Hackney cab

Public transport

Public transport, public transportation, public transit or mass transit are transport systems that transport members of the general public, usually charging set fares. The terms generally taken to include rail and bus services, and wider definitions might include scheduled airline services, ferries, taxicab services. A restriction sometimes applied is that transit should occur in continuously shared vehicles, which would exclude taxis that are not shared-ride taxis.

Public transport may be regulated as a common carrier and usually provides scheduled service on fixed routes on a non-reservation basis, although share taxis provide an ad-hoc form of flexible public transport and demand responsive transport provides a pre-bookable form of public shared transport. Taxicabs and other vehicles for hire are generally fully flexible.

The majority of transit passengers are traveling within a local area or region between their homes and places of employment, shopping, or schools.

In general

Many towns and cities around the world are investing in public transport initiatives to increase the attractiveness and usage of public transport.

Public transport can offer significant advantages in areas with higher population densities if it is efficiently utilised, due to its potentially smaller physical and environmental footprint per passenger.

Road-based publics transport risks being slower than private vehicles if it gets held up in general traffic congestion. Compounding upon this, scheduled transport vehicles have to make frequent stops to board additional passengers, and an individual trip may require one or more transfers. Routes are also often circuitous to increase the area serviced by the system. Therefore, transport authorities wishing to increase the attractiveness and use of public transport often respond by establishing or expanding dedicated or semi-dedicated public transport lanes, traffic signal priority, and other measures.

The term rapid transit is often used to distinguish modes of transit possessing a dedicated right of way and having frequent, continuous service. Rapid transit often fails to live up to the name, as there are no firm guidelines as to how fast transit must be to be rapid. Light rail is another form of public transit, comprising a tram or trolley operating on a rail line.

A popular public transport mode in the developing world, and increasingly in the western world, is the share taxi (mini-bus, jitney etc) that run on flexible or semi-flexible routes.


Conveyances for public hire are as old as the first ferries, and the earliest public transport was water transport: on land people walked or rode an animal. This form of transport is part of Greek mythology — corpses in ancient Greece were buried with a coin underneath their tongue to pay the ferryman Charon to take them to Hades.

Historical public transport included the stagecoach, traveling a fixed route from inn to inn, and the horse-drawn boat carrying paying passengers, a feature of canals from their 17th-century spread.

The omnibus, the first organized public transit system within a city, appears to have originated in Nantes, France, in 1826 and was introduced to London in July 1829.

Modern public transport

Public transportation can usefully be classified in a variety of ways:-

By the type of area served:

  • Larger urban areas with multiple interconnected transport modes, probably including metro/underground, bus, taxi, tram and ferry and complex transport interchanges
  • Smaller urban areas often using buses and taxis and simple interchanges
  • Rural areas typically relying more on buses and taxis and share taxis
  • Inter-urban and regional transport, often based on the train, coach and the plane
  • Long haul destinations, normally using the plane. Alternatively by the required infrastructure (Road, rail, water and air), or by the scheduling method (fixed timetable or not).

Alternatively by the infrastructure requirement:





Sloped or vertical

Some of these types are often not for use by the general public, e.g. elevators in offices and apartment buildings, buses for personnel or school children.

Transport Interchanges

Of critical importance to attractive and successful public transport is the design of transport interchanges where people access the system and interchange between vehicles. These transport interchanges range from extensive multi-modal interchanges such as at major airports to the humble bus stop.

Stations are an important aspect of any public transportation system. Specific types include:

In addition one can alight from and usually board a taxi at any road where stopping is allowed. Some fixed-route buses allow getting on and off at suitable unmarked locations along that route, typically called a hail-and-ride section.

In recent years, an increasing emphasis has been placed on intermodal transport facilities. These are intended to help passengers move from one mode (or form) of transportation to another. An intermodal station may service air, rail, and highway transportation for example.

Public transport vs. private cars

In the Western world, public transport and car advocates have been debating which mode of transport is the best with considerable differences between Europe, Asia and the United States for both historical and cultural reasons.

