Transit is 10-times safer than driving – and makes communities safer, says new APTA report

If you truly cared about safety, you would stop driving your car right now and jump aboard transit.

That is the underlying recommendation of a study released today by the American Public Transit Association, with help from the Victoria Transport Policy Institute.

The latest data certainly backs up APTA’s numbers. According to the U.S. Department of Transportation, there were 35,092 fatalities related to car crashes in 2015 – an increase of 7.2 percent from 2014, which is the largest year-to-year jump in five decades. That equates to about 100 car-related deaths each day. Per billion passenger-miles traveled, urban rail, and bus have about one-thirtieth as many deaths as car travel.

In its study, titled The Hidden Traffic Safety Solution: Public Transportation [PDF], APTA concludes that transit trips are 10 times safer per mile than car trips.  In regards to general crash risk, the report’s authors note that “a person can reduce his or her chance of being in an accident by more than 90 percent simply by taking public transit opposed to commuting by car.”

The effects extend beyond individual trip choices, too: the report notes that transit-oriented communities are five times safer than auto-oriented communities. Better public transportation contributes to more compact development, which in turn reduces auto-miles traveled and produces safer speeds in those areas. On a national scale, too, the U.S. could make large advances in safety if each American committed to replacing as few as three car trips per month with transit trips.

Despite what should be a safety concern for drivers, there is often little thought given to the vast safety benefits that transit presents, as the industry faces an uphill climb on the issue.

For one, the history of transit promotion has focused on playing defensively, with fear-based messages like “If You See Something, Say Something” – which suggests scary criminals are lurking all over transit in particular – and communications that shame people into thinking they’re doing something wrong or abnormal by taking transit, bicycling, or walking.

The media’s taste for the sensational doesn’t help much either. One fatal train wreck will receive more coverage than the relentless litany of daily road-side car deaths, often dismissed as faultless accidents.

Richard White, acting CEO and president of APTA, acknowledged these concerns in yesterday’s press briefing: “That’s an unfortunate perception issue that transit has to deal with.”

Bella Dinh-Zarr, vice chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board, added, “I think it’s just human nature for us to notice when there’s one large accident. There used to be more airplane crashes, but now, because of innovative things [the industry has] done, we rarely hear about a large or business jet crashing. Buses, transit, and trains are also safe. That’s what we need to do for road safety. The challenge we face on highways is that [fatalities] are one at a time.”

Other speakers at the study’s launch admitted the transit industry – while also criticizing media coverage – needs to improve at communicating the relative safety of transit. White added that transit leaders need to “think harder about the message” and “think about how this information gets into the hands of APTA members.”

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Notably, recommendations in APTA’s report include the expansion of transportation demand management practices, alongside other strategies – such as service enhancements – to encourage the adoption of non-driving options.

“New strategies in TDM involve reaching out to school-age children in elementary and middle schools, teaching them the benefits of taking public transportation to and from school and after-school activities,” Mobility Lab CEO Lois DeMeester said. “This long-term investment in school outreach will result in more use of public transportation, leading to less car ownership and car use overall, and hopefully, fewer youth and young-adult fatalities on our highways.”

Dinh-Zarrof the NTSB noted that “transit is a public safety tool” that “provides transportation options for high-risk groups, like distracted, drowsy, and fatigued drivers. [We need to] choose to travel by bus or train when we choose to multitask.”

APTA’s study builds on earlier research by Todd Litman of the Victoria Transport Policy Institute originally released in 2014. The 2014 report offered some key recommendations, such as the integration of key safety findings – that heavy and light rail is about 30 times safer than driving, for instance – into the industry’s communications. Hopefully, with the latest framing from APTA’s report, that begins to become a reality.

Photo: Riders board a Metrobus in Arlington County, Va. (Sam Kittner for Mobility Lab, www.kittner.com).

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