Urban Wire What Would Providing Every City with High-Quality, Zero-Emissions Public Transportation Look Like?
Yonah Freemark
Display Date

Person waits for the subway

During his presidential campaign, president-elect Joe Biden prioritized transportation investment, particularly in the form of projects to mitigate US carbon emissions and increase access to opportunity for people of color.

In his transition plan, Biden aims to “provide every American city with 100,000 or more residents with high-quality, zero-emissions public transportation options.” The US House of Representatives-passed Moving Forward Act (PDF) promotes a similar ambition to significantly improve transit service across the country.

How effective is transit in American cities today, and how might the federal government facilitate high-quality, zero-emissions transit? A major transit improvement would require a major federal intervention, but it could make public transportation convenient and reliable for people throughout the country, thus reducing emissions, improving access, and increasing social equity.

Poor-quality transit is common, particularly in low-income and Black communities

American transit options are notoriously poor, less frequent, and less reliable than comparable systems abroad. That’s one reason only about 5 percent of US commuters use buses or trains.

But the quality of transit varies in different parts of the country. Buses and trains travel a modest 145 feet per resident per day in the typical American urban area, but they run almost five times as much per resident in the New York City region, where transit is frequent and convenient.

In the New York City region, the average urban resident takes 224 transit trips annually. In the Cincinnati region, where buses are infrequent and don’t serve many neighborhoods, the average resident takes fewer than 11 transit trips a year.

Using 2019 data from the National Transit Database, I examined transit quality in all 278 urban areas with at least 100,000 residents for which full data are available. These urban areas encompass cities and their suburbs, together housing more than 200 million people, about two-thirds of the US population. Biden’s proposal suggests that all “cities” with 100,000 residents or more receive transit improvements, but I used this more expansive definition. I measured transit quality by evaluating vehicle revenue miles per capita, a proxy for service availability.

For many low-income people and people of color, transit offerings are often subpar and access is unfairly distributed: the amount of transit service typically provided is 37 percent less comprehensive in the quartile of urban areas with the highest poverty rates, compared with their wealthiest counterparts, adjusted for population. Transit access is roughly 24 percent worse in the quartile of urban areas with the most Black residents, compared with those with the fewest.

Transit is less accessible in urban areas with higher poverty rates and more Black residents

Many urban areas are low-income, have large communities of color, and suffer from inadequate transit. Many regions along the Texas border and the Gulf Coast, in California’s Central Valley, and in the industrial Midwest are both impoverished and have poor-quality bus and rail services.

Consider the McAllen, Texas, urban area, where 93 percent of the population is Hispanic or Latino and 27 percent of the population lives below the federal poverty level. McAllen provides just one-fifth of the transit service provided in the median metropolitan region—and less than 1 percent of the service in the New York City region. Service ends at 9:00 p.m. on weekdays and 8:00 p.m. on Sundays, and buses come once an hour at most.

On the other hand, wealthier regions, like San Francisco, Seattle, and Washington, DC, often have higher-quality transit, largely because transit operations are funded via local and state revenues—not federal support distributed evenly across the nation.

US urban areas that are impoverished and have few transit options

A major investment in transit would be pricey but would drastically improve access and quality

What would a new federal transit investment designed to achieve high-quality service cost?

Using five urban areas’ current transit service as potential goal posts (Chicago, Dallas, Los Angeles, New York City, and Washington, DC), I estimate the cost of increasing transit service quantity in all urban areas with 100,000 or more residents.  

Improving transit quality in every urban area to, at minimum, conditions in the Dallas region would cost an additional $2.2 billion annually. This would be a 4.5 percent increase nationally in operating budgets but would expand per capita transit service by 30.3 percent for the average urban area. Improving minimum transit quality to Chicago’s level would cost $16.7 billion but would more than double average per capita transit service provided throughout the country.

What would these improvements mean for a place like McAllen? Improving service just to Dallas levels could mean doubling the number of bus routes, increasing service to midnight every day, and running buses every 15 minutes on all routes—which could make transit accessible and convenient to the region’s inhabitants.

Less time spent waiting for the next bus, for example, could make it possible for thousands of people to rely on affordable transit to get to school and employment—opening up opportunity for people who cannot afford the cost of owning and using a car, which is estimated to cost about $8,000 a year.

Projected transit improvement benefits and costs nationwide

All options would require large federal matches, but even increasing the quality of transit service in all large urban areas to New York City levels would cost less annually ($45.6 billion) than the $48 billion the federal government distributed to highway programs in 2019 (PDF).

Transitioning to electric vehicles is essential to reducing greenhouse gas emissions

The second major transit-related element of Biden’s transition plan is ensuring zero-emission options, essential for moving the US toward a more climate-friendly future. Electric vehicles also reduce local air pollution, a major problem in many low-income neighborhoods and communities of color.

US data show roughly 62,000 buses run on fossil fuels. If the federal government replaced 6,000 of those buses annually with electric vehicles, it would need to allocate a relatively modest $3 billion for the purpose, assuming bus purchase costs of about $500,000.

A realistic and just transportation transition

The federal government has historically not invested much in funding transit operations; these costs are typically covered by state and local governments. Federal expenditures mostly go to capital investments, like new lines, buses, and maintenance. But the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act allocated $25 billion to transit, including for operating needs, potentially setting a precedent for a new initiative in the Biden administration.

Widespread, high-quality public transportation service is financially possible, given current federal transportation outlays, and a federal investment could speed the shift to low-emissions transport nationwide.


Tune in and subscribe today.

The Urban Institute podcast, Evidence in Action, inspires changemakers to lead with evidence and act with equity. Cohosted by Urban President Sarah Rosen Wartell and Executive Vice President Kimberlyn Leary, every episode features in-depth discussions with experts and leaders on topics ranging from how to advance equity, to designing innovative solutions that achieve community impact, to what it means to practice evidence-based leadership.


Research Areas Neighborhoods, cities, and metros
Tags Infrastructure Transportation
Policy Centers Metropolitan Housing and Communities Policy Center