Why is Public Transportation So Bad in the US 

By  Chris Wilson

 February 13, 2022

Public transportation is often seen as a luxury in the United States. The high cost of owning a car means that most Americans rely on private vehicles to get around. This has led to a lack of investment in public transport infrastructure.

Public transportation is essential for cities to function properly. In addition to being a source of convenience, public transit also provides a vital service to the community. Public transportation helps reduce traffic congestion, improves air quality, reduces carbon emissions, and promotes sustainable development.

Infographic: Cars Still Dominate the American Commute | Statista You will find more infographics at Statista

However, despite its benefits, public transportation remains underfunded in the U.S. According to a report released by International AutoSource in 2015, 87.89% of people commute to work by driving due to the lack of public transportation. 

Additionally, many states do not collect enough tax revenue to cover the costs of operating their public transportation networks. As a result, many cities struggle to provide adequate services. Let’s take a look at some reasons why public transportation is so bad in the US.

Why Public Transportation is So Bad In America 

1. Americans Favor Cars Over Trains And Buses

Americans Favor Cars Over Trains And Buses

Cars are faster than trains and buses, so they're preferred for short trips. Trains and buses take longer to get from one place to another, but they're also cheaper and offer better service. It may or may not go without saying that Americans are more likely to drive their own car or take public transportation than people living in other developed nations. In fact, only about half of American households use mass transit at least once per week.

Americans don't like waiting around during peak hours, which means that transit systems must be crowded, expensive, and run by a government agency. It's no wonder that most adults say it doesn't matter how reliable the bus system is if there aren't enough of them running to meet demand. Furthermore, many Americans can't afford the steep fare prices (which tend to rise when ridership increases), so they choose not to ride the buses at all.

2. Lack Of Investment In Mass Transit Infrastructure

Lack Of Investment In Mass Transit Infrastructure

Americans prefer to live close to major job centers or shopping areas. They don't want to spend time commuting between home and work. Because of this, they typically rent homes rather than purchase them. Most rental agencies don't require tenants to pay additional fees for garaging. Therefore, renters end up paying for parking even though they may never have driven a personal vehicle.

Ideally, renting an apartment or house should include access to a garage where you store your car. This reality means that public transportation systems need to invest heavily in order to accommodate commuters who wish to remain local while still offering affordable options for those who would rather travel farther away. Unfortunately, much of the nation's capital budget is spent on maintaining roads and parks, not improving mass transit.

American cities often neglect maintenance as well. Many streets and sidewalks are cracked and broken, making it difficult for pedestrians to navigate safely. The cracks allow rainwater to seep into the ground, causing potholes and creating slippery conditions for drivers.

3. Funding Comes From Ticket Sales, Not Taxes

Funding Comes From Ticket Sales, Not Taxes

Since public transportation isn't funded through taxes, governments can charge whatever price they see fit. Fares vary depending on the location, type of service, and mode of transportation. For example, New York City residents pay $5.50/trip for subways, taxis, and ferries. Meanwhile, San Francisco residents face fares of as low as $4.25/trip.

Fare hikes usually happen after a city has invested money into fixing up their infrastructure. This means that new public transit lines come with extremely high costs. However, after construction crews finish their work, many politicians will push for higher ticket prices because they'd like to make additional income off of selling tickets.

The cost of fares tends to increase every year, especially since fewer and fewer Americans are using the bus and train networks. The average monthly pass costs approximately 10-20% of an individual's income. If a family spends $500/month making public transport payments, then the average annual expenditure is nearly $6,000. Many economists believe that high rates discourage people from taking mass transit due to the cost associated with riding.

In addition to the economic burden, some states feel forced to subsidize public transportation due to low ridership numbers. Some communities provide free passes because they cannot collect sufficient revenues from ticket sales alone. However, these subsidies drain money from important programs such as education, health care, and law enforcement.

4. Bad Traffic Congestion

Bad Traffic Congestion

Traffic congestion is the number one cause of aggravation among Americans. People feel frustrated when they look out their windows and think nothing else moves. As a result, they turn off their air conditioners or leave the heat cranked up. On top of that, traffic becomes unpredictable, which makes everyone late.

Public transportation helps reduce traffic congestion, improves air quality, reduces carbon emissions, and promotes sustainable development. Speaking of which, American cities don't rank among the top cities for sustainable public transportation.

The World Top Cities for Sustainable Public Transport

Many cities dedicate huge sums of money towards improving infrastructure and enforcing traffic laws, but little improvement occurs. Even worse, many people become angry about the slow pace of change and demand immediate solutions that yield results. Despite all of this, the situation seems impossible to improve. Drivers are simply unwilling to give up their cars, even if they know it's costing them money, time, and sanity.

5. No One Is Motivated To Get Public Transportation

No One Is Motivated To Get Public Transportation

Although we've gone over why mass transit isn't used by many Americans, there are plenty of reasons as to why no one wants to try out alternatives to driving.

