the New York-New Jersey region. Transportation Research Part A: Policy and Practice. 2017;99:1-13.

2 NCTR-Commuter benefits - National Center for Transit Research (NCTR). Commuter tax benefits. Center for Urban Transportation Research (CUTR), University of South Florida (USF).

3 VTPI-Litman 2017a - Litman T. Transit price elasticities and cross-elasticities. Victoria, BC: Victoria Transport Policy Institute (VTPI); 2017.

4 Graham-Rowe 2011 - Graham-Rowe E, Skippon S, Gardner B, Abraham C. Can we reduce car use and, if so, how? A review of available evidence. Transportation Research Part A: Policy and Practice. 2011;45(5):401–18.

5 Zhou 2014a - Zhou J. From better understandings to proactive actions: Housing location and commuting mode choices among university students. Transport Policy. 2014;33:166-175.

6 Dong 2016a - Dong H, Ma L, Broach J. Promoting sustainable travel modes for commute tours: A comparison of the effects of home and work locations and employer-provided incentives. International Journal of Sustainable Transportation. 2016;10(6):485-494.

7 Yang 2015b - Yang L, Hipp JA, Adlakha D, et al. Choice of commuting mode among employees: Do home neighborhood environment, worksite neighborhood environment, and worksite policy and supports matter? Journal of Transport & Health. 2015;2(2):212-218.

8 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.

9 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.

10 Martin 2012 - Martin A, Suhrcke M, Ogilvie D. Financial incentives to promote active travel: an evidence review and economic framework. American Journal of Preventive Medicine. 2012;43(6):e45-57.

11 Webb 2012 - Webb E, Netuveli G, Millett C. Free bus passes, use of public transport and obesity among older people in England. Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health. 2012;66(2):176–80.

12 Hipp 2017 - Hipp JA, Dodson EA, Lee JA, et al. Mixed methods analysis of eighteen worksite policies, programs, and environments for physical activity. International Journal of Behavioral Nutrition and Physical Activity. 2017;14(1):79.

13 Freeland 2013 - Freeland AL, Banerjee SN, Dannenberg AL, Wendel AM. Walking associated with public transit: Moving toward increased physical activity in the United States. American Journal of Public Health. 2013;103(3):536-542.

14 Petrunoff 2015 - Petrunoff N, Rissel C, Wen LM, Martin J. Carrots and sticks vs carrots: Comparing approaches to workplace travel plans using disincentives for driving and incentives for active travel. Journal of Transport & Health. 2015;2(4):563-567.

15 Lari 2014 - Lari A, Douma F, Yang KL, Caskey K, Cureton C. Innovative parking pricing demonstration in the Twin Cities: Introducing flexibility and incentives to parking contracts. Minneapolis, MN: Center for Transportation Studies, University of Minnesota; 2014.

16 Myers 2006 - Myers G, Hagen DA, Russo T, et al. Benefits of campus transit pass: Study of student’s willingness to pay for proposed mandatory transit pass program. Transportation Research Record: Journal of the Transportation Research Board. 2006;1971:133-9.

17 Iseki 2015 - Iseki H, Ali R. Fixed-effects panel data analysis of gasoline prices, fare, service supply, and service frequency on transit ridership in 10 US urbanized areas. Transportation Research Record: Journal of the Transportation Research Board. 2015;2537:71-80.

18 Iseki 2014 - Iseki H, Ali R. Net effects of gasoline price changes on transit ridership in US urban areas. San Jose, CA: Mineta Transportation Institute (MTI); 2014.

19 Zhou 2011 - Zhou J, Schweitzer L. Getting drivers to switch: Transit price and service quality among commuters. Journal of Urban Planning and Development. 2011;137(4):477-83.

20 Chen 2011 - Chen C, Varley D, & Chen J. What affects transit ridership? A dynamic analysis involving multiple factors, lags and asymmetric behaviour. Urban Studies. 2011;48(9):1893-1908.

21 Miller 2017 - Miller C, Savage I. Does the demand response to transit fare increases vary by income? Transport Policy. 2017;55:79-86.

22 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.

23 Lachapelle 2009 - Lachapelle U, Frank LD. Transit and health: mode of transport, employer-sponsored public transit pass programs, and physical activity. Journal of Public Health Policy. 2009;30(Suppl 1):S73–94.

24 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.

25 Coronini-Cronberg 2012 - Coronini-Cronberg S, Millett C, Laverty AA, Webb E. The impact of a free older persons’ bus pass on active travel and regular walking in England. American Journal of Public Health. 2012;102(11):2141–8.

26 CDC-Transportation recommendation - Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Transportation recommendations.

27 RAND-Sorenson 2008 - Sorenson P, Wachs M, Min EY, et al. Moving Los Angeles: Short-term policy options for improving transportation. Santa Monica: RAND Corporation; 2008: Monograph Report 748.

28 Herzog 2007 - Herzog E, Bricka S, Audette L, Rockwell J. Do employee commuter benefits reduce vehicle emissions and fuel consumption? Results of Fall 2004 survey of best workplaces for commuters. Transportation Research Record: Journal of the Transportation Research Board. 2006;1956:34-41.

29 Su 2012 - Su Q, Zhou L. Parking management, financial subsidies to alternatives to drive alone and commute mode choices in Seattle. Regional Science and Urban Economics. 2012;42(1-2):88–97.

30 Gallivan 2011 - Gallivan F, Ang-Olson J, Liban CB, Kusumoto A. Cost-effective approaches to reduce greenhouse gas emissions through public transportation in Los Angeles, California. Transportation Research Record: Journal of the Transportation Research Board. 2011;2(2217):19-29.

31 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.

32 Shoup 2004 - Shoup DC. Eco passes: An evaluation of employer-based transit programs. Los Angeles: University of California Transportation Center (UCTC); 2004.

33 US DOT-TRANServe - US Department of Transportation (US DOT). TRANServe

34 ODOE-Transportation - Oregon Department of Energy (ODOE). Transportation.

35 Alexandria-TMPs - City of Alexandria, VA. Transportation & Environmental Services (T&ES): Transportation management plans (TMPs) - Special use permit.

36 TRB-Boyle 2010 - Boyle DK. TCRP Synthesis 82 - Transit fare arrangements for public employees: A synthesis of transit practice. Washington, DC: Transportation Research Board (TRB); 2010.

37 Yolo-TRIP - Yolo Commute. The Rideshare Incentive Program (TRIP). Yolo County, CA.

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