Public Transportation, or Transit, as it's more commonly known Stateside, is the integrated (hopefully) system of buses, trains, trams (or trolleys) and other multiple people movers.

The term "Public" implies that it is provided by a Public, or government, body. This fact distinguishes Public Transportation from Paratransit, which could be any of the above modes, but is provided by a private company, usually to transport their workers. Paratransit becomes important in countries where the Public Transportation system is poor, or where workers require additionally subsidised transport (such as blue collar workers in Gulf states) or work night shifts when Public Transportation is either closed, infrequent or unsafe.

Public Transportation works in different ways in different countries. And you can take that sentence in different ways too. In some countries, usually Socialist or leftward leaning countries, Public Transportation operates well (though nobody is ever satisfied). You can get where you want to, when you want to, often faster than you could in a car, and usually with a lot less fuss (ever tried to find parking in London? Good luck.)

More Capitalist or rightward leaning or developing countries usually have inferior Public Transportation systems. The simple reason for this is that Public Transportation is expensive, and its hard to justify the expense. You could probably buy yourself a nice limo or Ferrari for less than the average out-the-box double decker bus. Railway lines cost heinous nine-figure sums to build, and almost as much to maintain. Trams are the new vogue around the world. Light Rail (as they're also called) is as its name implies, lighter than a train, the vehicle is sometimes remarkably close to a bus, there is less pressure for them to run on a segregated track (in other words, they can share the roadway with cars), and they're cheaper.

Government purse strings are getting tighter these days. Governments traditionally get better loan rates from banks because they can just raise taxes when they get into financial difficulty, so long as they lend internally and are not crippled by a collapsing economy and foreign exchange loans. Still, they are now loath to take the financial risks in these heady days of mass media, where mistakes are harder to cover up. What is happening in countries such as Britain nowadays, is the glorified Public Private Partnership, in which the government provides a private company with a guaranteed monopoly on the particular transit service, in exchange for the private company sticking their neck out on the financing. Of course it all blew up spectacularly in Britain in 2001/2 with the collapse of Railtrack, which resulted the then Minister for Transport, Stephen Byers' resignation.

Public Private Partnership works rather well in roads and buses, however. Every time you pay a toll, you're using a road built by private finance. They're remarkably successful and you can see why governments are eager to extend the concept to more expensive rail schemes. The stakes, however, are considerably higher, and there is a big difference in they way people perceive motoring costs versus transit costs.

In the sanctity of your own car, you feel in control. This feeling of control leads you to accept higher accident risks, tolled roads, expensive parking, congestion and pollution. You feel that by being in control of your own destiny: you have the right to choose which route you take, where you park, when you travel, your comfort whilst travelling, and so you accept levels of service you would not tolerate in a Public Transportation vehicle.

Riders on Public Transportation have a notion that the government should provide. You feel you have the right to turn up when you want to travel, and a train magically appear, with a free seat. You get irate if the bus breaks down and you're buggered if you're walking that extra 300 yards to the stop round the corner that has the quicker bus route. Buses smell, trains are infrequent, trams are often overcrowded. This is because they are expensive to run and maintain, and cost effectiveness demands that there is a group of people waiting to be picked up rather than lots of stops for few people. The heightened safety that you demand means that there must be a considerable time gap between vehicles on the railways to avoid collisions and stop delays being passed on from one service to the next.

Public Transportation works best in areas with dense land use. Inner cities, with lots of high-rise offices, or dense residential neighbourhoods (apartment buildings or terraced houses), for example. Texan-style urban sprawl is not conducive to an efficient Public Transit system -- you can't put stops on every corner, so people have to travel longer distances to the stops. In a sprawl situation, the population catchment required for a station covers an area with its limits beyond comfortable walking distance. Comfortable walking distance is relative, of course: based on what people are used to (10 minutes in London is standard, would an average American tolerate walking 10 minutes? Probably not unless they were on a treadmill at their local gym!) and the weather conditions. In Dubai in summer, 100 metres can seem like a marathon.

So is there any hope that your neighbourhood will soon proudly sport a Public Transportation mode that takes you conveniently from A to B without going via C, D and E or taking too long? Maybe.

