Investing in public transportation to reap the benefits

If we choose to, public transit can be a major player in the fight against climate change. No matter what fuel it uses, public transport is able to replace a great number of automobile trips and reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. For example, a diesel bus needs only 7 passengers to emit less CO2 than the car trips it replaces, and the emissions related to hydroelectricity-powered mass transit networks are of course even much smaller. In any case, maximizing the impact of public transit on GHG reduction implies, first and foremost, that it is able to encourage more people to use it instead of their car.

  • During peak hours, a bus carries up to 65 passengers and a subway up to a 1000 – cars carry on average 1.2 person each.
  • Bus trips emit on average 7 times less GHGs per passenger for each kilometer travelled.
  • Tramways need on average 14 times less energy than a car in a typical urban environment to carry a passenger on one kilometer (and is generally powered by electricity) [1].

Benefits that go beyond GHGs reduction

Mass transit offers a multitude of environmental, social and economic benefits[2] and is, in many cases, significantly more efficient for the user. It thus makes personal as well as collective sense to implement and use them. In terms of social impacts, public transit is a more equitable mode of travel than the car and has positive impacts on the users’ health. In addition to being affordable to almost every citizen, it acts towards its users as a great incentive to be more active[3]:

  • In the United States, mass transit users walk on average 19 minutes per day, and approximately one third of them walk more than 30 minutes every day (the recommended daily physical activity duration);
  • Because of its impact on physical activity, use of public transit is associated with decreased rates of diabetes, stroke and cardiovascular accidents.

The economic benefits of public transit are often underestimated, even though it can act as a powerful lever for economic growth on national, regional and local levels.

  • In Quebec, investments in public transportation generate economic benefits three times higher than their equivalent in the automotive sector[4].
  • Public transit has positive impacts on the attractiveness and competitiveness of a region by inducing strong economic growth and a high quality of life.
  • Public transit also helps reduce congestion, which costs $ 1.4 billon annually in the Greater Montreal only[5].

Despite all these benefits however, less than 13% of Quebecers actually use public transit for their daily work commute. This is a situation that can be explained by many factors, not least among them being the way we plan and develop our communities.

Linking transport and planning

Because they heavily influence each other, land use planning and transport are inextricably linked. For example, sprawling and monofonctional urban forms foster automobile use, which needs highway infrastructure that in turn reinforces sprawl development and the separation of activities. But the same logic applies to mass transit the other way around: the presence of compact and mixed-use living environments increases the level of transit service and use that a community can sustain, while major transit routes induce compact real estate developments.

Tramway was part of the planning of the Vauban neighborhood from the beginning – Source: Vivre en Ville

Transit-oriented development (TOD) is a planning strategy founded on this principle and which aims to develop compact mixed-use communities with pedestrian-friendly urban design and higher densities around mass transit hubs[6]. TOD-based planning can be applied to new developments as well as being used as a tool for regeneration of existing neighborhoods. Residents of TOD neighborhoods are 5 times more likely to use public transit than their car-oriented neighborhood counterparts[7].

Improve service and boost ridership

For all the above reasons, promoting public transit in order to increase its modal share (the proportion of transit users to the overall commuters) is essential. It is also an objective the Quebec Government has given itself.

What are the main factors likely to make transit more attractive and help it compete with the car?

  • Quick and easy access to mass transit stops and stations;
  • Speed and frequency of service;
  • Capacity;
  • Service quality and comfort.

Longer operating hours, a bigger network and an increase in the number or routes generally leads to increased ridership. Estimates show that a 10% improvement of the service (by increasing the number of vehicle-km or vehicle-hours) generates a 6 to 10% increase in ridership. Better vehicles and more comfortable stops and stations do also contribute to ridership increases. Obviously, service improvements are dependent on funding! And finally, from another standpoint, the attractiveness of public transportation compared to that of the car may be increased through the adoption of more stringent standards and/or regulatory provisions, for example pertaining to parking or gas prices.

Intermodality: more flexible, more efficient

Intermodality is the only way by which public transit can offer its users the flexibility and efficiency it needs if it is to become a true alternative to the automobile. Intermodality means that on a single trip, a person could easily bike, ride the subway and finish his commute by a short walk to work. This flexibility strongly helps to foster a car-free accessibility to the city’s activities and services for its residents. A transportation system focusing on intermodality needs, obviously, intermodal hubs (places where at least two different transportation modes connect), but also real-time multimodal information and integrated transportation fares. Other measures can be implemented, such as bus-mounted bicycle racks or arrangements between transit and car-sharing companies.


  1. [1] Hydro-Québec, 2006. Greenhouse Gas Emissions from Transportation Options. (PDF)
  2. [2] Victoria Transport Policy Institute, 2012. Evaluating Public Transit Benefits and Costs: Best Practices Guidebook. (PDF)
  3. [3] Coalition Poids, 2010, La sécurité routière, au-delà de l’individu, une question d’aménagement. (in French)
  4. [4] Association du transport urbain du Québec, 2009. La contribution des sociétés de transport en commun au développement durable des villes du Québec. (PDF in French)
  5. [5] Board of Trade of Metropolitan Montreal, 2010. Public Transit: At the Heart of Montréal’s Economic Development. (PDF)
  6. [6] Communauté métropolitaine de Québec, 2010. Guide de référence des façons de faire innovantes et durables pour aménager l’espace métropolitain. (PDF in French)
  7. [7] Cervero, 1994, in Boarnet M. et Compin N., “Transit-Oriented Development in San Diego County: The Incremental Implementation of a Planning Idea”. Journal of the American Planning Association, Vol. 65, No. 5.

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