7 Public Transportation

Chapter Overview

Public transportation plays a vital role in a multimodal transportation system, moving large numbers of people in dense urban areas and helping to support compact urban growth. The term public transportation includes a variety of transit modes, such as buses, bus rapid transit, trolleys, light rail, metro systems (aka commuter rail), paratransit, micro-transit, and ferries. Numerous factors impact public transportation success and long-term viability. This chapter examines considerations in planning public transportation systems, including factors impacting transit usage and the joint use of transit modes and other alternatives, such as park and ride or demand response systems, such as microtransit or Transportation Network Companies. The chapter also explores the concept and benefits of transit-oriented development.

Chapter Topics

  1. Public Transportation Modes
  2. Factors Impacting Transit Use
  3. The First and Last Mile Challenge
  4. Transit Oriented Development
  5. Transit Network Design
  6. Public Transportation Examples

Learning Objectives

At the completion of this chapter, readers will be able to:

  • Identify various types of transit modes
  • Discuss key factors impacting transit usage
  • Explain the importance of integrating different travel modes and transit
  • Formulate reasonable strategies to support transit usage

Public Transportation Modes

Public transportation is typically managed on a schedule, operated on established routes, and available to the public either for free or by paying a fare. It is generally funded primarily through federal and state subsidies, with fares and other funds (e.g., taxes, fees, etc.) making up the difference. Although capital costs of equipment and other infrastructure may be large, these are typically covered by federal and state sources. Alternatively, operating costs, such as the costs of labor, benefits, maintenance, and fuel, are an ongoing challenge. Transit agency budgets rely heavily on ridership, as operating receipts (largely fares) make up about one-quarter of their total funding (Congressional Budget Office, 2022).Therefore, the cost-effectiveness of transit service and availability of funding for operations are of critical importance to transit agencies.

The term public transportation encompasses many different modes of service. Common examples of public transportation modes are buses, trolleys, streetcars, bus rapid transit, light rail, commuter rail, vanpools, and ferry boats. Each of the various transit modes are defined by the American Public Transportation Association Fact Book Glossary (see Mode of Service Definitions) (American Public Transportation Association [APTA], 2022).

One transit mode that has grown in popularity in recent years is bus rapid transit (BRT). BRT is similar to a conventional bus system but is higher capacity, faster, and more reliable. BRT systems achieve this through advanced technologies, as well as infrastructure changes, such as dedicated lanes, busways, traffic signal priority, off-board fare collection, elevated platforms with ease of access, and enhanced stations ( Federal Transit Administration, 2015). BRT systems can be similar to light rail in efficiency and attractiveness, yet are less costly and more flexible than rail, as they can be tailored to local conditions. In some cases, BRT can serve as an interim step between a bus route on a transit corridor and a high-cost fixed rail route.

Factors Impacting Transit Use

Factors both external and internal to transit agencies may impact transit ridership (Chen, Varley, & Chen, 2010; Diab, Kasraian, Miller, & Shalaby, 2020; Kohn, 2000). External factors include issues such as socio-economic characteristics of the population, community size, density, urban form, and changes in the economy (Diab, DeWeese, Chaloux, & El-Geneidy, 2021; Taylor & Fink, 2003). Increases in the cost of automobiles, parking, gas, and tolls are all positively associated with transit usage (Taylor & Fink, 2003; Lane, 2010; Zhao, Chen, Jiao, Chen, & Bischak, 2019).

In most US cities, for example, people more likely to use transit services are children, the elderly, persons with disabilities, and low-income populations. In larger, densely developed cities, however, many people rely on transit for some or all of their daily travel needs. The high cost of parking, traffic congestion, and availability of more transit options can all contribute to transit use in major cities.


What Makes Transit Systems Successful?