Buses are easier, but they perform poorly in congestion unless they have well-policed, designated bus lanes that don't suddenly disappear every time they meet a spatially constrained junction. Buses can be small (but remember that they need to carry enough people to justify the driver's salary) and can take circuitous routes through neighbourhoods. If they aren't protected from traffic congestion, however, reliability and journey time go up the pole, and users quickly switch to a different mode. Short, regular feeder bus routes linking wider areas to train stations (faster modes) are a saving grace.

Trains are the Holy Grail, but are under stick because of their cost. I personally marvel at the ability to travel from Brighton to London in under 50 minutes. (Try doing that in a car, sucker!) I am truly awed by how a train travelling 120mph can derail, hit a tree, and only two people die. (Try doing that in your car, cowboy!) Accidents happen, so don't tell me "the train shouldn't have derailed though". Europe is moving towards high speed rail between cities, which is stiff competition for airlines and has boosted the economy in many a town receiving the upgraded service, thanks to the improvement in accessibility.

Trams are the catwalk children of Public Transportation: they're young, sexy, quick, reliable, can operate driverless (like the Docklands Light Railway) and as I mentioned previously, cheap. Companies fight tooth and nail for the right to build and operate them, and they're very attractive for cash-strapped Local Authorities. Unfortunately, many are not quite the success of some of the supermodels like DLR and Croydon Tramlink.

The reason for this is that Public Transportation schemes, historically, are expected to pay for themselves. Road building schemes are a sunken cost, justified by the "congestion relief" they bring (all those time savings multiplied by the monetary value of time spells big bucks) and not to mention fuel levies. This is because more roads breed more traffic, which means more cars bought, more petrol sold, more taxes brought into government coffers. Roads schemes are also quicker to build and therefore less risky (less time for costs to spiral out of control). Another factor is that it is easy to predict road usage: Field of Dreams theory works here.

With Public Transportation schemes, things are a little different. You need to locate the stations close enough for easy access, but not so close that the stops get annoying and waste time and energy. A few errors with the numbers, and you're not recouping that huge investment. Mostly, though, sunk cost is seen as subsidy, where road maintenance costs are not.

As research continues into quantifying, in monetary terms, the value of accessibility, pollution, global warming, that endangered bird whose only remaining habitat just made way for a six-lane superhighway, etc, then Public Transportation schemes may start to fare better in Cost Benefit Analyses.

Until then, practise sustainability: chose the smallest fuel consuming transport mode possible for your trip. If you can walk, walk. If not, can you cycle? Ride a bus? A train or tram? Get a ride with someone who's already going? Maybe you should get a little moped or scooter? You really gotta take the car? Okay, but leave the 12 cylinder gas guzzler in the garage, please, my asthma's getting worse and I don't need your fumes hurting my lungs more, I still wanna use them for a couple more decades. Thanks.

Related topics by the same author: Traffic Engineer.

When it works, the most pleasant and efficient way to get from your home to work and back again, from one city to another or even from one country to another. Good public transport is cheap and fast, eliminates road rage, gives people time to read, creates the possibility of chance encounters with strangers and is environmentally friendly. Bad public transport is dark and dangerous and smells of urine.

I used to think that public transportation was a gaping money-suck. Unless you live somewhere densely populated like Hong Kong busses and trains are funded largely by government subsidies. I used to scoff in disgust at the huge infrastructure costs inherent in my local public transit.

I then complained to someone in the at the office of municipal transportation saying that they should run the operations more efficiently. For God's sake, some of the drivers were making more than $50000 Cdn and there was some ridiculous, un-beautiful, expensive sculptures decorating the stations.

Anyway, the municipal authority then showed me a chart of the out-of-pocket tax expenses of car-driving compared to taking public transit and I was surprised to see that the government is spending more on expenses for cars than for public transit. I then saw his calculations, and, yes: The government is subsidizing car use more than public transit It just goes to show that being environmentally conscious isn't always more expensive. Our local transit system is still inefficient but it is less costly than the investment in new roads, lights and law enforcement required to drive cars.

I think people who laugh at there being no public transportation in the US are just ignorant.

There actually IS public transportation in the few American cities that have a dense enough population for it. Every big city I know of has a bus system. New York, DC, Boston, and now Los Angeles have subways, probably more cities than that do. Yes, public transportation in the US exists!

