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Published on October 21st, 2007 | by Stephanie Evans


Greening Public Transportation

For those you looking to get away from the polluting, petroleum-dependent, greenhouse gas-emitting, sprawl-inducing automobile, there is no urban alternative more pervasive than public transportation.  Public transportation, also known as mass transit, public transit and public transport, moves groups of people around in urban areas, and it’s difficult to imagine an environmentally-conscious city lifestyle without public transportation.

Stepping Lightly

Why does public transportation epitomize green transportation, you ask? It’s all about the footprint, baby. Share a vehicle, scratch some footprint. Share with a lot of people, scratch a lot of footprint. Consider these numbers: if a bus were travelling at capacity, it would be carrying 50 to 80 passengers. That’s 40 to 70 cars. But a bus only occupies the space of 2 or 3 cars, has a much higher per person fuel economy, and as a result, emits much less pollution and greenhouse gases. (Cue Keanu Reeves to say, “Whoa.”)

The bus is only one of four main forms of mass transit, and the others have even smaller footprints. The three other types are heavy rail, light rail and trolleybuses.

Heavy Rail Transit

In your city, you might know heavy rail as the subwayMuni System or the metro.  If you’re in transit or urban planning, you might know it as rapid transit. Whatever you choose to call it, it’s the most expensive form of public transit to build and maintain, but it also provides the highest speed, greatest capacity, best efficiency and most rider comfort (you get what you pay for).  Well-known examples of heavy rail systems include the San Francisco BART, the Chicago “L,” the New York City subway, the Washington, DC Metro, the London Underground and the Hong Kong MTR.

With a capacity of over 10,000 passengers per hour, rapid transit is all about sharing with a lot of people.  You can practically see your footprint diminishing away to a speck.  Heavy rail is also completely separated from other traffic, most commonly by submerging (hence “subway”) or elevating (hence “L”) the tracks, freeing the surface for better land use.  Most importantly, heavy rail is an electric system.  Rather than relying on an internal combustion engine that burns fossil fuels and pollutes the air, power is delivered to trains in the form of electricity, usually through electrified third rails and sometimes through overhead wires.

By the way, those third rails might seem fascinating (what’s that, mommy?), but stay away. They’re electrified to 700 to 800 volts, so they’re seriously dangerous. Don’t wander off the platform, don’t step on the rail, just admire from a great distance.

Light Rail Transit

Careless passengers aside, relying on electricity is indisputably better than relying on petroleum.  Electricity is more efficient because it’s generated by a remote power source, which can benefit from economies of scale and centralized, rigorous pollution control.  Electricity is also more flexible because that remote power source can be … anything.  Don’t like coal? Use hydropower.  Don’t like dams? Use nuclear.  Don’t like radioactive waste? Use wind, solar, geothermal, wave action, whatever you want.  This flexibility means that when certain oil cartels twitch, subway operators don’t – except maybe to smile, because they might be getting more passengers.

Light rail is so called because it uses railway technology just as heavy rail does, but typically carries fewer passengers, running shorter trains (1-4 cars instead of 5-12 cars) less frequently.  Light rail also wears a more diverse array of guises than heavy rail does, with names including tram, trolley and streetcar.  Light rail often runs at street level, but still separated from traffic, and in addition to steel wheel on steel rail, some tramways use rubber tire on concrete beam.  Some examples of light rail systems are the San Francisco Muni Metro, the Boston MBTA Green Line, the Stadtbahn in Germany and the Hong Kong KCR Light Rail.  Like heavy rail, light rail is also electrically-powered, in most cases through overhead wires rather than third rails.


Trolleybuses are electric buses (sometimes called trackless trams) that run with rubber tires on ordinary road surface, in contrast to light and heavy rail.  However, they are also electric, receiving power through a pair of distinctive trolley poles attached to overhead wires.  These systems are particularly well-suited to hilly cities, such as San Francisco, since rubber provides better traction than what trams have, and more power can be delivered to climb hills than what diesel-powered buses have.  Cities with abundant electricity, such as hydropower-rich cities like Seattle and Vancouver, can support extensive trolleybus networks.

Buses also provide mobility to people who can’t afford to own a car, or people who can’t drive because they’re too young, too old, or disabled.

