Public transportation in North America refers to transportation which available to anyone for a fee. This includes trains, light rail, buses and ferries, and these can be operated by governments, commercial operators or public-private partnerships. Public transportation in North America contributes to a reduction in pollution as well as increased efficiency in moving people and goods. For the most part, public transportation systems are isolated and exist in a patchwork across the country, as they are regulated and implemented by local and regional authorities. For example, New York City has its famous subway system which operates across four of the five boroughs. Many cities and towns use buses for their public transportation system, which does reduce pollution and greenhouse gases in comparison to private cars, but continues to be a source of emissions.
Public transportation has a number of advantages in comparison to private transportation. First and most importantly is that it is more efficient, requiring fewer trips and less energy to move more goods and people. Secondly it is more cost efficient, and this ensures that transportation is affordable and accessible. The third point is that it has less of a negative impact on the environment. Most cities and towns have long range public transportation plans, however rural areas are often locations where there are few to no public transportation options with none being considered for the future. This is because the population density and the capital and resources available are not sufficient to consider any sort of public transportation system.

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When researchers are considering public transportation policy there are usually two interrelated aspects, and those are social equity and the environment (Manaugh et al., 167). Public transportation is often the only possible choice for getting around for households that for reasons of cost, disability or personal choice do not include vehicles. Without public transportation this part of the population would be limited in terms of employment, shopping and recreation. Despite this, for the most part public transportation has been traditionally focused on increasing the mobility of a population by reducing congestion and saving time for people with long commutes (Manaugh et al., 167). In recent years sustainability and impacts on the environment have become an additional priority which is considered in terms of design and changes to public transportation systems (Manaugh et al., 167). The social equity aspect, or ensuring that all persons can work, access goods and find interesting options for their leisure time is not considered to be as important in most jurisdictions (Manaugh et al., 167). Many jurisdictions do however put effort into ensuring that public transportation includes accessible options for people in wheelchairs or with other mobility issues and persons who are blind or have other sensory deficits. Some jurisdictions, such as San Francisco, are more concerned with social equity. For example, in San Francisco a performance indicator for the public transportation network is whether people can access low income jobs, and what percentage of household income is spent on transportation (Manaugh et al., 172).

From the perspective of public transportation users, the important issue is whether this mode of transportation provides value in comparison to alternatives. To be attractive public transportation needs to be both faster and more affordable that private travel options (Hess and Bitterman, 49). For these reason jurisdictions market their public transportation network, including promotions, advertising and messaging intended to convince potential consumers of the value of using public transport (Hess and Bitterman, 49). The realities of using private transportation, including the rising cost of fuel and awareness of the problem of carbon emissions helps to complement such messages, as consumers seek a more effective means to travel in their local area (Hess and Bitterman, 49). Unfortunately marketing of public transportation tends to not receive the attention and resources that would greatly increase the use of these systems and reduce the number of private vehicles on the road (Hess and Bitterman, 49).

If motor vehicles were not available as the primary mode of transport, public transit would be overwhelmed with demand. Additional public transportation sources would be necessary in order to ensure that the economy would function and expectations would be met. These additional sources might include high speed rail, but also means of collaborating for transportation such as car sharing and bike sharing.

High speed rail is used in Japan and Western Europe, and this has proven to be an attractive way to convince many people to use public transportation. High speed rail involves speeds of more than 200 miles per hour and a significant reduction in pollution and carbon emissions (Perl and Goetz, 2-3). Most make use of electricity rather than petroleum, and in France where the electrical grid uses nuclear power there are therefore zero carbon emissions from public transportation by high speed rail. High speed rail began in Japan in the 1960s, and since that time it has been adopted in a variety of locations including France, Germany and China (Perl and Goetz, 2). It provides the fastest, most affordable and most efficient means of transporting people to work, shopping or recreation, however it has yet to be adopted by locations in the United States. There has, however, been considerable research on this topic in the United States and Canada (Perl and Goetz, 2). One of the reasons why public transportation by high speed rail continues to be elusive is the fragmentation of responsibility for public transportation across small governments who do not have the capital to build and implement such a scheme. If public transportation needs were considered at the state or national level then high speed rail might be more likely to be implemented, providing an advantage for people who need transportation as well as their surrounding communities.

Without any public transportation at all the result would more likely be even more private vehicles on the road. In rural and other locations which do not have a public transportation plan and are outside of public transportation networks there are few options outside of cars or taxis. This would have a detrimental impact on roads, congestion, air quality and time spent travelling for everyday purposes. It would particularly impact economic growth, which requires people and goods to have efficient modes of travel in order to be productive.

While the investment in public transportation, and subsequently ridership, is less popular in North America than in Europe and Asia it continues to be a critical aspect of public policy and everyday life. That serves to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, congestion and time spent in traffic while increasing transportation options. Economic growth as well as social equity would be supported by increasing public transportation options and a more cohesive public transportation system. This could be achieved if state and national level projects were to be launched which saw the development of high speed rail based on electricity, which would decrease the time spent travelling and potentially cost while ensuring greater coverage of the public transportation network. Given the important of sustainable solutions for environmental concerns, high speed rail may be the public transportation choice of future governments and their partners in private industry. This would reflect the importance of public transportation to various goals of governments and to consumers.

  • Hess, Daniel Baldwin, and Alex Bitterman. “Branding and selling public transit in North America: An analysis of recent messages and methods.” Research in Transportation Business & Management 18 (2016): 49-56.
  • Manaugh, Kevin, Madhav G. Badami, and Ahmed M. El-Geneidy. “Integrating social equity into urban transportation planning: A critical evaluation of equity objectives and measures in transportation plans in North America.” Transport policy 37 (2015): 167-176.
  • Perl, Anthony, and Andrew Goetz. “Getting Up to Speed: Assessing Usable Knowledge from Global High-Speed Rail Experience for the United States.” Transportation Research Record: Journal of the Transportation Research Board 2475 (2015): 1-7.