A review of transit systems in 57 metropolitan areas in the US and Canada identified the following factors that make transit systems successful:

  • Density: they serve high density places
  • Activity: they serve multiple activity centers
  • Walkability: the areas served are walkable
  • Connectivity: systems are connected networks with many transfer opportunities
  • Frequency: service is frequent
  • Travel time: provides competitive travel times from origins to destinations
  • Reliability: service is reliable
  • Capacity: ability to carry sufficient numbers of people,
  • Legibility: easy to understand and navigate, and
  • Inclusivity: welcomes everybody

Adapted from Spieler (2021a and b)


Internal factors exercised by transit agencies, such as fares and service levels are not independent from the external factors discussed above (Taylor & Fink, 2003). For example, transit service frequency is conditional on population density. Bus fare is conditional on subsidies received from local governments, which come from various sources, such as parking pricing, tolling, and gas taxes. Service quality factors, such as real-time information (reliability), discounted programs for vulnerable groups (affordability), express routes and bus rapid transit (efficiency), cleanliness of the system (comfort) and crime rates at stations and on transit vehicles (safety) all impact transit ridership (Kittelson, 2013).


Density is critical to the success of a transit system, as it is associated with overall ridership and quality of service. The density, mix, and pattern of land uses around transit investments can create transit-supportive conditions (Aston, Currie, Delbosc, Kamruzzaman, & Teller, 2021). For example, high population and job densities increase the costs of driving, while substantially reducing the cost per bus rider. Density increases congestion, while the efficient operation of a transit system helps mitigate congestion, increase road capacity, and provide high-quality and frequent service to the public.

Areas should meet, or demonstrate future plans to meet, minimum density thresholds if they plan to invest in rail transit. For example, 20-30 dwelling units/acre has been proposed as supportive of light rail service (Renaissance Planning Group, 2011). However, many areas lack the necessary concentration of jobs or population to support cost-effective transit services. If costly commuter rail, light rail, and BRT investments are to pay off, then larger shares of growth—particularly jobs—must be concentrated around metro stations (Guerra & Cervero, 2012; Sanchez, Shen, & Peng, 2004). Building rail transit in dense areas is also more expensive due to the higher cost for land-acquisition, labor, and relocation in these areas. This cost, and widespread unease with increasing density in existing neighborhoods, can deter policy makers and the public from supporting transit and TOD projects.

Service Area (Coverage)

The coverage or service area of a transit system directly relates to network accessibility. There is a tradeoff between coverage and ridership (Giuffrida, Le Pira, Inturri, & Ignaccolo, 2021). As explained by Walker (2018), “Ridership and coverage goals are both laudable, but they lead us in opposite directions. Within a fixed budget, if a transit agency wants to do more of one, it must do less of the other” (para. 11). Systems that prioritize ridership tend to have low network coverage, focusing on a few key corridors, and high frequency service on those routes. Systems with vast networks have better coverage but less frequent service and in turn attract fewer riders. In suburban low-density areas where widespread coverage is not feasible, accessibility to express bus routes on main corridors could be maintained through micro-transit, paratransit, and park-ride facilities.

Travel Time (Efficiency and Convenience)

Travel time is a primary determinant of travel mode decisions. For transit to be attractive, it must get prospective riders to their desired destination in a reasonable amount of time. For bus riders, travel time includes time waiting, boarding and deboarding time, transfer time and in-haul time. Service frequency reduces waiting time and frequent transit service relies on having sufficient density that generates enough riders to warrant such service. Fewer transfers, less waiting time, and shorting boarding and deboarding times all improve public attitudes toward transit use. Express buses are operated during peak hours help attract longer-distance commuters to use transit.

Successful transit systems provide efficient and convenient services to bus riders, especially in densely developed areas. Micro-transit and paratransit are reasonable alternatives to provide short distance mobility services to seamlessly integrate with transit. An example is the Brightline intercity high-speed rail network in Florida which introduced a mobility service called Brightline+. Brightline+ picks passengers up in electric vehicles and transports them to and from Brightline train stations. Brightline+ also incorporates pick-ups and drop-offs for bikes and scooters at their stations.


