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Public transit, public transportation, public transport or mass transit comprises all transportation systems in which the passengers do not travel in their own vehicles. While it is generally taken to include rail and bus services, wider definitions would include scheduled airline services, ferries, taxicab services etc. — any system that transports members of the general public. A further restriction that is sometimes applied is that it should take place in shared vehicles, which would exclude taxis that are not shared-ride taxis.

The term public transportation, public transit or mass transit are usually used in North America, whereas public transport is preferred in the British Isles and most Commonwealth countries. The term transit is less likely to include long-distance forms of public transportation, such as long-distance or commuter railroads, inter-city buses, or intercity railways.

Public transit is usually regulated as a common carrier and is usually configured to provide scheduled service on fixed routes on a non-reservation basis. The majority of transit passengers are traveling within a local area or region between their homes and places of employment, shopping, or schools.

Motor transportation

Public transit is the primary form of motor transportation. While in the western world private cars dominate, in the developing world (majority of global population) private car ownership is prohibitive (or in dense urban areas the high cost of parking), so walking, (motor)cycling or public transit are often the only options, with only the latter being viable for longer distances. This often takes the form of mini-buses (jitneys) that may follow fixed routes but are usually flexible, including taxi-style door-to-door transportation.

Construction of separate infrastructure can make public transportation faster than common roads. Prime examples are in cities where road congestion can be avoided (metros or subways can be elevated or buried), and for long-distance travel (intercity trains which have dedicated rights-of-way). Buses and trains that travel on public roads are generally slower than private transportation, because of the initial wait for a vehicle, frequent stops, traffic lights, and congestion that slow general traffic. Some public transit systems make use of dedicated or semi-dedicated travel lanes and traffic light pre-empts as a way to increase speed while avoiding the cost of a completely dedicated right-of-way.

Some public transportation systems are poorly developed and thus may take up to two or even three times longer than an equivalent trip in a private vehicle, especially where transfers are required or headways are very long.

Increased road traffic congestion and improved transit systems are reducing or eliminating this disparity in many areas, and public transportation use rises sharply with population density. Ultimately, if all transportation were public (in the sense of shared), more people per vehicle would mean fewer vehicles on the roads, thus reducing and probably even eliminating traffic jams. Additionally, it would be easier to centrally coordinate the flow of traffic with phased traffic lights, eliminating the usually frequent stops, and the absence of parked cars would create space for extra lanes. Cases where (individually faster) private transportation competes against (collectively faster) public transportation in densely populated areas are manifestations of the tragedy of the commons.

The term rapid transit refers to fast public transit in and around cities, such as metro systems (metropolitan rail). The distinction between (national) rail, metro and tram is sometimes blurred, such as in Amsterdam and the wider Randstad area, where trains often run every 10 minutes, thus taking on the role of a metro; the metro is only partly underground; and the so-called light rail is basically a streetcar that runs on metro lines.


Conveyances for public hire are as old as the first ferries, and the earliest public transportation was water transportation, for on land people walked or rode an animal. This form of transportation is part of Greek mythology — corpses in ancient Greece were always buried with a coin underneath their tongue to pay the ferryman Charon to take them to Hades.

Some historical forms of public transit are the stagecoach, travelling a fixed route from inn to inn, and the horse-drawn boat carrying paying passengers, which was a feature of canals from their 17th-century origins.

The omnibus, the first organized public transit system within a city, appears to have originated in Nantes, France, in 1826.


Public transportation systems generally rely on government subsidy to supplement fare collections, though a few systems are run as unsubsidized commercial enterprises or are entirely paid for by governments. The percentage of revenue from passenger charges is known as the farebox recovery ratio. Transit systems earn incidental revenue from their unused real estate, in the form of parking fees, leasing space to shops and vendors, advertising, and lately, leasing their tunnels and rights-of-way to carry fiber optic communication lines.

