The Importance of Transit Sustainability for Urban Efficiency and Environmental Impact

The Importance of Transit Sustainability for Urban Efficiency and Environmental Impact

The Importance of Transit Sustainability

In urban settings, density and agglomeration can reduce travel distances, increasing efficiency and effectiveness. This also translates into lower operational costs and higher sustainability scores.

To increase transit ridership, agencies can work to overcome cultural barriers that discourage people from using public transport. These include ideas that public transport is only for low income travelers, or that it’s not fashionable.

Reduced Carbon Footprint

A single occupant vehicle generates around two tonnes of carbon per year, while an individual can reduce their personal footprint by utilising public transport alternatives such as buses and trains. A city’s overall carbon emissions can be significantly reduced by embracing the principles of transit sustainability.

One way is to encourage commuters to switch to transit by reducing the need for private vehicles through innovative initiatives such as carpooling. In addition, by limiting the amount of time buses can be left idling during peak times, congestion is mitigated and fuel consumption reduced.

A further reduction in carbon emissions can be made through the use of Demand-Responsive Transport solutions, which allow a greater level of flexibility in terms of transit schedules. This can also be achieved through full-cost pricing, where motorists are charged a floating fee for using targeted roads and pollution (carbon) taxes and fees are introduced. This helps to offset the cost of implementing greener technologies and provides further incentive to make sustainable choices.


A key component of transit sustainability involves reducing energy consumption. Many agencies use fuel efficient vehicles, which reduces carbon emissions and lowers operating costs.

Other methods to reduce energy use involve pricing strategies and trip avoidance. Pricing mechanisms such as full-cost pricing remove artificial signals and incentivize sustainable travel. Trip avoidance strategies involve reducing activities that require transportation, and may be accomplished by spatial structures such as logistics zones and transit-oriented development, as well as through changes in sourcing strategies for goods (i.e. nearshoring).

Other initiatives include green buildings, and alternative means of water recycling. Pierce Transit, for example, recycles bus wash water and uses it to irrigate the parking lot, saving more than 200,000 gallons of freshwater per year. NYC Transit’s “green escalators,” for instance, reduce energy use by slowing down to sleep mode when not in use, using sensors that detect people approaching the escalator. This saves 17,122 kilowatt hours of electricity each day.

Reduced Noise

In addition to its direct impact on climate change, transportation-related noise pollution can disrupt natural habitats and negatively affect wildlife populations. Ecological researchers have found that animals rely on their auditory senses for communication, mating rituals and navigation. Transportation-related noise pollution can disrupt these behaviors and lead to decreased reproductive success and population decline.

Transit sustainability can help alleviate this issue by replacing noisy buses and subway trains with quieter alternatives. Options such as CNG engines are typically ten decibels quieter than diesel vehicles, and electric buses are virtually silent. Microtransit is also a great solution to reduce the noise pollution of rail transport by providing on-demand services and allowing commuters to ride in small vehicles that are less noisy than conventional transit.

By using alternative fuels and reducing their carbon footprint, transit agencies can demonstrate that they care about the environment. This helps them earn a positive reputation among their communities, and it encourages other companies to follow suit.

Reduced Imported Fuel

On a global scale, transportation accounts for around one-fifth of the world’s carbon footprint. Promoting sustainable mass transit systems helps shrink that number.

Greenhouse gas emissions from idling vehicles are also reduced when transit systems implement vehicle-sharing programs, wider bicycle paths and more efficient parking lots. These measures help make cities friendlier to pedestrians and reduce traffic congestion.

Using clean fuels in transit buses is another key element of sustainability. This includes the use of biodiesel, methanol and even hydrogen fuel cell technology. In addition, the realms of green logistics and city logistics are being given renewed attention to promote freight transport that uses digital technologies for optimum load utilization and reduced empty trips.

FTA hosted a webinar on best practices for planning and designing resilient transit systems that address climate change impacts, including extreme heat, sea level rise, storm surge, high winds, flooding, earthquakes and tornadoes. A recording of the webinar can be accessed by registering through the APTA website.

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