Reliable transit service brings value to passengers and cities, while inconsistent service discourages passengers and jeopardizes local benefits (National Association of City Transportation Officials, 2016; Yu, Yang, & Li, 2012). Transit loses its attractiveness if predicted travel time is not accurate. The primary sources of transit delay relate to street design and transit operations. If transit must operate in mixed traffic, reliability is limited by prevailing traffic conditions. The delay related to riding transit may come from various sources, such as waiting for signals and slowing for stop signs. These two types of delay are known as traffic control delay and intersection delay and increase when traffic exceeds available capacity or where there are frequent cross streets (National Association of City Transportation Officials, 2016). Providing transit lanes and using transit signal priority can significantly reduce travel times.

The First and Last Mile Challenge

Where public transit is a viable option, riders must still get to the nearest station or stop on their own. An ongoing challenge in transit planning is how to improve the convenience of transit access in areas where transit stops are not within easy walking distance of a rider’s origin or destination. This is the first and last mile challenge. An often-used guideline for walking distance is one-quarter mile for bus stops and one-half mile for rail. This is commonly referred to as a “walkshed.” For those whose origins and destinations are beyond a comfortable walkshed, additional mobility solutions are necessary. This section examines a few strategies for improving first and last mile connectivity and related mobility needs for public transportation systems.


Microtransit is a relatively new development in the transportation planning world. It involves the use of vans, shuttles, and buses within a service zone whose routes are flexible and can be quickly adjusted based on rider demand. Microtransit services are usually privately owned and operated and use technology similar to that of Transportation Network Companies (TNCs) like Uber and Lyft to provide on-demand services in areas underserved by fixed-route public transit (National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, 2016).

Microtransit is especially useful for providing short-distance mobility services, such as intrazonal travel for shopping and healthcare, and first and last mile travel to integrate with other transit modes. In King County, Washington, for example, a private microtransit firm called Via has partnered with King County Metro to provide on-demand shuttle service to 15 major transit hubs in the county. The cost for using the service, called Via to Transit, is the same as a Metro bus ride and accepts the same payment methods and passes as other transit systems in the region. In 2020, LA Metro launched a microtransit service called Metro Micro, which provides on-demand shuttle service within several zones. Rides can be scheduled in advance or spontaneously and the $1 charge can be paid using a Metro card. Individuals can also be picked up and dropped off anywhere within their respective zone.


The Federal Highway Administration defines micromobility as, “any small, low-speed, human- or electric-powered transportation device, including bicycles, scooters, electric-assist bicycles, electric scooters (e-scooters), and other small, lightweight, wheeled conveyance” (Price, et al. 2021). New technologies are fueling an explosion of micromobility systems around the world, especially in the United States, which is experiencing regrowth of city centers. As more people seek to live downtown, American cities are instituting micromobility systems to support transportation demand in these areas. The use of e-scooters alone grew 130% from 2018-2019 in the United States, resulting in 88.5 million users according to the National Association of City Transportation Officials (2019).

The renewed growth of the American city also exposed a widespread lack of adequate public transportation.  Many cities are instituting metro and light-rail systems to address this shortcoming. Micromobility modes will continue to be useful when these cities begin to operate more substantial transit systems. “First and last-mile” trips are one of the primary uses of micro-mobility modes, which could continue to provide a necessary leg in an integrated transit network as urban areas grow.

Park and Ride

Park and ride lots (PnR) are specialized parking areas placed near transit stations, bus stops, and highways to support the use of public transportation or ridesharing. PnR is a commonly used approach to increase transit ridership, improve access to transit for suburban residents, and enlarge the transit service area (Zhao et al., 2019). The integration between parking and riding transit has several advantages. By allowing passengers to park in suburban centers and use transit to commute into the city, PnR helps relieve traffic in the city center and redistribute parking demand (Zhao et al., 2019). By extending access into outlying areas, it can also make transit attractive to more riders.  The effectiveness of PnR in attracting riders, however, often depends on parking restrictions and high parking costs in city centers (Hounsell, Shrestha, & Piao, 2011).

