Climate Benefits of Public Transportation

Rows of people sitting on a train

Transportation is the largest source of climate pollution in the U.S., responsible for over a third of all climate emissions. This in large part because of an over-reliance on cars and trucks. Public transit in all forms is one of the most energy efficient and least polluting forms of transportation — but car-centric policy choices prevent many American communities from accessing high-quality public transit. As communities across the country work to reduce climate pollution, many localities are reinvesting in public transit to boost local economies and help make transportation more sustainable, accessible, and affordable.

Public transit is one of the most sustainable forms of transportation — and the more people use it, the greater the benefit.

  • A trip on public transit emits 55 percent less climate pollution than driving or ride-hailing and U.S. public transit riders saved 63 million metric tons of climate pollution emissions in 2018—the equivalent of taking 16 coal power plants offline for a year.
  • Even diesel-powered buses with just a quarter of seats occupied produce 33 percent less climate pollution per passenger mile than a gas-powered car.
  • Public transportation is getting cleaner: emitting 26 percent less climate pollution per passenger mile in 2018 compared to 2005.
  • Switching an individual’s 20-mile round trip commute from a car to existing public transportation can reduce 10 percent of their entire household’s climate pollution.

Transportation policy has historically excluded public transit from many communities, emphasizing cars and trucks instead.

  • Roughly 80 percent of drivers feel they have “no choice” but to use cars for their transportation needs because of how their community’s transportation infrastructure is designed.
  • Nearly half of Americans (45 percent) have no access to public transportation. 
  • Even in areas with strong public transit networks, white, highly educated, and high-income residents tend to have greater access to transit. Riders most dependent on public transit receive some of the worst service.
  • Transit planning also tends to center the needs of wealthier, whiter riders, often at the expense of communities that rely more heavily on public transit. 
  • Leadership of public transit boards also skews white and male compared to the demographics of transit riders.

Rising gasoline prices are increasing transit ridership and availability.

  • In response to high gas prices, municipalities across the U.S. encouraged residents to use public transit to reduce oil demand, driving an increase in riders. Chicago, for example, distributed free public transit cards to alleviate gas burdens.
  • Historically, spikes in gas prices tend to increase transit ridership. For every 10 percent increase in gas prices, U.S. transit demand increases as much as 4 percent for buses and 8 percent for rail, and these rates increase with gas prices above $3 per gallon. 
  • The American Public Transit Association estimates that 44 percent of the variation in transit ridership can be explained by changes in gas prices.