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The Underwhelming American Public Transportation System

Kate Fraser - Teen Aspect - August 4th, 2022
(Pat Greenhouse/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)

It is an indisputable truth that universal, reliable public transportation is necessary for a sustainable future. Take the basic example of the average city bus, holding about 60 passengers on average (1). A single trip on this bus alone can take 60 cars off the street, centralizing the emission of greenhouse gases to only one city bus, many of which are beginning to operate using renewable energy. In fact, compared to driving, public transportation reduces CO2 emissions by 45%, emphasizing the efficiency and sustainability of public transit (2).

We have some great examples to learn from. Korea, Chile, Spain, and Japan are just a few countries that have internationally ranked public transportation systems, with much investment going into these urban frameworks (3). Because of how accessible these systems are, most citizens rely upon them for their daily commutes, creating little to no car culture and dependence in these regions.

While public transit is part of everyday life in many parts of the world, the United States has a notoriously laughable reputation when it comes to the lacking infrastructure and urban planning surrounding public transportation. This fact is all around us. Where I live in suburban Fort Lauderdale, it is rare to see a full city bus, and the Brightline high-speed railroad network is often considered a daytime excursion, being more of a fun activity rather than a useful method of transportation.

Nonetheless, there are systemic explanations as to why America has poor public transportation. To start, many of the transportation systems in cities often only operate to provide suburb-to-city and city-to-suburb movement, being heavily concentrated around downtown access. However, the majority of work commutes taken by the average American are suburb-to-suburb (4). Because of the absence of many public transit options between suburbs, many are forced to commute by driving alone, feeding into the large American car culture. This has also made transportation the biggest source of greenhouse gas emissions for the United States.

This can certainly be contextualized with history. The 1950s made way for some of the biggest infrastructure projects the country had ever seen, with highways sprawling West with the growing domestic migration patterns. Meanwhile, “white flight” involved thousands of white families leaving cities due to racist ideologies to live in the suburbs that were beginning to pop up alongside these new highways. With highways becoming a bigger part of everyday life, they began to break down the convenient grid systems that many American cities had prior to the 1950s. Therefore, getting around the average city now requires a car, a concept that is unconscionable to other countries.

Yet, suburban sprawl is not the greatest explanation for the lacking transportation system. Canada is also seemingly built for the automobile. So, where do Canada and the United States differ? Canada simply has more public transit. Transit consultant Jarret Walker uses rather similar cities in terms of demographics to show this comparison, including Portland to Vancouver and Des Moines to Winnipeg. He explains that despite similar cultures and economies, the Canadian city has, per capita, two to five times as much transit service (1).

Again using other countries as a comparison to the United States, while many competing nations were expanding quickly, they also expanded their transit systems with it, providing widespread accessibility. The United States did just the opposite, sometimes even going as far as to destroy public transit frameworks.

While there are systemic ties to poor American public transit, there is a certain political and even theoretic idea to pose. When will we stop seeing mass transit investment being regarded as an urban social program? Public transportation in other countries is universal in the sense that everyone uses it. No matter class, race, geographic location, etc., almost everyone relies on public transit for their commutes. Because of American car dependence, those who cannot afford to own a vehicle are forced into the ineffective and inaccessible public transit, worsening class divides by limiting access to job opportunities. Conservatives in Washington have put mass transit investment in the same group as welfare programs like Medicaid, Earned Income Tax Credit, and Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Programs. Because of pre-existing conservative opposition to these programs, public transportation receives little to no support in terms of funding. With this viewpoint on transit, many of the progressive public transit frameworks in the works, such as the United States High-Speed Rail System, have been negatively perceived.

With climate change often facing persistent denial in American politics, efforts towards emission reduction, such as investment in public transportation, often lack momentum and the support necessary to get them implemented.


  1. Stromberg, J. (2015, August 10). The real reason American public transportation is such a disaster. Retrieved July 22, 2022, from

  2. Pei, A. (2021, October 8). 5 environmental benefits of Sustainable Transportation. Retrieved July 22, 2022, from

  3. International TEFL Academy. (2022, June 28). The 9 best public transportation systems in the world. Retrieved July 22, 2022, from

  4. Williamson, J. (2020, October 2). Perspective | five myths about the suburbs. The Washington Post. Retrieved July 22, 2022, from

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