Critiques of PnR are that it is incompatible with compact, transit oriented design at station areas and large parking areas reduce walkability and can adversely impact property values and area appearance (Zhao et al., 2019). It also raises social equity concerns relative to those unable to afford or drive an automobile (Zhao et al., 2019). Despite these concerns, PnR facilities remain a cost-effective and viable option for promoting transit use in sprawling suburban areas.

Transit Oriented Development (TOD)

Transit oriented development (TOD) is a planning and design strategy that promotes the development of moderate to high-density, mixed-use, walkable and bikeable urban places near transit stations and corridors (Cervero & Dai, 2014; Davis & Lewis, 2005). Goals of TOD are to increase ridership by improving access of transit users to jobs and services, create infill and redevelopment opportunities in underused urban areas, and generally create higher value, livable and economically vital places. Because transit serves pedestrians and bicyclists, it follows that providing higher-density, mixed-use, walkable and bikeable places will improve the accessibility of transit users to transportation, shopping and services. In doing so, TOD can provide real alternatives to driving and reduce auto dependency.

Given its potential, many local agencies are implementing TOD strategies through local planning and zoning programs. TOD is not a one-size fits all strategy. A variety of mixed-use urban centers of different sizes and densities may be considered depending on the land use context and type of transit served. For example, five TOD typologies were planned and developed to serve SunRail stations in Central Florida – downtown, urban center, town center, village center, and neighborhood center (Sunrail, 2011). Each typology is defined by a suggested density, mix of uses, pedestrian environment, active center, and approach to parking and public space.

Oregon Metro TOD Program

Metro is a regional planning and coordination agency serving over 1.5 million people in the greater Portland, Oregon metropolitan area. For many years, Metro has promoted TODs in the region through investment and partnering with the development community. The Metro Transit-Oriented Development Program acquires land and solicits proposals for TODs in areas served by transit. Metro partners with qualifying builders to construct TOD’s that enhance the urban infrastructure and provide a feasible living space for commuters. Critical to TOD success in Portland and elsewhere is the need to provide well-rounded developments that meet public needs for housing, transportation, and commercial services.

Metro adopted and is guided by TOD program investment criteria aimed at ensuring successful TOD projects. With these criteria, Metro determines eligibility of developers for funding and facilitates TOD projects in districts that may otherwise be unable to support such development. Projects must meet certain thresholds related to site control, connection tor transit, financial need and other issues and are evaluated against a variety of competitive investment criteria. For example, among the many criteria, projects must increase transit ridership, contribute to placemaking and local identify, and attract investment. The program has helped Metro promote TOD’s while leveraging the free market and demand for dense, urban living near transit stations (Metro, 2022).

Sound Transit TOD Program

The Seattle metropolitan area is serviced by multiple integrated transit systems operated by Sound Transit, the region’s public transportation service provider. The Seattle metro area is home to over 4 million people, anchored by the cities of Seattle and Tacoma. With a population spread across the region and anchored by multiple cities, Sound Transit relies on TODs to increase density, increase ridership, and offer affordable housing in the region. Affordable housing is a key pillar of the Sound Transit TOD program, which operates a voter-approved $20 million revolving loan fund for that purpose. The program aims to ensure that those who rely on public transportation are not priced out of TODs ─ a common challenge in areas with transportation amenities. If TODs accommodate only the more affluent, then ridership may not increase as desired. The Sound Transit TOD model relies heavily on introducing a mix of housing for various income levels, with commercial and recreational opportunities. Much of this is done with surplus land that the agency controls for equipment storage after construction finishes on transit projects. This land, no longer needed for heavy equipment storage, is repurposed into affordable transit-oriented developments (Sound Transit, 2021).

