Public Transportation Provided Along Fixed Routes


Public transportation provided along a fixed route allows people to get around by bus and rail at designated stops and specific times. It is the backbone of ensuring mobility in urban areas. Intercity trains and buses, commuter trains, subways, light rail, and city buses are the most common examples of this type of service. 

Public transportation in the U.S. has increased in popularity in recent years for several reasons, including: 

  • local interest in creating and revitalizing transit station areas through good land-use policy and public and private investments; 
  • increasing traffic congestion in urban areas; 
  • increasing availability of service due to increased federal, state, and local investments; and 
  • heightened concerns over global warming and air pollution. 

Nearly 13 billion trips were taken on public transportation in 2017. Three-quarters of these trips were on fixed-route systems. Adults age 65 and older more than doubled the number of trips they took on public transportation between 2001 and 2017. 

Despite steady use, some public transportation systems present barriers to older adults. Merely getting to public transportation can be a challenge for those with physical limitations. As with many public transportation users, people age 50 and older often cite limited frequency of available trips and extended travel time as obstacles to transit use for local trips. Other factors that may hinder transit ridership include limited-service coverage, distance from the nearest public transit stop, neighborhood traffic volumes and speeds, and problems with sidewalks, streetlights, and security conditions. Numerous transit agencies are undertaking route modernization programs to improve efficiencies by eliminating low-ridership routes. But that can have harmful effects on older adults and people with disabilities if those routes are not replaced by other on-demand travel opportunities. 

Public transportation agencies can tailor their services to better meet the needs of older adults in the following ways: 

  • Increased service reliability: Transit systems can take advantage of Global Positioning Systems technology and reward employees for on-time performance and proper vehicle fleet maintenance. 
  • Accessible vehicles and stops: These include low-floor buses, secure and Americans with Disabilities Act-compliant bus stops with benches and shelters, and proper maintenance to increase the usability, safety, and security of the system. 
  • Neighborhood-based circulators or subscription routes: Services that offer curb-to-curb service to grocery stores or malls are especially useful in neighborhoods with a high concentration of older adults. 
  • Service information: Using larger fonts on route maps and schedules, offering real-time bus and train arrival information, and offering customer-oriented mobility management services increase the accessibility of service information. Formatting and sharing data using the “General Transit-Feed Specification” (GTFS) is also important. This standardized format can be used to create apps with real-time arrival, accessibility, and other information. 
  • Driver and passenger training: Older adults who have little or no experience using public transportation can benefit from instruction on how to use it.  
  • Driver sensitivity training: Training to increase understanding of the challenges older adults and people with disabilities face in using public transportation could improve outcomes for these populations. 

One of the most popular Federal Transit Administration discretionary grant programs is known as New Starts/Small Starts. Eligible projects include those that operate on a separate right-of-way exclusively for public transportation or on a rail or overhead wire system, for example, light rail and streetcar systems. Other eligible projects include bus rapid-transit projects operating in mixed traffic and projects that improve the capacity of existing systems. The maximum federal share is 80 percent for Small Starts and Core Capacity corridor projects and 60 percent for larger New Starts projects. 

Public transportation safety in public health emergencies: The COVID-19 pandemic revealed the importance of funding for personal protective equipment (PPE), increased sanitation, and physical distancing measures for public transportation during public health crises. Public transportation providers have been hit hard by both declines in ridership and budgets. At the same time, they have had to cover new costs related to PPE, cleaning and air filtration, and contactless reservations and payment. Throughout, they continue to provide essential workers critical transportation and will be a core service for economic recovery as the nation rebounds from the pandemic. They also need funding to ensure service frequent enough to avoid overcrowding and draw riders back to the service. 



Increased investment

Policymakers should expand and improve affordable and accessible public transportation programs. They should provide sufficient funding for public transportation to enable service providers to offer service levels that meet demand and encourage ridership (see also Livable Communities Financing policy). 

States should: 

  • maintain and increase investment in improved public transit systems. For example, they can use accessible equipment and offer comfortable, safe, and accessible transit stops and stations. 
  • actively promote the use of public transportation. 
  • require public transit systems to implement and enhance safety regulations and mechanisms. 
  • encourage transit authorities to reduce fares for people with disabilities and older adults with low incomes, including policies to implement free public transit where appropriate. 
  • support data standardization efforts such as the General Transit Feed Specification and associated extensions. 

States should also require that recipients of Community Development Block Grants and other state funds guarantee accessibility to transit and safe access to facilities in their community planning and design efforts. 

Congress should provide state and local governments with incentives to expand and improve public transportation. It should also provide funding to expand public transportation access for older adults and people with disabilities. This includes through demonstration projects. 

Congress should also: 

  • appropriate sufficient transit funds for capital assistance, operating subsidies, specialized transit, rural assistance, employment-based transportation, and research; 
  • address state and local budget challenges associated with recessions by providing transit systems serving large urban areas the short-term flexibility to use federal transit formula, discretionary, and stimulus funding for either capital or operating expenses; and 
  • provide funding for capital investments in public transportation, including for New Starts/Small Starts, on par with that provided for highways. 

New Starts: Congress should direct the Federal Transit Administration to provide additional credit to those New Starts/Small Starts projects that demonstrate a commitment to providing or maintaining affordable housing within one-half mile of stations. Federal funding formulas should also credit applicants for transit investment plans that are tied to transit-supportive land-use and economic development plans.