First, most Americans don't understand how mass transit works. It requires planning ahead before going anywhere, and most people simply aren't willing to do this.

Second, America doesn't have any sort of federal standards that require people to comply with regulations. Therefore, operators of transit agencies have complete control over when, where, and how often passengers board and disembark.

Third, there is typically a large gap between urban and rural areas. Traveling from city to city requires changing modes of transport at each stop. Most people dislike switching their mode of transportation for this reason.

Finally, few of us want to be forced into mass transit. We'll opt for our cars instead. In fact, studies show that drivers actually prefer to go to work via private vehicle instead of public transportation. They'd rather sit behind the wheel than ride crowded buses.

Overall, poor conditions discourage people from trying out alternatives to driving in the US. This means that Americans' lack of options causes traffic to worsen, congestion to grow, and the economy to suffer. 

How To Fix Public Transportation In US

There are numerous ways to fix the United States’ public transportation problems. There are three basic types: technological, organizational, and cultural. Below, we’ll explore what governments can do to address these issues.

1. Improve Technology

Improve Technology

Technology plays a major role in solving public transportation obstacles. The key is making sure that existing systems work well. Unfortunately, technology has not kept up with new developments in mass transportation. For example, railroads weren't able to adapt fast enough to compensate for advances made in automobile manufacturing.

Other countries have already figured this out. Singapore uses automated trains, Japan has a high-speed train network, China improved its airports, and Europe perfected its metro system. All of these technologies are available to governments looking to upgrade their transit system.

The United States needs to focus on making improvements to current technology. That includes reducing the cost of implementation and increasing the level of support given to projects.

American cities like San Francisco , New York City, Los Angeles, Chicago, Philadelphia, Houston, Atlanta, Miami, Boston, and Seattle have found success through technological innovations. These innovative solutions include express bus routes, smart ticketing, driverless vehicles, self-driving shuttles, and real-time traffic updates.

2. Organize Better

Organize Better

Because public transportation tends to be decentralized across state lines, there needs to be an efficient way to coordinate between different regions. Currently, public transportation suffers because local jurisdictions operate independently. 

For example, New York City could never build a subway line to connect with Boston. Instead, both New York and Massachusetts must find separate funding sources.

In contrast, France manages to provide similar services without relying on individual states. Its nationwide structure allows the nation to invest in transportation regardless of local politics. It also helps with maintenance by encouraging cooperation among municipalities. 

The US Federal Government should create a national organization that coordinates all aspects of public transportation. This would allow it to set standards for safety and efficiency. It could also help with coordination between federal, state, regional, and local agencies.

3. Understand Cultural Differences

Understand Cultural Differences

Even if public transportation were technically possible, it wouldn’t work unless Americans change their behavior and attitudes towards mass transit.

In many cases, people believe that public transit is inferior to owning a personal car. These beliefs stem from childhood experiences. Children who live near busy roads learn early on to fear being killed by cars during accidents.

Younger generations may share less fear since they don’t remember the 1960s oil crisis. However, even though these fears have dissipated, young adults still express negative opinions about mass transportation.

Americans aren’t opposed to building more mass transits; they just don’t trust them anymore. This distrust stems from a lack of transparency. People have experienced delays, overcrowding, and safety concerns when using mass transit.

It’s no wonder why most Americans consider public transportation a hassle. Even if they wanted to try mass transit, they couldn’t do so safely.

While there isn’t a solution to this problem, cities should improve their customer service and make mass transit accessible to all. They should also increase security and cleanliness standards to help create a positive attitude towards public transportation.

If we want to solve our public transportation problems, we need to understand cultural differences. We need to think differently about why Americans feel as they do about public transportation. Once we figure this out, then we can design new solutions.

4. Eliminate Taxes and Fees

Eliminate Taxes and Fees

Another reason that public transportation doesn’t succeed in the U.S. is because government subsidies aren’t enough.

Like any good business, mass transit requires cash flow. If you want to run your bus company, you need money to pay for fuel, maintenance costs, advertisements, wages for drivers, and other expenses.

However, public transportation companies often rely on taxpayer money. For example, the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA) provides almost $1 billion every year to fund Metrobus service.

Taxpayers might see some benefits from tax incentives, but private enterprises should not rely on subsidized businesses for their survival. It creates an unhealthy relationship where taxpayers become customers instead of owners.

Mass transit agencies should be funded through taxes like road construction projects. Then they would be free of political pressures and able to focus strictly on providing quality service.

5. Provide More Flexibility

Provide More Flexibility

The final factor in making public transport successful is flexibility. A lot of public transit systems are inflexible. Most routes are fixed schedules and cannot be changed without major disruptions.

