Transportation Comparison Essay

Public transportation, while maybe not as enjoyable as commuting in your own personal vehicle, does ease congestion, reduce emissions, and give you plenty of quality time to people watch, as well as get to know your "neighbors." In addition, public transportation allows you to relax, read or nap during that commute instead of fighting and stressing and feeling the road rage.

So, what do we mean by public transportation? Well, for this article we are focusing on buses, trains, planes and ferries/boats, whether used for the daily commute or just to get around. For those of you interested in leaving that car at home, these tips discuss the merits of public transportation as well as offer suggestions for how to expand and improve public transportation in your community.

Image: Press-Office City of Müenster, Germany

Top Public Transportation Tips

  1. A (hu)man with a Plan
    If you're not sure you can do the public transportation thing, start small with one a goal of taking public transportation at least one day a week until you figure out the system. Before you know it, you'll be making friends and riding along with everyone else.

  2. Come Fly With Me
    Try to reduce the number of plane trips you take and try not to use a plane for any trips under 1000km. Plane trips are way more environmentally destructive than automobile trips.

  3. Get On the Bus
    Write to your city representatives to request that your community upgrade their diesel buses to fleets of electric or biodiesel buses. This will reduce the CO2 emissions generated, reduce dependence on imported oil dependency, and in the case of biodiesel engines actually run cleaner and more efficient than petrochemical diesel. Even diesel buses are worth getting on. We calculated that buses only need to carry 3-8 people to break even with a car on CO2 emissions.

  4. Try the bus or train for longer trips
    Buses, trains, light rail and ferries generally have dedicated travel paths that are quicker than sitting alone in your car, which can cut down travel times. If you need to use a car, see if you can car-pool. Each of these options is much better than flying. In a car, four people would only be collectively responsible for emitting only 104 kilograms of CO2, whereas in a plane they would generate some 736 kilograms of carbon dioxide. A cross-country train trip would generate about half the greenhouse-gas emissions of driving a car.

  5. Walk to school
    Most children live close enough to walk school, but few do. Instead of driving your children the few blocks, walk with them or allow them to take the school bus. Take it step further by helping organize a walking bus for other kids in your neighborhood.

  6. Catch a taxi
    Really these are a form of public transport because you don't own them, and when you don't need the service they are made available for others to use. Look out for hybrid or pedi-cab taxis, or book with Zipcar or Uber for an even greener option.

  7. Telecommute
    Don't drive to the office, or fly to that conference, if you can arrange to complete your work/presentation electronically, or via video conferencing. Video conferencing can reduce 99 percent of the energy used for a trans-continental flight. In this age of the internet, there are so many tools that make telecommuting an effective and efficient way of working.

  8. Buy fare saver tickets
    Return, weekly/monthly, or off-peak bus/train tickets are often significantly cheaper than single ride tickets, which will encourage you to use said bus/train more often.

  9. Plan your trip
    Obtain timetable and route-maps for your journey to know what to expect in advance. Many municipal public transport systems now have free online databases than will take your staring point and destination and calculate the fastest times and best route for your trip, not to mention the wonder that is google maps. This can take the uncertainty out of public transport travel.

  10. Be a Change Agent
    If you don't use public transport in your local area because the service doesn't work for you, for whatever reason, then get it changed. Write letters to your city newspaper, comment on their online stories that address urban travel, join a public transport advocacy group, and meet with your local government representative. Things won't change, until you inform people you want them to.

Public Transportation: By the Numbers

  • 10.7 billion: Number of trips Americans took in public transport in 2013 - the highest number since the 50's, when few had their own cars.

  • 40 percent: Reduction in U.S. reliance on foreign oil that would occur if one in ten Americans used public transportation daily.

  • 7: Number of times safer that riding a bus is over riding in your own automobile.

  • 450: Millions of gallons saved from people taking public transportation each year. This is roughly the energy needed to power ¼ of all American homes annually.

  • 6,000: Difference in pounds of global warming pollution that a diesel school bus emits over a natural gas school bus.

  • 20 percent: Carbon monoxide emissions saved if one in five Americans rode public transportation daily; the savings would be greater than the combined emissions from all chemical manufacturing and metal processing industries.

Sources: American Public Transportation Association, Center for Transportation Excellence, National Resources Defense Council

With editing by Manon Verchot

In May 2013 the National Highway Traffic Safety Adminstration released estimates of U.S. traffic fatalities for 2012, and the results were troubling: 34,080 people died in motor-vehicles crashes that year, an increase of 5.3% over 2011’s total and a reversal of the long-term downward trends. The meaning of the one-year shift is unclear and there is a great deal of nuance within all the numbers, but the litany of deaths remains sobering — an average of more than 93 every day.