''See also: The system of Automobility, Social ideology of the motorcar, Transport in present-day nations and states, World Car Free Network, List of car-free places


Nordic countries have subsidized public transport. Sweden has created the Länstrafik system through state subsidies to offer mass transport services to places where the private sector would not otherwise provide it because it would be unprofitable. In Finland, public transport is most extensive in Helsinki. Like Sweden, there is subsidized public transport in Finland's cities and countryside.

United Kingdom bus usage has been rising nationally since about 1990, although it has fallen by 30% in Scotland, 28% in Wales, and 22% in non-metropolitan areas in England. In England, the number of bus journeys in 2006/07 was 12% lower than in 1985/86, although London has seen bus journeys increase by 75% over the same period. Rail journeys increased by 53% between 1980 and 2006/007 in England, whilst London Underground journeys increased by 86% over that period.

France has built an extensive TGV network, built light rail, reassigned road lanes from cars to light transport in city centres and car usage and its social status has decreased there

Germany's AIRail Service has replaced some airline routes.

North America

United States

A number of cities in the United States were built around the car, and consequently public transportation is often not a viable option. The vast majority of American cities have some sort of local bus service, providing transportation for a nominal fraction of local route-miles, while a few of the larger cities also have rapid transit systems.

Many public transportation systems that existed prior to domination of the car were dismantled by the emergent car industry in a move came to be known as the Great American Streetcar Scandal; GM managed to rip out over 100 streetcar systems nationwide by 1950. Antitrust investigations only began to take place after the fact.

The notable exceptions are New York City, Washington, DC, Boston, and Chicago, all of which have more than 30% of workers commute by public transport. New York City is the only city in America where over half of the people do not own an automobile. One out of three mass transportation riders and two out of three rail riders live in New York City and its suburbs. New York has two subway systems: the New York City Subway, and the PATH. It is also served by three commuter railways, NJ Transit, the Long Island Rail Road, and Metro-North Railroad. The LIRR, NJ Transit, and Amtrak meet at Penn Station, by far America's busiest intercity railway station.

(figures shown for central city only, not metropolitan area)
No. of Workers
% Public Transport
% Drive Alone
Mean Travel
Time (Mins)
New York City 3,597,547 54.24% 23.58% 39.0
Chicago 1,209,122 25.38% 52.57% 33.4
Philadelphia 550,988 26.43% 50.75% 31.4
Los Angeles 1,721,778 10.97% 67.28% 29.2
Washington, DC 284,007 38.97% 35.43% 29.2
San Francisco 394,646 30.29% 40.47% 29.0
Baltimore 258,373 19.55% 57.94% 28.2
Boston 286,969 31.60% 39.39% 27.7
Houston 953,116 5.22% 72.32% 26.4
Las Vegas 260,821 4.79% 76.97% 26.4
Detroit 255,809 7.09% 72.95% 26.0
Phoenix 674,096 3.68% 72.74% 25.4
San Jose 431,910 3.92% 76.66% 25.4
Dallas 556,494 4.39% 73.68% 25.3
Seattle 318,402 17.79% 55.15% 25.2
Fort Worth 295,882 1.67% 79.48% 24.9
Charlotte 334,129 3.40% 75.24% 24.3
Denver 272,493 7.44% 69.95% 23.8
San Antonio 555,115 3.46% 77.85% 23.4
Portland 276,465 12.64% 60.61% 23.2
Jacksonville 378,297 1.82% 77.97% 23.1
Nashville 269,710 1.59% 81.44% 23.1
San Diego 623,801 4.10% 74.67% 22.4
Austin 379,540 4.20% 72.95% 21.9
Memphis 268,695 2.93% 78.14% 21.8
Indianapolis 368,870 2.11% 82.07% 21.4
Louisville 254,627 3.67% 81.38% 21.2
Columbus 349,329 3.47% 81.00% 20.6
Oklahoma City 253,703 0.93% 79.58% 19.5
In the 2000s, many US cities realized that widespread car usage caused serious problems, such as urban sprawl. In response to this, cities have begun to make their city centers more enticing, have canceled expressways projects and restored or improved public transport and commissioned new rail transit projects. Public transportation ridership in the US has risen 31% while overall population only increased 15% since 1995 – more than the same period's increase in roadway vehicle miles or airline passenger miles and several U.S. states that were considered bastions of highway-only thinking, such as Colorado and Utah (see Utah Transit Authority), had approved major public transportation investments by 2005.

