August 20, 2019
Blog

Is Public Transit Safe?

Jordan Walker

A group of public transit riders during rush hour commute
Credit: Yanping Nora Soong

“Is public transit safe?” is a question that is often asked by parents or commuters that have doubts about a service that millions of people use every day. The concern is understandable, however, since there is somewhat of a stigma associated with public transportation (a meritless one at that) and part of that stigma is the assumption that public transit is less safe than taking a personal vehicle, but let’s fact check that. 

According to data on road accident fatalities collected by the US Department of Transportation, in 2017 there were 28,723 road accident fatalities where riders were traveling in passenger cars, motorcycles or light trucks (which we will categorize and refer to as “personal vehicles”) and 42 fatalities where riders were traveling on public transit. Of course, directly comparing those numbers would be misleading since personal vehicles account for many more passenger-miles than public transit does. If we look at the 2017 data on passenger-miles traveled we find that personal vehicles account for over 3.8 million passenger-miles while transit accounted for 55,161. Using these numbers one would find that they would be almost 10 times less likely to be in a fatal road accident while riding public transit compared to riding in a personal vehicle. Of course this only considers the worst case scenario. More generally, according to a 2016 American Public Transportation Association (APTA) study, “a person can reduce his or her chance[s] of being in an accident by more than 90 percent simply by taking public transit as opposed to commuting by car.” This is in part due to the fact that transit operators receive regular and substantial training, much more than the average driver. 

But what about when waiting for your bus or train to arrive? Transit hubs, including our own such as the Vallejo Transit Center and Curtola Park & Ride, have high levels of security monitoring and bus stops are generally in very public locations so that there is a very low risk of an incident occurring.

However, lets go even a step further than what we conventionally think of as “safety”. What about environmental safety? According to a study by Stanford civil and environmental engineer Mark Jacboson, “an estimated 20,000 air-pollution related deaths occur worldwide each year with one degree Celsius increase” and the World Health Organization (WHO) has found that “global warming contributes to five million illnesses every year” by creating adverse weather conditions that facilitate the spread of diseases. These weather conditions and natural disasters exacerbated by global warming of course also directly harm people. What does any of this have to do with using public transportation? For a more detailed answer you can read one of our previous articles about the benefits of public transportation but the short answer is that people opting to use public transportation (or more generally transportation with more riders per vehicle) will result in less emissions of greenhouse gases than if riding alone or with fewer people. Not to mention that fewer cars on the road will reduce traffic and allow everyone to get around more quickly and efficiently, reducing emissions further still.

So the conclusion from this analysis should be clear; while riding in a personal vehicle may be more convenient in some situations, when discussing safety in particular, public transportation wins hands down.

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