Why is Public Transportation More Environmentally Friendly?

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When Public Transport is used effectively, the environmental benefits will have a positive lasting impact on future generations! Sharing a ride with multiple people is one of the most environmentally friendly transit alternatives. The Center for Climate and Energy Solutions (C2ES) says, “Communities with strong public transportation can reduce the nation’s [United States] carbon emissions by 37 million metric tons yearly.” And according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, 41% of Greenhouse Gases caused by transport were emitted by cars in 2018. 

During my time in New York one of my top 3 favorite parts was riding the subway. My city (Tucson) does not have the best public transportation system but in New York, you can get anywhere by foot and subway, it blew my mind. I always heard public transportation was more environmentally friendly than driving my single-occupancy vehicle so I decided to take a deeper look into why. 

Reduces Person-Miles Per Gallon (PMPG)

Single occupancy vehicles have one of the lowest fuel efficiencies per rider of any form of transportation. Public transit on the other hand carries many passengers on a single vehicle, reducing the number of vehicles, the level of traffic noise, and the number of tailpipe emissions associated with those vehicles. When compared to single-occupancy vehicles (cars/trucks/SUVs etc.) a fully occupied bus has a fuel efficiency that is 6X greater while a fully occupied train car has a fuel economy 15X greater than the average single-occupancy automobile.   

Image: Source: U.S. Environmental Protection Agency

Helps Reduce Gridlock

Buses, subways, and other public transit options enable more efficient traffic flows for all vehicles, which in turn helps to reduce fuel waste and emissions that come from sitting in traffic jams. Not to mention the headache and frustration that comes with sitting in traffic, no Bueno for the environment or our sanity!

Saves Space for Green Zones

Public Transportation can help enable denser land use, which then frees up land for other purposes, such as green spaces, nature preserves, parks, and other uses. According to the Federal Transit Administration, the use of transit-oriented development (TOD) can encourage more compact development and enable better in-fill due to the easy access of residents and commuters to public transportation options, which in turn “can reduce pressures to convert farmland and environmentally sensitive areas into housing and commercial development.”

Air Pollution Reduction

For every person who chooses public transport over their car, the number of harmful pollutants entering the air decreases. When compared to single-occupancy vehicles, public transportation produces:

  • 95% less carbon dioxide
  • 92% fewer volatile organic compounds
  • 45% less carbon dioxide
  • 48% less nitrogen oxide.  

When these pollutants enter our atmosphere they contribute to global warming, smog, acid deposition, and health problems.

Image: Emissions Reductions from Public Transportation Use -“Conserving Energy and Preserving the Environment: The Role of Public Transportation” by Robert J. Shapiro


By reducing the number of emissions from transportation in dense urban areas, public transportation can help cities to reduce smog, meet air quality standards, and to decrease the health risks of poor air quality to their residents. A study conducted following the 1996 Atlanta Olympic Games found that expanded public transportation services reduced peak auto use by 22.5% and led to decreased amounts of mobile source emissions from single-occupancy vehicles. During the Games, emergency rooms and hospitals saw a 42% decrease in the amount of asthma-related admissions because of the lower levels of air pollution.

Saves Money

Public Transport continues to be a more cost-effective alternative in cities where a lack of parking can lead to congestion, and in lower-density areas where the cost of commuting across large travel zones and the upkeep of multiple vehicles is expensive. Now we just need to encourage our representatives to spend the money the city saves towards environmental efforts, and encourage ourselves and our friends and family to spend the money we save on gas and car maintenance on companies who give a damn about our planet!

A savvy public transportation system encourages commuters to take a train or a bus to work, helping improve air quality and reduce fuel consumption. These environmental benefits also translate into health benefits, like fewer cases of respiratory diseases, asthma, and cancer, for the residents of the region. In my opinion, a great public transit system leads to a city with a higher quality of life.


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