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  • Writer's pictureGreen Iowa AmeriCorps

A Review of Our Current Transportation System: Public Transit vs. Personal Cars

Updated: Mar 22, 2021

In an ideal, sustainable world, we would all be utilizing public transport fueled by electricity. America’s infrastructure would be redesigned to support mass transit, high-speed rail lines, and eliminate fossil-fueled vehicles. However, we are pretty far away from that reality. I want to dive into our current transportation world and examine how to cross the bridge to electric-vehicle utopia.


Mass transportation in comparison to personal vehicle use is inherently more sustainable. While utilizing mass transit, people reduce their space consumption, ride in more efficient vehicles, and decrease their greenhouse gas emissions. However, the cost to the individual can sometimes outweigh the benefit. Individuals lose their comfort and convenience, their commute (time, distance and cost) may increase, and time management lessens.

Let’s look at our overall consumption and benefits from reducing personal car usage. First, public transportation is a far more sustainable choice than personal car usage. Transportation alone attributes to 29% of greenhouse gas emissions in the United States, and over half of that percentage is light-duty vehicles, which includes personal cars and trucks. The largest sustainability benefit of mass transit is the reduction in greenhouse gas emissions. With public transit, the number of cars on the road is reduced, replacing separate emission-producing vehicles. Most light-rails and trains emit little pollution because they are powered by electricity and produce significantly fewer emissions than personal vehicles. According to the U.S. Department of Transportation, heavy rail transit produces 76% less greenhouse gasses per passenger per mile than an average single occupancy vehicle. Similarly, light rails produce 62% less and busses 33% less.

Air quality and compact development are additional benefits from the use of mass transit. Air quality is often very poor in urban areas due to high traffic congestion. This means residents suffer health risks from lowly mitigated air quality. Decreasing the number of cars creating toxic emissions would increase the air quality in these areas. Additionally, lessening the number of cars on the road means that the areas previously occupied by traffic could be used for other beneficial environmental practices, like parks or bike lanes.

Another clear benefit of everyone using mass transit is that traffic would be greatly reduced. This means people can travel more efficiently, saving time and considerably lessening emissions. Reducing space on the road, and in turn decreasing gridlock, allows more buses and bikes to share the roadway and enable a more efficient flow of traffic. In 2011, the use of public transportation saved Americans almost 865 million hours in travel time and 450 million gallons of fuel.

A final reason to use mass transport is that it could be less expensive for the individual and the majority. If cities and states pay for free transit, then the burden of paying for another form of transportation is taken off the people. In theory, people availing themselves of free transit could eliminate personal cars or reduce the number of cars they own.

However, there are some potentially negative aspects of bridging the gap to electric vehicles we have to acknowledge. First, it’s important to note that if we did shift to a mass transit system, people would actually have to utilize the program for it to be effective. Low use of public transport makes it far less sustainable than a single occupancy vehicle. For example, if a typical 52-passenger bus is running at quarter capacity and produces 41.6 pounds of CO2 per mile, that puts the carbon burden at 3.5 pounds per person per mile. In addition, train and rail stations are lit 24 hours a day, escalators and elevators are running continuously, and energy is being constantly consumed, regardless of how many people are utilizing the stations. The resulting emissions would be doubled due to low-use public transport and a high volume of single occupancy vehicles.

Secondly, while public transportation usage, especially in urban areas, is on the rise, most people rely on personal vehicles for their own transportation. This comes at a severe environmental impact. Many Americans rely on cars because public transportation is unfortunately not widespread outside of urban areas. In fact, 64% Americans say they drive every day. Because of the popularity boom of suburbs in the 1950s and ‘60s, many Americans live in these more affordable areas that lack good public transportation and infrastructure. To further emphasize the national neglect for sustainability and environmental effects, SUVs and trucks are selling more than ever. By 2022, it is estimated Ford’s SUV and truck sales will hit 90% and Fiat Chrysler’s will near 97% of total sales (Ferris, 2018). Robert Ferris, an automobile industry expert, suggested this is due to the availability of inexpensive gas and the societal ideal that bigger cars equate to more success.

As you can tell from above, the benefits of going to a mass-transit centered transportation system greatly outweighs the negative effects. However, to truly commit to a sustainable transit system, we need the majority of commuters to utilize the system. I do believe we are on our way to a greener transit future!


About the Author

Rachel serves as the education coordinator for the Energy and Community team in Dubuque, IA. Originally from Sarasota, Florida, Rachel is excited to spend a year learning all about energy efficiency, sustainable living, and developing her skills as an environmental steward. In her free time, Rachel loves reading, playing board games, and cuddling with her dog Shiloh. After her service year, Rachel will finish her master’s in sustainability at Harvard University.


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