Mass Transit Essay

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Mass transit, sometimes referred to as public transit or public transport, describes public and private systems that carry groups of people in a variety of vehicular configurations, called modes. Typical modes include the bus, rail rapid or heavy rail, commuter rail, light rail, and automated guideway systems. The bus, often powered by diesel fuel, typically operates in mixed traffic on city streets, although dedicated bus lanes are also found. Recent innovations include hybrid diesel-electric vehicles and technologies such as automatic vehicle location using global positioning systems (GPS), electronic fare collection, and traffic signal priority systems. Bus rapid transit (BRT) describes a system of vehicular, operational, and station improvements designed to reduce travel times and improve the trip experience.

Rail rapid (also called “heavy rail”) refers to high-capacity and high-speed systems operating on a dedicated right-of-way using third-rail electric power and self-powered cars. Examples include the New York City subway, Washington Metro, and London Underground. These systems are expensive to construct but have the greatest carrying capacity. For example, Washington Metro, which opened in 1976 and has more than 100 miles of track, cost approximately $10 billion. Commuter rail systems operate on dedicated or shared (with freight service) railways and often focus on connecting cities and suburbs. These trains may be pulled by electric or diesel engines, or they may be self-propelled.

Light rail transit (LRT) is the current evolution of the streetcar, tram, or trolley. These rail vehicles are lighter in weight than conventional rail cars and are self-propelled. LRT systems can run on city streets as well as on separate right-of-ways. Popular in Europe for decades, light rail is becoming popular in the United States, with more than 15 new systems installed since 1980. Most LRT systems run in two- to four-car trains and use overhead wire for electric service, eliminating the need for expensive at-ground third-rail power.

Automated guideway transit (AGT) refers to driverless and highly automated operations typically found in high activity centers that span long distances, such as airports. They operate on completely separate guideways, sometimes labeled “horizontal elevators.” Airports, such as Dallas-Fort Worth and Atlanta, have AGT systems. Vancouver, Canada, has the longest automated system in the world, SkyTrain. This urban transit operation is more than 49 kilometers long with 33 stations.

The Long-Range Viability of Mass Transit

Mass transit offers many benefits but generally requires public subsidies to operate. These subsidies are sometimes large and can face political opposition. Amtrak, the U.S. national rail passenger network, faces continual battles over its federal subsidy. Mass transit is environmentally friendly, since energy use is typically less per distance traveled than the automobile. However, transit requires sufficient population densities to operate efficiently in metropolitan areas. Typical U.S. suburban configurations, and increasingly those in other countries, often develop at densities below what is required for successful transit operation. An automobile-dominant culture offers many people a convenient alternative to mass transit, but it penalizes those without access to a vehicle. Transit is important to the carless, often poor, disabled, or elderly. For example, the U.S. urban poor (those households with incomes less than $20,000 in 2001) made four times as many trips by transit than their wealthier counterparts. Carless populations in urban areas can often access transit services. Low-density suburban and rural areas cannot support transit, and households without access to a vehicle are at a serious disadvantage.

Changes in transit ridership levels over time vary widely. Typically, declines in public transit use accompany increases in automobile ownership, but this is not always true. Three different cases—Eastern Europe, China, and the United States—highlight the current situation. In Eastern Europe, cities showed declines in the percentage of trips made by public transit between 1980 and 2000, from around 80 percent to little more than half. Accompanying these declines were increases in per capita income and auto ownership and decentralization of populations from cities to suburbs.

China, however, moved away from nonmotorized travel (walking and biking) toward public transit. While nonmotorized trips in Chinese cities declined during the period from 1996 to 2004, transit trips increased nearly 70 percent. This substantial increase in transit ridership is partly a response to longer trips created by population and job decentralization: biking and walking are no longer possible. Also, private automobile ownership jumped between 1990 and 1998 from 1.6 million to 6.5 million—nearly 400 percent—and the growth continues. Matching China’s rapidly increasing auto ownership is traffic congestion, following the pattern of Western countries. Ironically, some cities now discourage use of the bicycle, long a major travel mode, on major roadways to make way for the automobile.

Transit ridership trends in the United States vary widely by mode. Overall, transit ridership rose from 8.8 billion trips in 1990 to 9.6 billion trips in 2004, a gain of 9 percent. The bulk of these transit trips are on the bus, 5.7 billion in 2004. Bus, commuter rail, and rail rapid riderships have not increased substantially since 1990. However, light rail jumped from 175 million trips in 1990 to 350 million trips in 2004, or 200 percent. In spite of this LRT success story, only a small portion of daily trips in the United States occur by public transit: 4.7 percent of all work trips in 2000, down from 5.3 percent in 1990. This low transit use continually faces the challenge of an auto-dominated culture, a fascination with the freedom and status attached to the automobile that other countries emulate.

Beyond its role in serving the disadvantaged and the negative impact of low-density development, transit faces new challenges in safety and security, particularly since the Madrid train bombing that killed 191 people in 2004. Unfortunately, public transit facilities and vehicles are open environments with many stops and stations, making a secure system difficult to implement. Also, the use of transit for emergency evacuations is another recent public safety concern. Hurricane Katrina in 2006, for example, illustrated the need for viable transit operations that can respond quickly and systemically to emergencies.

Urban transit use worldwide faces a continual struggle against increasing auto ownership and suburbanization of development, which reduces the density of riders required for efficient operation. Without concentrations of development at sufficient levels, transit cannot generate sufficient passengers and fare revenues, even with generous public subsidy. Transit supporters argue that coherent investment is essential to provide viable alternatives to use of the automobile, which, if uncontrolled, has grave energy and environmental considerations. For transit to be viable, land use planning must focus on developing residences and employment centers at sufficient densities. TOD (transit-oriented development) is one new concept, with residences and jobs concentrated around rail stations and bus terminals. Transit is essential to urban life, serves the disadvantaged, reduces traffic congestion, and saves energy. Mass transit is an integral part of a balanced transportation system.


  1. Black, Alan. 1995. Urban Mass Transportation Planning. New York: McGraw-Hill.
  2. Gray, George E. and Lester A. Hoel, eds. 1992. Public Transportation. 2nd ed. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.
  3. Vuchic, Vukan R. 2005. Urban Transit: Operations, Planning and Economics. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley.

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