The lowest year in recent history was 2011, when 32,367 people died on U.S. roads and highways. As horrifying as that number is, it actually constitutes progress: In 1994, 40,716 died on the roads — 26% more, and nearly 112 deaths per day. Beyond the absolute numbers, progress has been made in overall mortality rates: 1.1 per 100 million vehicle miles travelled in 2011 (it rose to 1.16 in 2012). Much of this is due to advances in vehicle safety — air bags, anti-lock brakes and increased crashworthiness. But technology can have its drawbacks as well: Since 1980 the average horsepower of U.S. cars more than doubled, and speed limits have risen significantly, greatly increasing the potential for damage, loss of life and injuries. Motorcycling is also on the rise, and fatality rates have increased in lockstep with its popularity and inherent riskiness.

A 2013 study in Research in Transportation Economics, “Comparing the Fatality Risks in United States Transportation Across Modes and Over Time,” looks at the historical trends to paint a fuller picture of where this all stands. The researcher, Ian Savage of Northwestern University, prefaces his findings with an important caveat on measures of “safety”:

The focus on fatalities is primarily motivated by a greater confidence that this measure of safety is reported more consistently and accurately across modes and time. In general, cross-sectional and time-series comparisons in fatalities are also indicative of differences in non-fatal injuries, illnesses, and property damage. Albeit that the correlation is not perfect. In particular, fatalities are a poor measure of some of the environmental risks associated with the transportation of oil products and hazardous materials. In addition many of the advances in safety in recent decades have focused on “crashworthiness” whereby design changes have been made to increase the survivability of crashes and mitigate the severity of injuries. Consequently it is possible that a reduction in fatalities may be partly compensated for by an increase in the number of injuries.

Savage’s analysis involved two datasets: The first involved the relative risk of different travel modes — cars, buses, planes, trains, and more — from 2000 to 2009; the second was a time-series analysis for each mode from 1975 to 2010. The findings of the study include:

  • Between 2000 and 2009, on average 43,239 people in the United States died each year in transportation-related incidents. Based on the average number of U.S. residents over that period, the annual risk of dying in a transportation-related accident is 1 in 6,800.
  • Transportation-related fatalities constituted just under 2% of the 2.43 million deaths per year from all causes in the United States, or 1 in 56. Transportation was the biggest source of all “unintentional injury deaths” (38%) — those not caused by old age, disease, suicide or homicide.
  • Whatever the vehicle, highways are by far the most common place of transportation fatalities in the United States: 94%. If deaths that take place at rail-highway grade crossings are included, the total is even higher, at just over 95%.
  • Despite significant fatality rates for highway travel, overall transportation is becoming less dangerous: “The rate in 2010 is just one-third of that in 1975 (1.11 versus 3.35 fatalities per 100 million vehicle miles). The 1980s and early 1990s were the era of the greatest rate of improvement.”


Cars, trucks and SUVs

  • Nearly three-quarters of people who died in highway crashes (74%) were occupants of automobiles and light trucks. More than half (55%) occurred in single-vehicle incidents without a prior collision, including roll-overs; vehicles striking fixed objects, animals or debris; or catching fire.
  • The proportion of fatal single-vehicle crashes is much higher for light trucks (66%) than it is for automobiles (47%). Light trucks — including minivans, pickups and SUVs — often have a relatively higher center of gravity and thus a greater propensity to roll over.
  • Drivers or passengers in cars or light trucks faced a fatality risk of 7.3 per billion passenger-miles: “A person who was in a motor vehicle for 30 miles every day for a year faced a fatality risk of about 1 in 12,500. Relative to mainline trains, buses and commercial aviation the risk was 17, 67, and 112 times greater, respectively.”
  • Because private individuals operate the vast majority of motor vehicles, their risk is highly dependent on personal behavior: “Unlike the commercial modes where passengers are victimized randomly, the risk to individual highway users varies considerably depending on age, alcohol consumption and the type of road used.” (See highway risk factors below.)
  • “One might argue that transportation equipment, and in particular the motor vehicle, must be the most dangerous machines that we interact with on a daily basis,” the researcher states. “The annual toll in motor vehicle crashes exceeds the deaths resulting from the next most dangerous mechanical device, firearms, by about 40%.”


  • Nearly 10% of all highway fatalities — one in ten — were motorcyclists: “When a motorcycle is involved in a collision with another vehicle, the motorcyclist invariably receives more serious injuries. The ratio of fatalities in two-vehicle collisions was 70 motorcyclist fatalities for each fatal injury sustained by the occupant of the other vehicle.”
  • Over the period studied, motorcycles became increasingly popular, with use rising as much as 75%. As a consequence, fatalities have increased proportionally. This trend has been exacerbated by the “general rollback in the number of states requiring motorcycle riders to wear helmets.” (Earlier research has indicated that when a state repeals or weakens a helmet-use law, motorcyclist fatalities typically rise nearly 40%.)
  • Motorcycles had a fatality rate of 212 per billion passenger miles, by far the highest of all modes: “A motorcyclist who traveled 15 miles every day for a year, had an astonishing 1 in 860 chance of dying — 29 times the risk for automobiles and light trucks.”