For intercity transportation within the United States, the car and the airplane dominate except in the Northeast Corridor, a densely populated string of cities, which has the busiest train line in the USA, including the popular Acela Express train service operated by Amtrak. Elsewhere trains and buses (such as the Greyhound) are often only used by those with no other alternative.

Detractors point out that in investment in public transport in the USA has had almost no impact on the number of drivers, traffic, or associated sprawl, even at large expense to taxpayers.

See also: Transportation in New York City, Transportation of Los Angeles, Pacific Electric Railway, Modeshift, List of United States light rail systems by ridership, List of United States rapid transit systems by ridership, List of United States commuter rail systems by ridership, List of United States local bus agencies by ridership, List of U.S. cities with high transit ridership


In general, Canadian metro areas have public transit rates that are lower than comparably sized Mexican metro areas, but are higher than comparably sized U.S. cities. For example, Toronto area (metro population of 5.1 million) commuters use public transport at a higher rate (22.2%) than comparably sized U.S. metro areas, such as the Washington, DC metro area (metro population of 5.3 million and public transit use rate of 14.2%). Likewise, the Vancouver metro area has a public transit use rate of 15.6%, whereas the comparably sized Portland metro area has a transit use rate of 6.4%. New York City (metro population of 18.8 million) has a public transit use rate of 29.9%, significantly higher than any Canadian city. Mexico City's public transport use rate of 68.5% is higher still.


Because of low car ownership rates in Mexico, Mexican metro areas tend to have rates of public transport use that are much higher than those in Canadian or American Cities. Mexico's three largest cities (Mexico City, Guadalajara and Monterrey) have metro systems and most major cities have extensive bus and shared taxi service. Bus rapid transit systems also exist in a number of cities including León, Guanajuato. The Mexico City metro area has a commuter rail service that was launched in June of 2008.

Mexico City has a public transit use rate that is higher than any U.S. or Canadian city and its use of private automobiles is similar to that of New York City. In 2007, in the combined metropolitan area of the Valley of Mexico which encompasses the Federal District as well as portions of the State of Mexico, of the 22 million daily trips made, 67%, or 14.8 million, were made on public transport. Only 26%, or 5.8 million, were made by private automobile.


In Asia the population density is so high that widespread car usage is very hard to sustain. Japan, a very rich country, has known this for decades and its citizens use rail transit very heavily and it is very costly and difficult to use a car there. The same is true for Singapore, where one has to purchase a certificate of entitlement to purchase a car. China has historically used a lot of bicycles and mopeds, but car usage is growing quickly and is causing a lot of problems like traffic jams and pollution, but there are numerous rail transit projects under construction in China today.


In most African nations, traffic tends to be less problematic. Due to low income levels, transport options may be limited to walking, animal transport, share taxi, and public transport where it exists. Where income levels are higher, traffic problems can arise. The most congested city in Africa is Cairo, where traffic jams can last many hours.

Economic impact

One of the challenges to public transport is having a sufficient density of desired destinations within walking distance of a transit stop. Because this is unlikely in any suburban location that hitherto was served only by automobile, it is often advantageous to intentionally develop within close proximity to public transportation. Such transit-oriented development can both improve the usefulness and efficiency of the public transit system as well as result in increased business for commercial developments.

Well-designed transit systems can have a positive effect on real estate prices. The Hong Kong metro MTR generates a profit by redeveloping land around its stations. Much public opposition to new transit construction can be based on the concern about the impact on neighborhoods of this new economic development. Few localities have the ability to seize and reassign development rights to a private transit operator, as Hong Kong has done.