In comparison with all of these electric transports, your ordinary diesel- or gas-powered bus looks downright dirty.  But buses serve important functions that their more expensive counterparts do not.  Buses can provide cost-effective service to marginal or outlying areas, providing mobility to people who would otherwise be stranded.  Buses also provide mobility to people who can’t afford to own a car, or people who can’t drive because they’re too young, too old, or disabled.  Buses can be easily rerouted in case of fire or other emergency, and they can pave the way for the trolleybus or the streetcar.  In many areas, there are no other public transportation options.  Remember that sharing a bus is better than not sharing at all.

Green Commuting with Public Transportation Services

No doubt by now you’re raring to get on the next bus, tram, or train.  But wait – Where’s the nearest stop? When will it arrive? How long will it take to get to work? And do I have to risk plopping down on last month’s chewing gum or sharing close-quarters with the unwashed masses?

The truth is that in the US, public transportation serves some areas well, some very well, and others quite poorly.  There are many determining factors here, including the transit operator, the geography, the demography, and the political climate of a given area.  Buses have the most extensive reach, so the nearest stop to your origin or destination is likely to be a bus stop.  However, because they drive in mixed traffic, they are no faster than cars and are almost always slower because they must stop frequently.  Driving in mixed traffic also makes them less reliable.  Good systems will design their bus routes to be feeders into the other forms of transportation, like light and heavy rail.  With exclusive rights-of-way, these forms are much faster and reliable.  If you’re commuting by public transportation, you’ll probably have a good experience.  Service will be frequent and is more likely to be reliable.  Other passengers are likely to be workers like yourself, eager to get home and respectful of your personal space.

Green Train

Monthly Transit Passes

One way you can improve your mass/public transit experience is by buying a monthly pass.  These are usually a good value for commuters who travel almost daily, and they’ll move you through the fare-checking process more quickly.  No more fumbling with crumpled bills the machine won’t take and coins slipping through your fingers – just flash and go.  Another way to improve your transit experience is by familiarizing yourself with routes and schedules (available in buses, transit centers and online).  But don’t you feel you have to memorize them – trip-planning is available on many transit websites and most transit companies will provide trip-planning by phone.  An extension of knowing what’s supposed to happen is finding out what’s actually happening – advisories and vehicle trackers are increasingly available on mobile device-friendly transit websites.

On the other hand, as much as you may want to support public transportation, if there is no rapid transit in your area, and/or the nearest bus stop happens to be two miles away with a perpetually tardy bus coming only once per hour, there’s only so much one can take before hopping into your car (assuming you have one and are able to drive).  The bottom line is that the public transportation system needs to be effective in order to serve people the way it’s supposed to.  This is also something important to keep in mind when mass/public transportation initiatives come up for vote during ballot elections in your area.

Worldwide Public Transportation

Effective public transportation requires effective urban planning and strong political support. As the automobile rose to prominence after WWII, the US lost both.  While the same economic drivers made the automobile desirable in both the US and Europe, western European cities foster green commutes by actively discouraging auto usage while simultaneously maintaining high density development and providing a reliable source of income for public transit.  The US let the free market determine its fate.  As a result, public transportation flourished in Europe while ridership share in the US has steadily decreased since the 1970s.

Public Transport vs. Personal Transport

Roads are cheap to build (especially with all that federal money), and automobiles offer unmatched freedom, convenience and individuality.  Was it any wonder that the auto ridership share of urban trips rose to 95% by the mid 1980s? As the automobile gained in popularity, sprawl dominated urban development.  Without concentrated nodes and corridors, public transportation service quickly degraded into infrequency and sparseness.  Even in cities suitable for public transportation, voters more concerned with their freeway commute than rapid transit running parallel to it have transferred vital government subsidies from public transportation systems to highway systems.

But public transportation offers social benefits that wholly justify its government subsidies (and show that the free market can’t take care of everything).  We’ve already mentioned the green commute aspect of a smaller footprint and mobility for those who can’t use cars, but public transportation is also significantly safer than driving an automobile.  Unless you’re an electrician or a logger, the most dangerous thing you do every day is get into your car, hit the road and brave traffic-congested routes.  Heavy and light rail are safer because they operate on fixed guideways, separate from traffic.  Trolleybuses and buses are safer because they’re operated by professional drivers (who actually know what they’re doing).  Good public transportation systems are also vital to a city’s economic and social health, since they provide many workers, shoppers and residents access to the city’s business, retail, educational and cultural centers.

These are benefits worth protecting.  Remember to use your political power to keep them around, for the good of earth — and its citizens.

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