Highway risk factors

  • Urban roads are far safer than those in rural areas: “Based on data from 2009, highways in rural areas have a fatality risk that is 2.7 times greater than that in urban areas. In general the lower average speeds, greater provision of lighting, greater deployment of traffic control devices and fewer curves in urban areas more than compensate for factors such as the greater number of intersections and the presence of pedestrians.”
  • Gender and youth play are significant factors in fatality risk: Males are three times more likely to die in a road accident than females, while people between the ages of 18 and 29 are at a 50% to 90% greater risk.
  • Seat-belt use is a significant factor: Half of vehicle occupants who die in automobiles and light truck incidents (49%) were not wearing seat belts or using child safety seats.
  • Alcohol played a role in approximately a third of all highway fatalities, with at least one of the involved parties having a blood-alcohol level above 0.8 grams per deciliter.
  • Related research has shown that drivers using cell phones show greater impairment than drunk drivers, and hands-free systems offered no improvement over handheld devices. Cell-phone conversations have a more profound effect on driver performance than other forms of in-car distraction, including talking to passengers and listening to the radio.


  • Mainline railroads claimed an average of 876 lives a year, the majority of which occur during collisions with highway users and pedestrians. The largest number of deaths, 490, involve people and vehicles not at grade crossings, and a significant portion of those deaths, approximately 85 to 110, were possibly suicides.
  • The balance of rail-related deaths involve motorists at grade crossings (281), pedestrians at grade crossings (68) employees and contractors working on the tracks (26). Per year on average, only seven passengers traveling on mainline trains die.
  • The overall fatality rate for long-haul train service is 0.43 per billion passenger miles. Excluding pedestrians and others not on trains — 64% of total fatalities assigned to railroads — the fatality rate is approximately 0.15 per billion passenger miles.


  • Vehicles with a capacity of 10 passengers or more represented just 0.1% of the total fatalities. On average, there were approximately 40 fatalities per year, with drivers and other bus-company employees representing 25% of lives lost.
  • Scheduled and charter service accounted for 44% of total bus fatalities. The balance of deaths occurred with school buses (23%), urban transit (11%) and a variety of private shuttles, church buses and other services (22%).
  • The fatality rate per billion passenger-miles for buses is relatively low, 0.11. However, this is still 65% greater than that for aviation, and doesn’t include victims of crime. (Also, see statistics on “curbside” bus services.)


  • The majority of aviation fatalities that occur each year (85%) involved private aircraft (known as “general aviation”). On average, 549 people die each year in activities such as recreational flying (41% of flight hours), business travel (24%), and instruction (17%).
  • Excluding acts of suicide and terrorism, commercial aviation was the safest mode of travel in the United States, with 0.07 fatalities per billion passenger miles: “A person who took a 500-mile flight every single day for a year, would have a fatality risk of 1 in 85,000.” (One variable to note: Takeoffs and landings are where the risk is, not in the number of miles flown, so risk-per-flight calculations are higher.)

Walking, bicycling

  • Between 2000 and 2009, on average 6,067 pedestrians and bicyclists died on U.S. highways and in collisions with other modes of transport. Of these, 4,930 died when hit by cars and trucks operated by private users, 545 deaths resulted from collisions with commercial carriers, and 592 from commercial users not on highways.
  • In all, fatalities of pedestrians and bicyclists make up nearly 15% of annual average highway fatalities. More than 90% of pedestrian fatalities occurred when the victims were hit by automobiles and light trucks.
  • A related study on risk factors for on-road cycling commuters indicated that prior to car-bicycle accidents, 89% of cyclists were traveled in a safe and legal manner. In addition, vehicle drivers were at fault in 87% of the events.

A related 2013 study published in the Annals of Emergency Medicine, “Safety in Numbers: Are Major Cities the Safest Places in the United States?” examined the overall injury risk in urban areas compared with suburban and rural areas. Among the conclusions: Rural counties demonstrated significantly higher death rates than urban counties — 1.22 times greater for the most rural compared with the most urban. The majority of the difference was in unintentional incidents such as accidents, but some increase in suicide risk was also seen in rural areas. Overall, the study finds, “U.S. urban counties were safer than their rural counterparts, and injury death risk increased steadily as counties became more rural.”

Also of interest is a 2013 report by the World Health Organization. “Global Status Report on Road Safety 2013: Supporting a Decade of Action.” The study was based on country-level data and included information on newer risk factors such as cell phone use while driving. Among the findings, the report states that more than 1.24 million people die every year as a result of road traffic injuries, making it the eighth leading cause of death globally, and the leading cause of death for young people aged 15-29. Based on anticipated trends, by 2030 road accidents are projected to be the fifth leading cause of death globally.


Keywords: cars, trains, Amtrak, Northeast Corridor, planes, airlines, pedestrians, bicycling, safety, distracted driving, alcohol, multitasking, driving

Citation: Savage, Ian. "Comparing the Fatality Risks in United States Transportation Across Modes and Over Time," Research in Transportation Economics, July 2013, Vol. 43, Issue 1, 9-22. doi: 10.1016/j.retrec.2012.12.011.

Public Health, Transportationbicycling, cars, safety

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