The economic costs of a congested transport system, be it a public transport system or a private car based transport system can be measured and can seriously detract from the attractiveness of an area for business and for residents

Detractors point out that at times, transit unions have staged strikes, which have the potential to bring a public-transit led city to a virtual standstill, that public transit rarely covers its operating costs through fares and that no transit agency in the U.S. has achieved this for several decades (as of 2003, U.S. transit operators obtained only 32.6% of their operating funding from fares, the rest coming primarily from government subsidies ). This may be a misleading statement, since part of a freeway's "operating" cost, that of owning and maintaining vehicles, is tacitly covered by its private users; equally, the road system itself is often maintained wholly by the government. Also, many metro systems (such as the New York Subway) are mandated by the city government to keep their fares low , and it is feasible that profitability could be achieved if they were free to set peak fares at (much higher) market prices.

Environmental impact

Emissions from road vehicles account for over 50% of U.S. air pollution. Scientists estimate that public transportation already reduces emissions of carbon dioxide by over 7.4 million tons annually. If Americans were to use public transportation at equivalent rates as Europeans, scientists estimate that U.S. dependence on imported oil would decrease by more than 40% and that carbon dioxide emissions would be reduced by more than 25%. Studies have shown that there is a strong inverse correlation between urban population density and energy consumption per capita, and that public transport could play a key role in increasing urban population densities, and thus reduce travel distances and fossil fuel consumption.

In the UK, household use of private vehicles accounted for 9% of all man-made emissions of greenhouse gases in 2002, up from 8% in 1990, whilst the transport industry (including freight) accounted for 19% in 2000, up from 6% in 1990.

See also Fuel efficiency in transportation

Social Inclusion

An important social role played by public transport is to ensure that all members of society are able to travel, not just those with a driving license and access to a vehicle.

Transit-for-all is the name given to a USA movement arguing greater investment in public transportation. Advocates of transit-for-all initiatives argue that the approximately $70 billion currently assigned to subsidizing cheap oil should be reinvested in public transportation. Supporters of transit-for-all initiatives claim there are three main benefits to such a strategic realignment of resources: first, it will benefit the environment and, therefore, the nation’s health; second, it will increase the economic mobility of citizens currently marginalized because of their geographic isolation and revitalize neighborhoods by reconnecting them to their surroundings; third, it will decrease American dependence on foreign oil, thereby improving U.S. national security.

Car dependency is a name given by policy makers to places where the those without access to a private vehicle do not have access to independent mobility, this group includes the young, the old, the poor, people with poor or no sight, Epilepsy as well as those banned from driving.

See also: Reducing Car Dependency in Australia, Car Dependency in the UK, Modeshift


Public transport systems generally rely on government subsidy to supplement fare collections, though a few systems are run as unsubsidized commercial enterprises or are entirely paid for by governments. The percentage of revenue from passenger charges is known as the farebox recovery ratio. Transit systems earn incidental revenue from their unused real estate, in the form of parking fees, leasing space to shops and vendors, advertising, and lately, leasing their tunnels and rights-of-way to carry fiber optic communication lines.

Some systems are owned and operated by a government agency; other transportation services may be commercial, but receive greater benefits from the government compared to a normal company, e.g.,

  • direct payments to run unprofitable services.
  • government bailouts if the company is likely to collapse (often applied to airlines).
  • tax advantages, e.g., aviation fuel is typically not taxed.
  • reduction of competition through licensing schemes (often applied to taxi and airline services.)
  • allowing use of state-owned infrastructure without payment or for less than cost-price (may apply for railways).

One reason many cities spend large sums on their public transport systems is that heavy automobile traffic congests city streets and causes air pollution. It is believed that public transport systems alleviate this, but reducing car traffic is not always assured.

Some city councils fund public transport infrastructure to promote business and economic growth, or to regenerate deprived ares of the city. Examples of public transport planned according to this philosophy are the Docklands Light Rail and Crossrail projects in London.

Some government officials believe that use of taxpayer capital to fund mass transit will ultimately save taxpayer money in other ways, and therefore, state-funded mass transit is a benefit to the taxpayer. Since lack of mass transit results in more traffic, pollution, and road construction to accommodate more vehicles, all costly to taxpayers, providing mass transit will therefore alleviate these costs.

