Why Is Public Transport in the US so Bad?

(Last Updated On: April 12, 2022)

Readers who have never been to America might be confused as to why one of the wealthiest countries on Earth has an abysmal system for public transportation. Having an accessible–and cheap–way of getting around seems like a really good deal. Especially when you consider the environmental consequences, where private auto transport accounts for a lot of emissions. Almost an entire pound of carbon dioxide emission per passenger mile. More selfishly, good public transport means you spend less time in traffic. Really seems like America just wants to get you inside a car, which is the short answer. But what’s the longer answer? Why is public transport in the US so bad?

 Is Public Transport in the US Actually Bad?

Well. Yes. It is. But let’s lay some groundwork before we just assert that’s the case. On the traffic thing, Americans average wasting 54 hours per year just in traffic. The more congested cities are almost double that. Washington DC and San Francisco both have drivers stuck in traffic for just over 100 hours per year, New York will have you stuck for 92, Seattle for 78, and Atlanta for 77 hours. According to the US census, Americans in metro areas spend around 40 minutes to an hour getting to and from work each day–public transport or not

Comparing the use of public transport, Americans use their public transportation systems several times less than their Canadian and Western European counterparts. In Western Europe, public transportation accounts for anywhere between 10 and 20% of trips in more urban areas. In America? It’s 2%. For each trip (in urbanized areas) made by transit in the US, another 45 are made in a private automobile. In Canada? One in eight. 

If you live in America, you’ve probably just internalized how poor public transport is in many areas. Many Americans don’t take public transit simply because the routes don’t exist. Want to get to Indianapolis from Anderson–a town of 50,000 people just 40 miles from the capital of Indiana? You’ve got to take the car. 

If you live in an American city, you probably salivate at the idea of Paris’ 127 mile (205 km) rapid transit network. Maybe it’s the 62 miles (100 km) of rail Madrid added to their system between the 1990s and 2020. Or even the skyrocketing pace at which China has implemented its own rapid transit systems since the 2000s. In fairness, American cities have invested in possibly 1,200 miles (1930 km) in transit routes (not just rapid transit) in the same time period. But the numbers above still hold–Americans aren’t using the system. Which tells us something is keeping people from using those routes. Whether it’s because they’re not accessible or because the routes don’t get people where they need to go, it’s still an admonishment of transit in the US.

Was it always like this?

No! It wasn’t. Back when we were transporting people using horse-drawn vehicles, America’s public transportation system was at the top worldwide. While horsecars weren’t too great back on unpaved roads, things really kicked off when those paths were replaced with rails. By the 1880s, these street railways had over 6,000 miles (9,656 km) of rail. Trams, light rails, and commuter rails today are 5,416 miles by comparison (8,715 km) combined.

Obviously, we’re not saying we should go back to horses. By 1895 many of these horse-drawn cars were electrified, and electric street cars ballooned to 11,000 miles (17,700 km) of track. LA alone had 1,000 miles of track and could get you from the cities to Long Beach. 

What happened?

Off the heels of the late 1800s and early 1900s was the Great Depression–which left many unable to afford transit at all. While the government subsidized a lot of these rails, it rarely owned them. The private firms who did own the railways then struggled to continue profiting off transit once people couldn’t afford to use it anymore. The advent of the automobile and by proxy the bus served another killing blow to these streetcar systems in the late 1920s. Buses were popular, faster, and cheaper to operate at the time, so companies like General Motors got to tearing all the rails out of the roads. When private streetcar companies went under for the reasons above, many local governments used that as an opportunity to transition to buses as well.

Buses aren’t all though, because there’s also the straight up car to contend with. American cities are built around the car–the US grew up with the car as well and thus were designed around it. Zoning laws keep houses by houses and businesses by businesses, which means you’re going to have to go farther from your residence to any kind of mall (on average) in the US. Just think about the suburban sprawl and you’ll get the idea. 

Okay, but why is it still bad?

So we got here because many American cities were designed around the car and not around rails. While the technology was new and worked well then, we’re starting to realize the problems now. Private vehicle ownership makes up for a massive part of any individual’s carbon footprint, and make up some 30% of emissions. It’s a contemporary concern that most people weren’t worried about in the 1900s when the automobile was taking off. It’s also just… not easy to make more roads anymore, compounded with how some subway lines have actually shrunk since their peaks. 

This is where things get depressing. Because reliable, accessible, and affordable public transport is the number one means for people to lift themselves out of poverty. People in poor neighborhoods face fewer job prospects, and without the means to afford a car many opportunities are simply locked to them without another means of transportation (maybe of the public variety). Unique to American political culture is how public transit is viewed. It’s broadly considered welfare, and America’s political right is less willing to invest in social welfare programs. This is furthered by America’s general political bias towards the interests of rural states (which have less need for public transit than urban ones). This is because votes in less populated states are worth more than votes in more densely populated ones

So, broadly, America doesn’t want to invest in its public transport. But hope isn’t lost. Remember the streetcar? It’s actually making a comeback, especially in states like Arizona and Oregon. Part of that is because people are realizing that while public transit isn’t profitable in a vacuum, it brings in a lot more by virtue of lifting people out of poverty and bringing in jobs. 


See if you can identify a city by bus alone here.

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About Kyler 728 Articles
Kyler is a content writer at Sporcle living in Seattle, and is currently studying at the University of Washington School of Law. He's been writing for Sporcle since 2019; sometimes the blog is an excellent platform to answer random personal questions he has about the world. Most of his free time is spent drinking black coffee like water.