Some systems are owned and operated by a government agency; other transportation services may be commercial, but receive greater benefits from the government compared to a normal company, e.g.,

  • direct payments to run unprofitable services.
  • government bailouts if the company is likely to collapse (often applied to airlines).
  • tax advantages, e.g., aviation fuel is typically not taxed.
  • reduction of competition through licensing schemes (often applied to taxi and airline services.)
  • allowing use of state-owned infrastructure without payment or for less than cost-price (may apply for railways).

One reason many cities spend large sums on their public transportation systems is that heavy automobile traffic congests city streets and causes air pollution. It is believed that public transit systems alleviate this, but reducing car traffic is not always assured.

Some city councils fund public transit infrastructure to promote business and economic growth, or to regenerate deprived ares of the city. Examples of public transportation planned according to this philosophy are the Docklands Light Rail and Crossrail projects in London.

Another reason for subsidies for public transit are the provision of mobility to those who reject its use on convenience, environmental or safety grounds and those who cannot afford or are physically incapable of using an automobile.

Hong Kong

In Hong Kong, MTR Corporation Limited and KCR Corporation are given the rights to utilize lands near stations, depots or tracks for property development. Profits from land development cover the partial cost of construction, but not operation, of the urban rail systems. Similar arrangements are available to the ferry piers of franchised ferry service providers. Franchised bus operators are exempted from paying tax on diesel.

United States

Main article: Transportation in the United States

In the United States, operations of most public transit services are financially subsidized by local and state governments, who provide matching funds to receive up to 80% capital grant aid from the Federal Transit Administration (FTA), an agency of the U.S. Department of Transportation. This agency administers programs which provide funding and support services to state and local agencies which operate a wide range of public transportation services.

These include local urban and suburban bus and paratransit services, light rail, heritage streetcar systems, cable car, subway, rapid transit, and commuter rail services.

Special rural transportation programs of the FTA and some state governments provide assistance for bus and paratransit services in some areas.

New York City has the most extensive transit system in the country, operated by the Metropolitan Transportation Authority MTA. About one in every three users of mass transit in the United States and two-thirds of the nation's rail riders live in the New York City Metropolitan Area. MTA Facts Arlington, Texas (pop. 360,000) is the largest city in the United States without convnetional fixed-route public transportation. (Arlington operates a demand responsive paratransit service Handitran.)

Economic impact

Many advocates argue that new public transportation systems have substantial economic benefits, attracting development and increasing real estate values. Transit oriented development attempts to maximize the economic and environmental benefits of public transit investments by encouraging greater development density within walking distance of stations. Translating economic impact into a steady source of revenue for public transportation construction and operation has been a dream for most urban planners. Few localities have the ability to seize and reassign development rights to a private transit operator, as Hong Kong has done.

Others argue that public funding of transit systems is overly expensive and ineffective. They claim the per-mile construction and maintenance costs of constructing a subway or light rail line often equal or exceed that of an urban freeway, yet do not divert the same number of automobiles (though supporters of public transportation dispute this for urban areas). Detractors also point out that public transit rarely covers its operating costs through fares (though this may be a misleading statement, since part of a freeway's "operating" cost, that of owning and maintaining vehicles, is tacitly covered by its private users). No transit agency in the U.S. has achieved this for several decades [1]; as of 2003, U.S. transit operators obtained only 32.6% of their operating funding from fares, the rest coming primarily from government subsidies [2]. At times, transit unions have staged strikes, threatening to hold the city population hostage until their demands are met. However, automobile congestion continues to grow [3] and since 1995, U.S. public transportation ridership has risen 21% – more than the same period's increase in roadway vehicle miles or airline passenger miles. [4] Several U.S. states that were considered bastions of highway-only thinking, such as Colorado and Utah, had approved major public transportation investments by 2005.

Social issues

Critics of public transportation systems often claim they attract "undesirable elements" and tell of violent criminals preying on passengers and homeless people sleeping on trains and relieving themselves in public areas[1]. On a few occasions, passengers have reacted by taking the law into their own hands (as in the notorious 1984 case of the "subway vigilante," Bernhard Goetz).

