Public transport

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Public transport (or public transportation) is trains, trams, buses, and other passenger transport available for use by the public. It is also known as mass transportation, or mass transit, and applies particularly to most forms of transportation which can move large numbers of people at once. Public transport systems are often government-owned and financed, but not always.

Range of the term

A tram in Melbourne, part of that city's public transport system.

There is no universally-accepted definition of the term. The main forms of public transport are rail-based services (such as trains and trams) and buses, but in some places ferries are also significant. Taxis are sometimes included, especially where they provide shared-ride services. Services by air and sea, other than ferries, are not normally included in the term. Neither are long-distant rail and bus services often included. The term tends to be used of services within a city or town, or between nearby cities and towns.

Types of Public Transport

The following are all types of public transport:

Public transport providers

Public transport may be provided by privately owned operators, governments, or a combination of the two, a situation often referred to as "public-private partnerships."

The complexities of ownership and operation can be illustrated with the example of Melbourne, Australia, where public transport service was originally provided by private companies, but these were later taken over by the state government, usually when the private operators got into financial difficulties. The government also greatly expanded the rail system. Although the original tram operators were private companies, the tram network was greatly expanded by municipal councils providing services, but the state government subsequently took over all these operators. Many bus services were provided by private companies, but under government regulation, although the state government also owned and operated some bus services itself. In the late 1990s, the government contracted with private operators to operate the railway and tram systems, although these remained under government ownership and oversight.

Note that the word "public" in public transport does not refer to government ownership of the service. Public transport services may be provided entirely by the private sector, whilst private transport usually operates on roads provided by the public sector and paid for by taxpayers.

Public versus private transport

Public transport offers a number of advantages over private transport (mainly cars), but private transport also has some advantages over public transport. Whether one form of transport is better than another form frequently depends on circumstances specific to the location and the user.

Private transport mainly comprises cars (US: automobiles), but can include motorcycles, bicycles and walking


Public transport provides transport to almost anybody, whereas private transport is limited to people able and licensed to drive or able to ride a bicycle or walk. Therefore, people too young to drive, people with disabilities that prevent or make it difficult to use private transport, including many older people, are often not able to use private transport, except by having someone else drive them. Many people dislike this lack of freedom to get around.

The ability of public transport to carry people with disabilities, particularly people confined to wheelchairs, varies, but many governments now require that public transport be able to carry such people. This can be helped by low-floor buses and trams, "kneeling" buses (that lower themselves to the ground to allow people to board), floor-height platforms, lifts at railway stations, and the like.

Freedom of travel

Public transport cannot achieve the degree of freedom that private transport allows to travel wherever and whenever a person wishes to. This is because public transport almost always operates on fixed routes and fixed schedules, and operation is often limited to specific times of the day and days of the week.

However, in places where public transport networks provide a good geographical coverage and operate frequent services for most or all hours of the day, seven days per week, this limitation of public transport can be minimised.

Of course, many people are not restricted to one or the other, but can use public transport where and when it is available and private transport for other journeys.


A public transport ticket

Relative costs vary enormously from system to system and circumstance to circumstance.

Walking and cycling are almost always cheaper than using public transport.

Travel by car can be cheaper than public transport when several people are travelling together, or where public transport charges by distance but doesn't provide a direct route or requires more than one fare to complete a journey. Public transport can be cheaper than travel by car when one fare can be used across several modes or for several journeys, when petrol (US: gasoline) is expensive, when other charges, such as parking fees or congestion charges are taken into account, or when the fixed costs of running a car, such as maintenance, registration, insurance, and loan repayments are included, particularly if the car can be disposed of and public transport used exclusively.


Travel by car or motorcycle, and sometimes bicycle, is often faster than a public transport service which makes many stops and might follow a circuitous route. However, where public transport operates on its own right of way (easement) and therefore avoids traffic congestion, or where it operates express (non-stop or limited-stop) services, it can often be faster than travel by car in peak periods.

Over longer distances, railways sometimes operate at speeds higher than any other land-based transport, with high-speed trains in various countries regularly operating at speeds over 300 kph (180 mph).

Travel environment

Travel by car allows one some freedom and benefits not available with public transport, such as not having to mix with, or crowd in with, many other people, to listen to music or audio without disturbing others, and so on. Travel by public transport imposes some social restrictions on people to be courteous and not disturb others who may not wish to be disturbed.

Travel by car allows one to travel in relative comfort, whereas seating in public transport may be uncomfortable or unavailable due to the number of people travelling exceeding the number of seats provided.

On the other hand, private transport tends to encourage or at least facilitate people isolating themselves from society, whereas public transport encourages people to be part of society. And public transport often allows one some freedom to stretch and move around, usually not possible with car travel except by stopping for this purpose and therefore extending the journey time. Travel on public transport allows one to watch videos, use a computer, read a newspaper, sleep, and other activities not possible whilst driving a vehicle.

Use of resources

Freeways typically take much more land than railways. This freeway being reconstructed in Oaklands has about half the passenger capacity (persons/hour) of the adjacent railway (darker line from near bottom-left corner).

Assuming that public transport is sufficiently-well used, public transport uses far fewer resources than car transport per person carried per kilometre or mile. This includes energy use (whether petroleum-based or electricity), land use for transport corridors, and land use for parking of vehicles.

To provide for people driving cars to work, sporting venues, etc., significant tracts of land have to be set aside for parking adjacent to the travel destination, whereas much less land or even no land needs to be set aside for public transport (which requires much less space per person carried, or can be run to a parking area remote from the travel destination).

Because public transport uses less fuel than cars, pollution is reduced, or even (potentially) eliminated if the public transport is run on electricity generated remote from the traffic or from environmentally-friendly sources, such as wind, hydro, and solar power.

Environmentalists promote public transport on the grounds that it is better for the environment, but it is also good stewardship of God's creation.

See also