Another reason for subsidies for public transit are the provision of mobility to those who reject its use on convenience, environmental or safety grounds and those who cannot afford or are physically or legally incapable of using an automobile.

Hong Kong

In Hong Kong, MTR Corporation Limited, the result of the the MTR and KCR (Kowloon-Canton Railway) merger, are given the rights to utilise lands near stations, depots, or tracks for property development. Profits from land development cover the partial cost of construction, but not operation, of the urban rail systems. Similar arrangements are available to the ferry piers of franchised ferry service providers. Franchised bus operators are exempted from paying tax on diesel.

United States

In the United States, operations of most public transit services are financially subsidized by local and state governments, who provide matching funds to receive up to 80% capital grant aid from the Federal Transit Administration (FTA), an agency of the U.S. Department of Transportation . This agency administers programs which provide funding and support services to state and local agencies which operate a wide range of public transportation services.

These include local urban and suburban bus and paratransit services, light rail, heritage streetcar systems, cable car, subway, rapid transit, and commuter rail services.

Special rural transportation programs of the FTA and some state governments provide assistance for bus and para-transit services in some areas. New York City has the most extensive transit system in the country, operated by the Metropolitan Transportation Authority MTA About one in every three users of mass transit in the United States and two-thirds of the nation's rail riders live in the New York City Metropolitan Area. MTA FactsArlington, Texas (pop. 360,000) is the largest city in the United States without conventional fixed-route public transportation. (Arlington operates a demand responsive paratransit service( Handitran))

Ticket systems

Different arrangements for fare collection are in use. Depending on the type, fares:

  • must be bought in advance; one cannot physically enter the railway platform, vehicle, etc., without passing a turnstile, fare gate or ticket inspector (usually found in a metro).
  • must be bought in advance as a voucher for a user-determined amount of money, which is encoded on a ticket or smartcard by electronic, magnetic, or optical means. A fare is deducted automatically each time the ticket is used — either just upon system entry, or at both entry and exit where the fare is variable by distance. The latter is often found in newer systems.
  • must be bought in advance, checked by a conductor or Revenue Protection Inspector etc., upon entry (usually found on buses in North America and Western Europe, and on commuter rail systems).
  • must be bought in advance, checked randomly by a ticket controller (proof-of-payment system, usually found in Europe and occasionally the United States).
  • can be bought both in advance or during the ride, with the fare sometimes being higher in the latter case (see also Conductor); in this case purchase in advance is often possible at major stations, but usually not at a typical tram or bus stop.

Passengers may be issued with a paper ticket, metal or plastic token, or an electronic card.

Multi-use tickets

Special tickets (other than for a single ride at the regular price) include:

  • passes for unlimited travel within a period of time, but shorter than season tickets.
  • passes for unlimited travel during a given number of days that can be chosen within a longer period of time, e.g. eight days within a month.
  • multi-ride tickets.
  • discount tickets valid for someone with a discount pass, etc.
  • season tickets.
  • Citycards and Sightseeing Passes. Free public transport tickets are included.

Passes may be for a particular route (in both directions), or for a whole network.

Electronic fare card

Electronic fare cards are designed to be read by a computer input device and include:

Free systems

Free or Zero-fare public transport services are funded in full by means other than collecting a fare from passengers.

Zero-fare services may be funded by national, regional or local government through taxation or by commercial sponsorship by businesses. They usually use relatively small vehicles such as buses and trams.

Several mid-size European cities and many smaller towns around the world have converted their entire bus networks to zero-fare.

Local zero-fare shuttles or inner-city loops are far more common than city-wide systems.

Free travel pass

A Free travel pass is the right of a certain class of passengers to use a public transport service without paying a fare or presenting a ticket. They may need to present an identification card.