Despite the occasional highly publicized incident, the vast majority of modern public transportation systems are well-patrolled and generally have low crime rates. Most transit operators have developed methods to discourage people from using their facilities for overnight shelter. Well designed transit systems are used by many social classes and new systems have a major positive impact on real estate prices. The Hong Kong metro MTR generates a profit by redeveloping land around its stations. Much public opposition to new transit construction protests the impact on neighborhoods of the new economic development public transportation attracts.

By contrast, car accidents cause an estimated 1 million fatalities per year world wide. In the United States alone there were 42,643 automobile accident fatalities in 2003, almost three times the total number of murders (14,408). Over 9 in 10 commuters in North America travel to work by car.

Food & drink

Some transportation systems forbid (the consumption of) food or drink when riding on public transit. Sometimes only types of food are forbidden with more risk of making the vehicles dirty, e.g. ice creams and French fries.

Rules tend to be more strict in metros, trams, and buses than in non-metro trains (also in other regards, see sitting). In fact, the latter sometimes sell food and drink on board, or even have a dedicated buffet car and/or dining car. Also consuming brought-along food and drinks is allowed, except in these special carriages.

Smoking is prohibited in all or some parts of most public transportation systems due to safety and health issues. Generally smoking isn't allowed on the actual buses and trains, while rules concerning stations and waiting platforms differ from system to system.


In the era when long distance trips took several days, sleeping accommodations were an essential part of transportation. Today, most airlines and long-distance trains offer reclining seats and many provide pillows and blankets for overnight travelers. Better sleeping arrangements are commonly offered for a premium fare (e.g. first class, business class, etc.) and include sleeping cars on overnight trains, larger private cabins on ships and airplane seats that convert into beds. Budget-conscious tourists sometimes plan their trips using overnight train or bus trips in lieu of paying for an hotel.

The ability to get additional sleep on the way to work is attractive to many commuters using public transportation. Some regional rail operators provide "quiet cars" where loud conversation and cell phone use are banned.

Occasionally, a local transit route with a long overnight segment and which accepts inexpensive multi-use passes will acquire a reputation as a "moving hotel" for people with limited funds. Most transportation agencies actively discourage this. For this and other reasons passengers are often required to exit the vehicle at the end of the line; they can board again in the same or another vehicle, after some waiting. Also, even a low fare often deters the poorest individuals, including homeless people.

One example of the moving homeless shelter phenomenon is the Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority (VTA) bus line 22 [5] between Palo Alto, California and San Jose, California in the United States. It is often called "Hotel 22" or "Motel 22" by the homeless of Silicon Valley.[2][3]A pass for a night costs US$5.25 and $61.25 for a month, much less than a hotel, house or apartment.

Another example is the interurban rail services operated by CityRail out of Sydney, Australia. Fairly comfortable trains operate between Sydney and Lithgow or Newcastle during the night, trips of approximately 2½ hours. Age, Disability and Sole Parent pensioner excursion fares are AU$2.50 for an all-day ticket.

The New York City Subway, which operates 24 hours per day, also sees its share of homeless people who sleep in the subway system, both in stations and on trains.

Modern public transportation

Public transportation comes in many forms:



Main article: Rapid transit
  • Automated guideway transit (AGT), also called Peoplemover
  • Cable car on rails, used in cities, a streetcar (tram} pulled by a cable
  • Cable car on rails, used in mountains. Template:See
  • Cable car suspended from a cable. Template:See
  • Rack railway (or rack and pinion railway)
  • Elevated railroad, such as the Chicago 'L'
  • Light rail a tram-like system with no significant sections of the route shared with cars or pedestrians, such as the San Diego Trolley or the St. Louis Metrolink
  • Magnetic levitation train (Maglev)
  • Metro (also known as 'subway' or 'underground')
    • Rubber-tired metro
    • Advanced Rapid Transit
  • Monorail
  • Train, including commuter train and high-speed rail
  • Tram (or tramway, trolley, streetcar)


  • Ferry, including hydrofoil, catamaran and hovercraft
  • Water taxi


  • Airliner
  • Helicopter

(Only in some countries. For all intents and purposes, in deregulated countries air travel is private transportation. Governments do not control pricing, routes, aircraft or schedules.)

