Mass transportation is any kind of transportation system in which large numbers of people are carried within a single vehicle or combination of vehicles. Airplanes, railways, buses, trolleys, light rail systems, and subways are examples of mass transportation
systems. The term “mass transit” is commonly used as a synonym for mass transportation.
In many parts of the world, mass transit systems are an important component of a nation’s transportation system. Where people are too poor to buy automobiles, they depend on bicycles or animals or mass transit systems such as bus lines to travel. During the twentieth century, however, the role of mass transit systems in developed nations such as the United States has declined dramatically. The primary means of transportation has become the private automobile, which typically carries only one or two passengers at a time.
Mass transit systems have a number of obvious advantages over private means of conveyance, such as the automobile. In the first place, they are a far more efficient way of moving people than is the private automobile. For example, a subway system operating on two tracks 36 feet (11 m) wide can transport 80,000 passengers per hour. In comparison, an eight-lane freeway 125 feet (38 m) wide can carry only 20,000 passengers per hour. The cost of operating an intercity bus line typically runs about two cents per vehicle mile, about one-tenth the comparable average for a private automobile.
Mass transit systems also take up much less space than do the highways needed for the movement of automobile traffic. Most urban landscapes today are a vivid testimony to the amount of space required for our automobile-dominated transportation system. Streets, highways, bridges, overpasses, and parking lots occupy as much as a third of the land available in some urban areas.
Mass transit systems are also more environmentally friendly than automobiles. A single bus filled with 80 people uses only slightly more fuel than does a private automobile, yet is capable of carrying many times more passengers. The amount of air pollution produced per passenger, therefore, is much less.
The desirable features of mass transit systems are balanced by a number of serious drawbacks. In the first place, such systems are economically feasible only in areas that have relatively large populations. As the number of inhabitants per square mile decreases, the efficiency of a mass transportation system also decreases.
Mass transit systems are also very expensive to build and operate. This factor becomes more important when cities decide to install mass transit systems long after development has already taken place and disruption of existing structures is a serious problem. Since mass transit systems seldom receive the government assistance provided to highway construction, consumers often have to pay a higher fraction of the costs of using mass transportation.
People complain about mass transportation systems also because they can be crowded, uncomfortable, dirty, and unreliable. Again, with limited budgets, mass transit systems are seldom able to maintain equipment and schedules to the extent that riders can rightly demand.
Finally, mass transportation systems are simply not as convenient as the automobile. A person can step into her or his car and drive virtually anywhere with a minimum of inconvenience. No mass transportation system can approach this level of ease.
The popularity of mass transportation systems varies inversely with the availability of the private automobile. Over the past century, as cars have become less expensive, consumers have opted for private transportation over subways, buses, trolleys, light rail systems, and other forms of mass transit. Between 1915 and 1980, automobile ownership increased 20 times faster than population growth in the United States.
Probably the most significant shift in this pattern occurred during and just after World War II, when automobiles were expensive and difficult to obtain by the private consumer. Mass transit usage reached record highs during the 1940s and 1950s. As prosperity returned to the nation, however, private cars once again became more popular as a means of transportation. In the two decades between 1950 and 1970, riders on all forms of public mass transit dropped from 19.5 billion to about 6.7 billion.
That decrease was reversed briefly in the early 1970s as a result of the oil embargo instituted by the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) in 1973. Americans suddenly became aware of the nation’s dependence on other nations for oil, and there was a renewed interest in reviving the nation’s nearly moribund public transportation systems. It was about this time (1972) that the first of the country’s new mass transit systems, Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART), opened in the San Francisco Bay Area. BART was followed in the next two decades by new subway, bus, and trolley systems in Washington, D.C.; San Jose and San Diego, California; Atlanta; Baltimore; Dallas; Los Angeles; and other urban areas.
At about the same time, Congress gave the nation’s intercity passenger rail system, Amtrak, a new lease on life. Amtrak proved successful among intercity passengers, but the federal government has never maintained the consistent support of the system it showed during the aftermath of the OPEC crisis.
The surge of interest in mass transit that began in the 1970s has never produced the massive shift to mass transit for which so many people hoped. For more than four decades, the automobile and commercial airlines have accounted for more than 96% of all intercity travel. Buses and railroads carry the remaining intercity passengers.
Travel in urban areas reflect similar patterns. After intensive efforts to increase ridership on public transportation systems, most city and suburban dwellers still rely on their own cars for transportation. In Los Angeles, for example, the city’s upgraded bus system and new light rail system are now used by no more than about 2% of the local population.
The uphill battle faced by proponents of mass transportation is understandable. The automotive industry (along with energy companies that sell gasoline) have been successful in convincing Americans of the preeminent value of the private automobile. The federal government has contributed to this philosophy with enormous investments in new streets, highways, and interstates. Currently, the United States government spends about six times as many dollars per person on new highway construction as it does on the support of all mass transit systems. In some states, this ratio may be as high as 60 to 1.
Some critics have suggested that new forms of mass transportation be developed that will preserve the special advantages of this form of transit while avoiding some of its disadvantages. For example, many cities and companies have set up van pools for their employees. People who live close to each other are picked up in small vans and brought to and from work as a group. Other cities have experimented with dial-a-ride programs in which citizens (often elderly citizens) can call to request transportation in a mini-van from one point to another within the city.
Freeway —A high-speed highway, usually consisting of at least four lanes separated from each other by means of a divider, on which no toll is charged.
Intercity transportation —Any form of transportation used to move people and freight from one urban area to another.
Light rail system —Transportation systems in which vehicles move along railway tracks on vehicles that are significantly smaller and lighter than traditional railroad cars.
Many cities have attempted to increase the use of mass transit systems by discouraging the use of automobiles. For example, they have imposed high taxes on parking within the city and have raised tolls on bridges and tunnels leading to the city.
Efforts to improve existing mass transit systems, the development of new subway, trolley, and bus lines, the introduction of alternative forms of mass transportation, and attempts to discourage automobile use have had limited successes in specific parts of the United States. On a national level, however, they have had only a limited impact on the way in which citizens choose to move about within a city and from city to city.
See also Trains and railroads.
Meyer, John R., and Jose A. Gomez-Ibanãez. Autos, Transit, and Cities. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1981.
Miller, G. Tyler, Jr. Living in the Environment: An Introduction to Environmental Science. 4th ed. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth Publishing Company, 1985. pp 220-225.
Owen, Wilfred. Transportation in Cities. Washington, DC: Brookings Institution, 1976.
Reische, Diana, ed. Problems of Mass Transportation. New York: The H. W. Wilson Company, 1970.
“Urban Transportation Planning In the United States: An Historical Overview: Fifth Edition; Chapter 7. Beginnings of Multimodal Urban Transportation Planning” <http://tmip.fhwa.dot.gov/clearinghouse/docs/utp/ch7.stm> (accessed December 2, 2006).
David E. Newton