Transit Network Design

The design of the transit network also affects transit system performance and the ability of the system to support passenger needs.  Different modes in a large transit system are operated at different speeds. These modes provide mobility for different parts of a trip and can feed each other. Corridor-based systems, like rail, BRT and express bus, tend to emphasize greater efficiency and higher operating speeds and therefore serve the needs of commuters. For local transit, the emphasis is on providing frequent stops for greater access. These networks tend to have larger service areas, radial or amorphous design, and benefit more people that rely on transit to meet their daily needs. Local bus, microtransit, and other supportive modes like TNC and micromobility, are also used for shorter distance or first and last mile trips and operate at much lower speeds.

In major cities, transit networks are usually multimodal, with multiple network patterns and a variety of service types that connect and complement each other. Miami, for example has many transit networks that work together but provide different services. The Metromover is a free elevated shuttle that service 20 stations in the urban core and connects to Metrorail – a rapid transit system that serves a variety of key destinations in the downtown area and nearby suburbs. Tri-Rail is a commuter rail line that links Miami with the broader South Florida region. In addition, the greater Miami area has multiple BRT systems that connect with other system stations.

In smaller cities with low population density and/or limited funding, radial or grid networks allow for higher frequency service and lower costs by reducing the total number of routes (National Association of City Transportation Officials, 2016). For areas with limited budget and low ridership, bus corridors are more feasible than rail. The emergence, popularity and investment in micro-mobility is also reinforcing the establishment of strategic transit corridors. Micro-mobility options, such as scooters and shared bikes, expand the service area of these transit corridors with low cost “first and last mile” trips.

Public Transportation Examples

London (Metro)

The London Metro, commonly referred to as the “Underground”, is an extensive metro system servicing the greater London metro area (Zhang, Marshall, & Manley, 2019). The entire system includes 11 lines with an annual ridership of around 300 million people in 2020. The London metro was a pioneer in electric train transportation with the first electric train going into service in 1890 on what would eventually become the Underground. Today the system transports passengers to all major parts of London 24 hours a day and is in constant expansion.

Curitiba (BRT)

Curitiba, a large metropolis in southern Brazil, was the first city in the world to implement a BRT system in 1974 (Duarte & Rojas, 2012). The system, which Curitaba used to direct its future growth, continued to grow in service and ridership throughout the 1980s and 1990s, while other Brazilian BRT systems faltered. Curitiba also was the first to introduce a flat fare for the entire bus-based transit network to make payment easier and more accessible to the population.

An example of a highly successful BRT system, Curitaba served about  1.3 million passengers a day in 2016, in a metro area with a population of 1.8 million (Development Asia, 2016). This means that about 75% of Curitaba residents were choosing to take BRT every day. The entire system uses 70km (about 44 miles) of dedicated lanes, 359 bus stations, 6 BRT corridors and continues to use a flat fare payment system. As a result, the city is able to comfortably collect revenue on its BRT system, despite economic recessions. Curitaba has also been identified as having some of the best air quality in Brazil, due to fewer cars on the road (Rabinovitch, 1992). A pioneer in BRT, Curitaba continues to invest in its BRT system which stands as a model of BRT success for the world.

Seattle (Light Rail)

Link Light Rail is a light rail service in Seattle, Washington. The system is comprised of two lines, one that connects downtown Seattle with Seattle-Tacoma International Airport and one that services downtown Tacoma, a principal city in the Seattle-Tacoma-Bellevue Metropolitan Statistical Area (Hess, 2018; Ransom, 2018). Rapid expansion is underway to connect the light rail with Bellevue, Everett, University of Washington, and Redmond. The light rail system will operate 70 stations throughout the Seattle metro area.

Studies completed after the introduction of the Link in 2010 indicated greater walkability around the new LRT stations and that the LRT stations offered an ideal location for TOD’s. More people walked to the new stations, were dropped off at the new station and fewer drove individual cars. This led to greater economic activity and greater confidence in the city to expand the system. Seattle’s Link stations are now surrounded by midrise residential apartments. Sound Transit, the Seattle region’s Transportation Authority now has websites dedicated to the overview and analysis of the various TOD’s that came about as a result of the LRT system.