Sloped or vertical

  • Aerial tramway also called cable car or cableway, vehicle suspended from aerial cables
  • Chairlift
  • Conveyor transport (term includes escalators and horizontal or slightly inclined moving sidewalk - "Travolator")
  • Escalator
  • Elevator or lift
  • Funicular, used in mountains, tram-like vehicle on rails pulled by a cable up and down a very steep slope.
  • Gondola lift

Some of these types are often not for use by the general public, e.g. elevators in offices and apartment buildings, buses for personnel or school children, etc.

Emerging technologies

  • Group rapid transit
  • Dual mode transit
  • Personal rapid transit
  • Automated highway systems
  • Bus rapid transit
  • Maglev rapid transit

Intermodal transportation

In recent years, an increasing emphasis has been placed on intermodal transportation facilities. These are intended to help passengers move from one mode (or form) of transportation to another. An intermodal station may service air, rail, and highway transportation for example.

(See Wikipedia:Intermodal passenger transport)

Nodes and stops

Stations are an important aspect of any public transportation system. Specific types include:

In addition one can alight from and usually board a taxi at any road where stopping is allowed. Some fixed-route buses allow getting on and off at suitable unmarked locations along that route, typically called a hail-and-ride section.

Ticket systems

Different arrangements for fare collection are in use. Depending on the type, fares:

  • must be bought in advance, one cannot physically enter the railway platform, vehicle, etc. without passing a turnstile, fare gate or ticket inspector (usually found in a metro)
  • must be bought in advance as a voucher for a user-determined amount of money, which is encoded on a ticket or smartcard by electronic, magnetic, or optical means. A fare is deducted automatically each time the ticket is used — either just upon system entry, or at both entry and exit where the fare is variable by distance. The latter is often found in newer systems.
  • must be bought in advance, checked by a conductor or Revenue Protection Inspector etc., upon entry (usually found on buses in North America and Western Europe, and on commuter rail systems)
  • must be bought in advance, checked randomly by a ticket controller (proof-of-payment system, usually found in Europe and occasionally the United States)
  • can be bought both in advance or during the ride, with the fare sometimes being higher in the latter case, see also Conductor; in this case purchase in advance is often possible at major stations, but usually not at a typical tram or bus stop

Passengers may be issued with a paper ticket, metal or plastic token, or an electronic card.

Multi-use tickets

Special tickets (other than for a single ride at the regular price) include:

  • passes for unlimited travel within a period of time
  • passes for unlimited travel during a given number of days that can be chosen within a longer period of time (e.g. 8 days within a month)
  • multi-ride tickets
  • discount tickets valid for someone with a discount pass, etc.
  • season tickets
  • Citycards and Sightseeing Passes. Free public transportation tickets are included.

Passes may be for a particular route (in both directions), or for a whole network.

Electronic fare card

Electronic fare cards are designed to be read by a computer input device and include:

  • Magnetic stripe card — privileges and fare remaining are magnetically encoded on the card after each use
    • Paper tickets with magnetic stripes (adopted by a few rapid transit systems like BART before plastic magnetic stripe cards went into widespread use)
    • MetroCard — used in New York City.
    • Metropass — used in Toronto.
    • Common Stored Value Tickets — formerly used in Hong Kong.
  • Smartcard — typically credit card sized with an embedded microprocessor. Contactless cards are preferred for transit fare collection because they speed riders through fare gates. Examples include:
    • Navigo card — Paris (2001)
    • Octopus card — Hong Kong
    • Oyster card — London
    • SmarTrip — Washington, D.C.
    • CharlieCard — Boston (2006)
    • EZ-Link card — Singapore
    • SmartRiderPerth
    • TcardSydney
    • T-money (2004), Upass (1996), Mybi (2000) — South Korea
    • OV-ChipkaartRotterdam (2006), Rest of the Netherlands (2008)
    • Suica & ICOCAJapan
    • AndantePorto (2002) - first fully contactless system, even for occasional riders
    • Breeze — Atlanta (2006)
    • Chicago Card — Chicago (2002)
    • EasyCard — Taipei (2002)
    • M-Card — St. John's (2006)
    • RejsekortZealand 2008, rest of Denmark 2009
    • GTA FarecardGreater Toronto Area (to be introduced in 2007, completed in 2010)
    • mykiMelbourne (2007)
  • SMS tickets that use a passenger's cell phone as a payment device. It has been implemented as a supplementary fare charging system in a small number of cities in Europe, but is still considered to be in its early development. Korail uses SMS ticket since 2005.

Free systems

There are a large number of free bus services. Some of these are funded by private businesses (such as the merchants in a shopping mall) in the hope that doing so will increase sales or other revenue from increased foot traffic or ease of travel. Some, such as airport connectors, are funded by government agencies to ease bottlenecks or fill short gaps in the transit network, or as part of the services offered by a public facility. Employers often operate free shuttles as a benefit to their employees, or as part of a congestion mitigation agreement with a local government.

Some activists promote the idea that all the public transportation in a given city or community should be free. They claim that this would make the system more accessible and fair for low-income residents, and provide benefits such as decreased congestion, decreased air pollution from cars and related improvements in public health, fewer traffic accidents, easier parking, savings from reduced wear and tear on roads, and savings from not having to pay for fare collection equipment and personnel.

Examples of City Wide Free Transportation
  • Chapel Hill, North Carolina - free bus services
  • Compiègne, France; free bus services since 1990s
  • Hasselt, Belgium - free bus services, which made (planned in the 1990s) huge investments in streets and parking facilities unnecessary. Influence on property values should be visible by now and perhaps known in public bus company circles
  • Lübben, Germany - City Bus is free - following the Hasselt experience
  • Mariehamn, Finland has free bus services in the town
  • Nova Gorica, Slovenia has free city wide bus service since April 2006.
  • Türi, Estonia - free bus service
  • Vitré, France - all city bus lines have been free since spring 2001.
  • Övertorneå, Sweden - even 70 km free rides on local buses in this rural community
Examples of Limited Free Transportation
  • Ann Arbor, Michigan — free bus services between University of Michigan campuses and student housing. UofM students are now also able to ride all routes of the AATA buses for free by showing their student card. While not "free for all" it is included in the package for students. Also, AATA runs a service called "the Link" which runs around the downtown and campus area and is currently free (for everyone) to ride.
  • Auckland, New Zealand — a free CBD loop service links the ferry terminus, railway station, universities, theatres, casino, galleries and shopping districts using hybrid electric buses.
  • Brisbane, Australia has free bus trips around "The Loop" in the CBD on two routes mirroring each other, varying only because of Brisbane's one-way street grid.
  • Cache Valley, Utah - all services of the Logan Transit District and Cache Valley Transit District are free, with connections to most communities and neighborhoods in Cache Valley.
  • Commerce, California — free bus services
  • Denver, Colorado — Free 16th Street Mall shuttle bus downtown; free transit for many public school students
  • Dordrecht — bus and ferry, some Saturdays at the end of each year
  • Gent — free night bus services (weekends only)
  • Halifax, Nova Scotia - free bus route around the downtown area
  • Huddersfield, England - Free Townbus daytime bus services in town centre
  • Leeds, England - Free Citybus daytime bus services in city centre
  • Manchester, England — Free "Metroshuttle" daytime bus services in city centre
  • Melbourne in Australia has a free tram around the city center, and a free bus to popular tourist attractions. Both of these connect to other public transit. Free public transit is sometimes offered on major holidays such as Christmas and New Years Eve.
  • Noordwijk/OegstgeestLeiden Transferium — The Hague, express bus, running on weekdays during daytime, free of charge as a test during 2004; it was intended for commuters working in The Hague and living in Leiden or beyond who would otherwise travel by car to the Hague, to promote parking at the Transferium and continuing the journey by bus; the aim was to reduce road traffic congestion between Leiden and The Hague. The test was paid by the province of South Holland. It was discontinued in 2005.
  • Perth, Australia has free bus and train trips around the city centre (the "Free Transit Zone"), including three high-frequency Central Area Transit (CAT) bus routes. This is also in Fremantle and recently added in Joondalup.
  • Pittsburgh, PA Free "T" light rail service within downtown. Also, students at Carnegie Mellon University and the University of Pittsburgh receive free rides with a school ID.
  • Portland, Oregon (the "Fareless Square"), Seattle, Washington (the "Ride Free Area") and Calgary, Alberta (the "7th Avenue Free Fare Zone") offer free public transit within their downtowns.
  • Renesse (mun. Schouwen-Duiveland), Netherlands — free bus services in the area (in summer only)
  • Seattle, Washington — Metro Transit buses are free from 6:00 a.m. to 7:00 p.m. in Downtown Seattle.[4]
  • Sydney in Australia also offers occasional free public transportation travel to and from events at particular times, notably New Years Eve celebrations in Sydney CBD, or to ANZAC War Memorial Services for veterans. The rationale is a mix of traffic reduction and cultural recognition.
  • Wakefield, England - Free Citybus daytime bus services in city centre
  • Washington, D.C.Congressional Subway — small free metro system
  • Community bicycle programs, providing free bicycle for short-term public use.
  • some ferries, such as the Staten Island Ferry, the Woolwich Ferry and the IJ ferries in Amsterdam, which are used as an alternative to bridges, which would have been very high in the port. These are free, just as a bridge would have been.
  • short-distance 'public transportation' such as elevator, escalator, moving sidewalk (horizontal and inclined); these are often part of a larger public transit system or business (e.g. shop), of which the products and services are not free.