The following types of passenger often receive free travel on transport services:

  • students
  • elderly persons
  • children
  • employees
  • persons with physical or mental disabilities

Social and Culture Issues

Food & drink

Longer distance public transport sometimes sell food and drink on board, and/or have a dedicated buffet car and/or dining car. However, some urban transport systems forbid the consumption of food, drink, or even chewing gum when riding on public transport. Sometimes only types of food are forbidden with more risk of making the vehicles dirty, e.g. ice creams and French fries.


In addition to talking to each other, many passengers use their cell phone in public transport. Although usually not allowed, sometimes music is played aloud. Some rail operators provide "quiet cars" where also talking is not allowed. On trains and buses in Hong Kong, buses and trains provide free TV. Buses provide gossip and hi-tech news, while trains provide news (Newsline Express)


Despite the occasional highly publicized incident, the vast majority of modern public transport systems are well designed and patrolled and generally have low crime rates. Good lighting, CCTV, mirrors to see round blind corners and ensuring that there are always a good number of other people around can be used to increase safety and create a feeling of safety. Most transit operators have developed methods to discourage people from using their facilities for overnight shelter.

Critics of public transportation systems often claim they attract "undesirable elements" and tell of violent criminals preying on passengers and homeless people sleeping on trains and relieving themselves in public areas.. On a few occasions, passengers have reacted by taking the law into their own hands (as in the notorious 1984 case of the "subway vigilante", Bernhard Goetz).

When compared to the private car however, public transport is a very safe form of transport in terms of deaths per passenger km . By way of contrast, car accidents as estimated to cause some 1 million fatalities per year world wide. In the United States alone there were 42,643 automobile accident fatalities in 2003, almost three times the total number of murders (14,408).

See also: RoadPeace UK National charity for road crash victims


In the era when long distance trips took several days, sleeping accommodations were an essential part of transportation. Today, most airlines and long-distance trains offer reclining seats and many provide pillows and blankets for overnight travelers. Better sleeping arrangements are commonly offered for a premium fare (e.g. first class, business class, etc.) and include sleeping cars on overnight trains, larger private cabins on ships and airplane seats that convert into beds. Budget-conscious tourists sometimes plan their trips using overnight train or bus trips in lieu of paying for an hotel.

The ability to get additional sleep on the way to work is attractive to many commuters using public transportation. Occasionally, a local transit route with a long overnight segment and which accepts inexpensive multi-use passes will acquire a reputation as a "moving hotel" for people with limited funds. Most transportation agencies actively discourage this. For this and other reasons passengers are often required to exit the vehicle at the end of the line; they can board again in the same or another vehicle, after some waiting. Also, even a low fare often deters the poorest individuals, including homeless people.

One example of the moving homeless shelter phenomenon is the Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority (VTA) bus line 22 between Palo Alto, California and San Jose, California in the United States. It is often called "Hotel 22" or "Motel 22" by the homeless of Silicon Valley.A pass for a night costs US$5.25 and $61.25 for a month, much less than a hotel, house or apartment.

Another example is the interurban rail services operated by CityRail out of Sydney, Australia. Fairly comfortable trains operate between Sydney and Lithgow or Newcastle during the night, trips of approximately 2½ hours. Age, Disability and Sole Parent pensioner excursion fares are AU$2.50 for an all-day ticket.

The New York City Subway and Chicago 'L', both which operate 24 hours per day, also see homeless people who sleep in the subway system, both in stations and on trains.


In the United States, Canada, most of the EU, Australia and New Zealand, smoking is prohibited in all or some parts of most public transportation systems due to safety and health issues. Generally smoking is not allowed on buses and trains, while rules concerning stations and waiting platforms differ from system to system. The situation in other countries varies widely.

Heritage transport systems around the world

Some means of rail-based public transport are tourist attractions or landmarks in their own right. These include San Francisco's famous cable cars, the Molli steam train in Bad Doberan, the kusttram along the whole Flemish coast, the Schwebebahn Wuppertal, the Seattle Monorail, the Enoshima Electric Railway in Kamakura, Japan, Routemaster buses in central London, Melbourne's W class trams and the Christchurch Tram

Emerging technologies

See also


External links

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