Is Public Transportation Safer Than Individual Transport?

Is Public Transportation Safer Than Individual Transport?

As federal and local U.S. governments grapple with the effects of traffic congestion in cities, we’ve seen a gradual increase in fatalities resulting from road accidents, particularly by automobiles which claim the lives of thousands of people, each year. With that, there has been an even greater need to find effective solutions that not only bring those numbers down but also incorporate safe public transportation within communities, further increasing the public’s interest as well as facilitating trust. Despite the relative safety and security that public transit has shown to provide, many people are still reluctant when it comes to hopping on a bus or a train as opposed to their vehicles. It’s time we look at the numbers and answer the question of whether or not public transportation is safer than individual transport.

Vehicle Fatalities by the Numbers

According to the Annual United States Road Crash Statistics (ASIRT), more than 46,000 people lose their lives as a result of automobile crashes each year. The traffic fatality rate in the U.S. currently stands at 12.4 deaths for every 100,000 inhabitants. 

The U.S. roadways have claimed the lives of over 42,939 people in the year 2021 alone. These deaths were due to motor vehicle traffic crashes and this happens to be the year with the largest number of fatalities since 2005. This further represents a 10-percent increase from 39,007 fatalities in 2020, meaning that an additional 3,932 people were killed as a result of traffic-related accidents in 2021. 

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration projections for recorded traffic fatalities in 2022 reached around 42,795 people that have been reported to have died in motor vehicle crashes. This marks a small decrease of about 0.3% as compared to the 42,939 fatalities recorded in 2021. 

To further illustrate just how big the issue in the U.S. currently is, let’s also look at things from an economic perspective. Traffic crashes cost taxpayers $30 billion in 2019 alone, roughly 9% of all motor vehicle crash costs. This amounts to an equivalent of $230 in added taxes for every household in the United States. In conclusion to this, the total value of societal harm from motor-related vehicle crashes is said to amount to nearly $1.4 trillion.

Is public transport really ‘’safe’’ for the general public?

This has been a heavily discussed and studied topic for several good reasons. The short answer is simply that public transit has been proven to be one of the safest ways to move in and around a city. Despite the numerous benefits of public transportation, however, many people still prefer the comfort of their cars. We’ve also witnessed several instances in the past where the media has portrayed public transit as a rather ‘’unsafe’’ method of transportation due to the risk of theft, crime-related incidents such as assault, and other fatalities resulting from incidents involving buses and rail. An interesting note to add here is that a high-profile train crash generates significantly more press coverage than an entire year’s worth of car crashes. 

Renowned analyst Todd Litman busted the myth that public transit is linked to high levels of crime by using FBI data. His findings suggest that passengers on public transit are less likely to be the victim of a crime as compared to car drivers. Furthermore, he adds that using commuter or intercity rail is over 20 times safer than driving; riding the metro or light rail is about 30 times safer; and getting on the bus is around 60 times safer when compared to personal transportation. His study on the subject can be found in the Journal of Public Transportation.  

Owning a car and making trips with it poses a higher risk than riding transit according to Litman. He states that transit facilities have relatively lower-crime rates as they provide an added layer of protection due to the almost constant presence of people, surveillance, and staff. As for theft on public transit, the types of property thefts transit riders usually experience are far less inexpensive such as a wallet or a phone when compared to a vehicle for example, which can be stolen or vandalized. It is estimated that an average car theft costs owners around $6,000.

How much safer is public transit compared to a car?

The APTA’s study – The Hidden Traffic Safety Solution: Public Transportation, concludes that public transit is essentially over 10 times safer than traveling by any other means of individual transport such as a car. Furthermore, passengers who use commuter and intercity rail experience an overall 18 times lower fatality rate when compared to auto passengers. Concerning the risk of automobile crashes, the report’s authors further note that a person can significantly reduce her or his chance of being involved in an accident by over 90 percent, simply by making the switch from a car to public transit for their daily commute.

Can public transit help with eliminating traffic fatalities?

Additional studies conducted by the American Public Transportation Association and the Vision Zero Network show that even a moderate increase in the use of public transportation could effectively reduce traffic-related fatalities.

Data gathered from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and Federal Transit Administration indicates that in urban areas where residents take an average of over 40 trips by bus or train, annually, about half the traffic fatality rates are observed, as compared to metro areas where residents average fewer than 20 trips a year. It has been estimated that in metro areas with the highest transit use, there are 5.8 traffic deaths per a total of 100,000 residents. This is in stark contrast to the country’s average of nearly 10 traffic deaths per 100,000 residents, recorded in the largest metro areas where the population is greater than 500,000.  

Traffic incidents on America’s roads in the form of car crashes claim the lives of over 100 people daily, which has led governments and communities to become increasingly aware of this reality and in turn, search for ways to make streets safer for everyone. The founder and director of the Vision Zero Network – Leah Shahum has stated in a recent press release that he believes an investment in strong public transit systems is one of the best solutions for improving safety on city roads, as well as reducing fatalities.

What are some of the benefits of public transit for communities?

Public transit offers a variety of benefits for communities such as access to workplaces, childcare, healthcare, educational, and government facilities. It helps reduce city traffic, air pollution and remains one of the most affordable and sustainable ways for citizens of a city to get around daily.  

This type of transport even benefits people in society who do not use it and are classed as ‘’low-risk’’ drivers as it essentially takes the high-risk drivers (drunk drivers, inexperienced teens, elderly) off the road and limits the risk of being the victim of other drivers’ mistakes while behind the wheel.   

Public transport has also been shown to have a positive impact on citizen’s mental health as it is generally less stressful than driving and it gives people more time to read, listen to music, study, multitask, and relax as they commute. Another benefit is the increase in physical activity as passengers will need to walk to transit stops and back. 

What can be done in the future?

City planners and officials have made tremendous efforts nationwide when it comes to improving public transit systems so that they are safer, more efficient, and up-to-date with current technologies and advancements in the field. While car ownership increases along with traffic, city streets are becoming ever more congested, further increasing the chances of road accidents and fatalities. The amount of money spent repairing roads, and motorways and dealing with the aftermath of accidents could go towards improving other important societal facilities including those in public transit. Simply put, the money saved from having fewer cars on the road could go towards making public transport better and safer for the general public. This is an important point to consider as these choices affect communities as a whole.  

Popularizing public transit is certainly no easy task but experts in the field agree that more public campaigns, initiatives, and funding are needed to educate and motivate the public to switch to more regular use of public transport. Expanding existing rail and bus networks so that there is more capacity for carrying and transporting people as well as easier access from homes to workplaces in different regions is another way to improve ridership. Additionally, employing high-capacity urban public-transit systems such as rapid bus transit and creating better, faster routes has already shown great results as one of the reasons why people prefer personal transportation has to do with the length of time they spend commuting.  

We’re bound to see a lot of future progress and development when it comes to the transportation sector and as more cities adopt a ‘’Smart’’ city model, we can expect a future of mobility where city planners and officials make decisions based on the quality of life for its citizens, safety, efficiency and the environment in mind. With that said, we can certainly see public transit being a large part of this and we can only anticipate the many amazing achievements we will see as technology advances.