Cultural importance

Tourist attraction

Some means of rail-based public transportation are also tourist attractions and/or well known landmarks in their own right. These include San Francisco's famous cable cars, the Molli steam powered train in Bad Doberan, or the Schwebebahn Wuppertal.

See also

  • List of U.S. cities with high transit ridership
  • Carsharing — seen as highly complementary to public transportation
  • New Mobility Agenda — new thinking about transport in cities
  • Hackney carriages
  • Colectivo
  • Paratransit
  • Public transport route planner
  • Quality Assurance in Public Transport
  • Shared transport
  • Timetable
  • Toilets in public transport
  • Transit-oriented development
  • Transit planner
  • Transit fares
  • Travel class
  • Utility cycling
  • Urban economics
  • Public transportation in San Diego County, California

Advocacy organizations

  • American Public Transportation Association
  • Community Transportation Association of America [6]
  • International Association of Public Transport [7]
  • Light Rail Transit Association (UK)
  • National Corridors Initiative [8]
  • Public Transport Users Association — lobby group for Victoria (Australia)
  • Taxicab, Limousine & Paratransit Association (TPLA) [9]
  • Transport 2000 (UK)

Sleeping on transit

  • Night bus
  • Freighthopping


  1. Achs, Nicole. "Roadblocks to public transit: for reasons ranging from prejudice to pragmatism, many suburbanites are fighting tooth and nail to keep mass transit out of their neighborhoods." American City & County 106, no. 1 (January 1991): 28-32.
  2. Jane Lii, "Refuge On The Road: Homeless Find Nighttime Haven — The No. 22 Bus From Menlo Park To San Jose," San Jose Mercury News, January 9, 2000, 1A.
  3. Cathy Newman, "Silicon Valley: Inside the Dream Incubator," National Geographic 200, no. 6 (December 2001): 52-76.

More references

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