New York City (Metro)

The New York Metro system, commonly referred to as the “Subway” is one of the longest (248 miles) and most used metro systems in the world (Loo, Chen, & Chan, 2010). The subway system opened in 1904 and grew exponentially as New York continued to grow and welcome immigrants from around the world. The entire subway system contains 472 stations and services 4 of the 5 New York City Boroughs (excluding Staten Island). This is the most stations of any metro system in the world. The subway averages 5.6 million riders a day, with peaks on weekdays as workers commute.

Tokyo (Metro, TOD)

The Tokyo metro area has one of the most extensive, clean, reliable and inter-connected transportation systems in the world. The Tokyo metro system has allowed millions of people to move around the city with reliable, on-time service. As with other examples discussed, the Tokyo metro was an innovation leader in the development of accessible, extensive metro service. Tokyo’s metro system has been in constant development since the 1870’s. More and more people began to use the metro services, such as underground subway lines including the “Ginza” line, opened in 1927, and the Shibuya-Shimbashi line, opened in 1939.

The metro systems exploded in importance and ridership during the post-war economic boom in Japan. The Tokyo city government thus realized the importance of these metro systems and stations as catalyst for development and economic growth. Throughout the 50’s, 60’s and 70’s the urban environment around these stations was transformed to be multi-use centers of commerce, entertainment, transportation and city living. Transit oriented developments were encouraged and “radiation” from the stations resulted in the regions around train stations growing to be economic and residential hubs of Tokyo, such as the now famous Shibuya Station area, the “Japanese Times Square”. The importance and focus put on TOD’s and surrounding development only increased ridership and lead to the Tokyo metro being one of the most successful metro systems in the world. The success of Tokyo’s TOD system can be attributed to an inclusive urban redevelopment scheme, which greatly improved the density and mixed land uses surrounding station’s, and was used as a way to build consensus with different stakeholders (Murakami, 2015).


Key Takeaways

Numerous factors impact public transportation success and long-term viability as discussed throughout the chapter. These include:

  • Internal factors under the purview of transit agencies, such as fares, service areas, travel times, and reliability.
  • External factors typically outside of transit agency control, such as socio-economic characteristics of the population, community size, density, urban form, and changes in the economy, such as changes in the cost of automobiles, parking, gas, and tolls.
  • The first and last mile challenge, which can be addressed with microtransit and micromobility.
  • Transit oriented development (TOD) strategies to promote dense, mixed-use centers clustered around transit stations, thereby increasing accessibility of transit users to shopping and services, helping curb urban sprawl through infill (re)development, economic vitality and land values, and offering viable alternatives to auto dependency.
  • Transit systems that prioritize ridership vs systems that prioritize coverage. Transit systems that prioritize ridership tend to have low network coverage, focusing on a few key corridors, and high frequency service on those routes. Systems with vast networks have better coverage but less frequent service and in turn tend to attract fewer riders.
  • Travel time, which is a main determinant of travel mode decisions. Factors that can impact travel time include reliability, density and frequency. If transit must operate in mixed traffic, reliability is limited by prevailing traffic conditions. Providing transit lanes and using transit signal priority can significantly reduce travel times.
  • Network connection with more successful networks being those that have a variety of corridor and feeder systems and service types that connect with and complement each other.


Self Test



Intrazonal travel: Short, localized trips with an origin and destination within the same traffic analysis zone (TAZ).

Microtransit: Small-scale, on-demand public transit services that can offer fixed routes and schedules, as well as flexible routes and on-demand scheduling.

Paratransit: Flexible transit service that provides individual, door-to-door service. The vehicles do not operate over a fixed route or on a fixed schedule.

Transit signal priority: Technology that modifies traffic signal timing or phasing when transit vehicles are present, either for those running behind schedule or for all transit vehicles.



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