For example, a commuter taking the train into NYC will always have to wait until the last minute before boarding. The same goes for taxis. A taxi ride in Tokyo takes about 25 minutes, but in California, it can sometimes take 2 hours.

Flexibility is necessary for commuters who need to switch modes mid-trip. Commuters who travel frequently are more likely to use an efficient mode of transportation since they can plan ahead. Instead of being inflexible, public transit providers should allow commuters to book rides well in advance via apps. They could also provide door-to-door service for those who need it.

6. Get Rid Of Political Bias

Get Rid Of Political Bias

A major reason why public transportation hasn't succeeded in the U.S. is because local governments are too eager to fund pet projects instead of investing in mass transit systems.  

Transit officials often find themselves caught between advocating for public infrastructure vs. political favors. Public transit is usually treated as a “sacred cow.” Any time city council members discuss funding for a new subway line, local governments are sure to mention how much it will cost each voter in property taxes. However, the amount of money spent on public transit never seems to match the promises made by politicians.

An advocacy organization, Transportation Choices Coalition, found that cities with better public transit tend to spend less on roads. They suggest that local governments should redirect funds away from highways and make improvements to existing rail networks.

If cities were to follow these recommendations, they would end up spending far less on roads while still improving traffic conditions. This approach would help them reduce congestion, improve air quality, save gas, and reduce carbon emissions. 

7. Improve Service Delivery And Communication

Improve Service Delivery And Communication

Most commuters don't care whether they get picked up at 7:00am or 7:15am every morning. What really matters is how fast they arrive at their destination and when they leave.

Trains and subways often fail to meet these standards. Some cars are dirty, some trains have long delays, and some stations serve outdated technology.

Service delivery must improve if public transit is to attract ridership. An effective system will make traveling easier, safer, and less frustrating.

Public transits must also communicate with its passengers in order to gain trust. Riders need information that's easily accessible and easy to understand. For instance, commuters shouldn't need to ask which bus route stops near their destination in order to know which one to board.

Public transit must also do away with confusing and misleading signage. All signs should be clear and understandable. Every sign should clearly state what the next step is. Passengers should know exactly where they're going before they start walking towards it.

8. Increase Funding For Subsidies

Increase Funding For Subsidies

Subsidies are a common way to finance public transits, but most of them aren't very effective. Transportation subsidies are ineffective because they tend to support overly expensive options that few people actually need.

Some cities just give out cash grants to private companies, but this usually doesn't solve any problems. Companies like Uber and Lyft are already making plenty of money without government assistance. These services operate with little regulation, offering an alternative that works for many commuters.

Private companies need not worry about increasing revenue. Their costs are low and they already have enough customers to justify operating expenses.

If we want good public transit, then we need to create a better financial environment. We need to eliminate the tax breaks for gas and oil companies and increase gasoline taxes. This would raise more money for public transit and reduce the influence of special interests.

9. Support Transit-Oriented Development (TOD)

Support Transit-Oriented Development (TOD)

In recent years, TOD has become popular among urban planners due to its ability to add value to real estate. More and more developers see the benefits of investing in transit-oriented communities. They realize that high quality transit systems can encourage more business activity and help revitalize struggling neighborhoods.

In addition, developers can reap additional profits once a community becomes desirable. People love to live in places with great schools, parks, restaurants, shopping centers, etc. As soon as cities build a transit stop near these amenities, residents move there in droves. Developers benefit because more people means more foot traffic.

10. Build New Lines

Build New Lines

A major problem with public transit right now is that it isn't keeping pace with population growth. Most lines are running below capacity. If cities continue building these existing lines while neglecting others, they could end up losing money. To remain financially stable, public transits need to expand in areas that experience rapid development.

A lot of current transport routes are poorly designed, causing overcrowding and delays. Some of these routes are old, but some were built fairly recently.

Bus routes often follow inefficient designs, such as narrow roads with poor sightlines. While drivers may want to avoid congested streets, they don't always get priority over cars on crowded roadways. Drivers and pedestrians alike suffer because buses cannot travel fast enough. Bus routes also frequently serve small towns, bypassing larger nearby cities. If we want to make our local transit system more efficient, we need to improve all parts of the network.

Conclusion

The main problem with public transportation in the United States is that it’s badly organized. However, the country hasn’t been able to solve this issue due to political reasons. The United States needs serious reforms if it wants to fix its public transit issues.

A combination of increased funding for public transport along with improved management should be sufficient to bring ridership back up. As long as Americans keep driving their way through life, the U.S. will never figure out how to improve its public transportation.

We need to change American culture to make public transportation more appealing. For most Americans, the idea of riding a bus or train isn’t attractive. For many, it's simply too inconvenient.

Therefore, we need to rebrand public transportation as something worth doing. Instead of seeing it as a necessary evil, we should view it as a useful alternative. If the benefits outweigh the costs, then more people will choose to use public transportation over personal vehicles.

Learn More About Electric Mobility!