The reason we all drive cars and that most locations don't have public transportation, is the low population density in the US compared to that of European countries. I don't know the percentage, but a LOT of people live in rural or suburban areas where it is just not possible to provide public transportation. That is the major difference between the EU and US. Most people in Europe live in cities.

Public transportation is great in cities. However, it won't work when people are spread out over miles and miles. Europeans make fun of us for all driving environment trashing cars, but there is no other way to get around when everything is spread out.

Besides, is there public transportation in rural England or rural France? To my knowledge there is not, because public transportation doesn’t work in low population area.

Before you bash countries practices, you have to look at the background for that country.
As a Londoner who's seen the tube slowly falling apart due to lack of investment over the past 15-20 years, I've been pleasantly surprised by the comparatively high standard of public transport in the States. Sure, Los Angeles is still immersed in a complete love affair with the car, but my experience has been that the subway systems of New York City, Philadelphia and Boston are clean, efficient and cheap by London standards.

In fact Philadelphia manages to achieve a unified transport system, something that's been missing in London since the end of the Greater London Council. I thought it was wonderful that I could get on a bus in Philly and buy a transfer ticket which could be automatically used on the subway or the trolleys; in London this would only be possible by buying a Travelcard rather than for individual journeys.

Admittedly neither America nor Britain seem to have managed to develop the kind of public transport systems that exist in much of continental Europe, but that's because both our countries have a tendency to think something's only worthwhile if there's a (financial) profit in it. Public transport may or may not be expensive in terms of running costs, but in other costs, such as that to the environment or quality of life it wins every time. I would much rather sit on the train for 25 minutes on the way to work, maybe reading a book or tapping away on my laptop, than sit in a car for 90 minutes with nothing to do bar listen to the drivel on the radio and get stressed out at all the other traffic. Go on try it, you just might find you like it!

Finally just a quick response to thopkins: yes, most rural areas of Britain do have at least a daily bus service to the nearest town, and until the 1960s even fairly small towns had railway stations, many of which are still existent and could be reopened if there was the political / monetary will to do so.

In partial response to Iain's node:

Actually, there are several unified intermodal public transportation systems besides Philly. The New York City subway system uses MetroCards, which allow you to also ride all of the public bus lines and most of the private ones. Also, the Washington (DC) Transit Authority has an extremely integrated system. You can use the stored value tickets (and even contactless smart cards) to ride the train system, take a bus, and you can even use the cards to park your car in a parking lot so you can take the public transportation downtown. Many of the US public transportation boards are going for intermodal integration to save money and improve ridership. I know in Denver, Colorado, they reached their projected ridership for 2015 already. If it is convenient, and it's built, they will come.

Southbound on short notice. Piled into the car bundled in sweaters coats scarves leaving town on the edge of fading daylight. The usual miles melting to hours and country fields smearing a flickering green brown outside the windows. Rain traded to a detached fog over the mountain pass, closing our world small and soft among this we gathered one off the side of the road. In the dark speeding just glowing dials and kind of faces under occasional oncoming headlights.

At last six hundred miles south she was waiting for us awake with made beds perfect, restless sleep and instructions ready till morning. From there it was all public transit, one form or another. Backwards facing we watched where we had been the intercom where we would be floating over crossed ties rails. Airport our nexus home. Watch waiting, people passing until faces are no longer distinct and just motion. Shuddering shaking honking speeding busride into the dark cold city tired walking the streets to eat in a small meal and return to the airport. Early morning sleepy crammed small into seats lined hundreds forwards. Water dripping from the ceiling seatbelts stolen five hours into warmer weather clear sparkling oceans.

Tired backpacks call connecting through the city buildings tall solid towards scattered trees and low green. Walking warm rain down the shoulder of the road rides with strangers still sort of figuring a corner out for ourselves in the short time we had. Sometimes we reached out to quiet crowd we shared out motion with, most of the time we just filed them away memories for later.

In Pittsburgh, there are two main types of public transportation: bus and lightrail. Buses, slow and crowded, are a necessary evil to those who cannot afford a place to park. There is currently only one lightrail system, which is fondly called the "T" by Pittsburghers. Typically clean and well-lit, the track runs through the South Hills, from tiny Library to Downtown.

Advantages include:

Disadvantages include:

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