Public transportation today and tomorrow

Document Type

Journal Article

Publication Date


Subject Area

economics - benefits, operations - reliability, place - north america


United States, convenience, necessity, economics, philosophy, benefits, public transit


This paper synthesizes much of the information that describes the current state of public transportation in the United States and the benefits that result from investment in and use of public transportation. The paper begins with metrics describing the size of the transit industry and ridership trends over the past 70 years. Citing the economic importance of the nation's large urbanized areas, this paper focuses on the 30 largest transit systems measured by ridership, which serve 21 urbanized areas where 29% of the U.S. population lives and where 51% of the gross domestic product of the economy is produced. Data showing who uses public transportation and why are followed by a discussion of the four main drivers of transit use: convenience, necessity, economics, and philosophy. Some benefits that result from transit use are presented along with how they often accrue at essentially zero marginal cost when transit projects are well planned, well executed, and extensively used. The paper concludes with a look to the future: trends that favor transit expansion and use, technology improvements that are making transit more reliable and useful, and five lessons learned that must be followed for transit to be highly successful. The paper closes with a list of key public policy questions that, depending on how they are answered, may greatly influence the direction of public transportation.


Permission to publish the abstract has been given by Transportation Research Board, Washington, copyright remains with them