I’ve never been a stranger to public transportation. As a child living in Philadelphia, I would often tag along with my grandma on her errand runs to Chinatown. We’d ride the subway, which became so familiar to me that I considered myself a veritable subway expert. As a game, I’d mouth the announcements for the next stop as they played over the intercom to amaze my grandma with my “expert” knowledge of the stations along our route.

While I quickly grew out of lip-syncing the automated subway announcements, public transit only became more important in my life as I got older.

In high school, buses and subways were my primary modes of transportation. Likewise, after moving to Los Angeles for college, public transportation played a vital role in introducing me to a brand new city while on a budget. Even in my travels to other cities — both domestic and international — I have delighted in experiencing and comparing the public transit systems that provided me the mobility to explore those cities.

I now live in Pittsburgh — a pioneer of bus rapid transit (BRT) in the U.S., with its dedicated busways. This city’s transit and my current work in sustainability at Highmark have inspired me to think about public transportation and its holistic lifestyle benefits. Aside from its obvious affordability over driving (especially if you live somewhere that you have to pay for parking every day), taking a bus or a rail line can help improve both environmental health and human health.

Cleaner Air

Exhaust from gasoline-fueled vehicles is a major contributor to the greenhouse gasses that drive climate change. In cities like Pittsburgh that struggle with air quality, exhaust can also present a danger to personal health. Public transportation helps to reduce that pollution.

Choosing a public transit option over driving lowers the greenhouse gas emissions of your commute by more than 50 percent on average, the U.S. Department of Transportation reports. Compared to the greenhouse gas emissions of a single-occupancy vehicle:

  • Heavy rail systems, like subways, produce 76 percent less emissions.
  • Light rail systems, like trolleys, produce 62 percent less emissions.
  • Buses produce 33 percent less emissions.

And these numbers are improving as even more buses switch to sustainable alternative fuels (use of alternative fuel or hybrid technology in public transit buses is at 41.3 percent) and rail systems increasingly draw electricity from renewable sources like solar and wind.

Less Stressful Commutes

Tammy Lee on an old MTA subway car

Tammy on an old New York Metropolitan Transportation Authority subway car.

One of my favorite parts of my bus rides to and from work is that I can sit and relax the entire way. Riding public transportation is less stressful than driving and frees up a lot of attention that isn’t available if you’re driving. Instead of keeping an eye on the road, you can enjoy the scenery, study, text, read the news, listen to music, chat and relax.

Transit travel is also much safer than automobile travel. What’s more, you don’t have to worry about parking or — for rail lines and BRT — even traffic congestion.

Transit Users Exercise More

Public transportation brings with it some surprising benefits. Neighborhoods serviced by public transit tend to have fewer cars and slower traffic speeds, which translate to better walkability and bikeability. In turn, more people walking and biking on the streets means that there is more neighborhood monitoring going on — and that can help reduce crime.

People who ride on public transportation also perform more physical activity. The CDC recommends 150 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise — like brisk walking — every week for adults. Studies have found that public transit users walk more and are more likely to reach their recommended exercise targets than nontransit users.

If you take public transportation, walking to and from your transit stops is a simple way to fit exercise in without spending extra time or money. You can also run an errand or two on the walk home and add even more exercise to your day while being productive.

Of course, cycling is another great option to fit in a workout and supplement public transportation. Buses and transit stations now often have bike racks or bike storage, making it easier than ever to bike for part of your commute while using public transportation for the rest.

Public Transit Is for Everyone

Tammy Lee in a subway car

Happiness is a subway car in New York City.

Whether the benefit is taking cars off the road to reduce congestion, shaping neighborhoods to be safer and more walkable, providing accessible mobility for people with disabilities and senior citizens, making transportation affordable, or reducing air pollution, everyone benefits from public transportation.

If you don’t currently ride public transportation, I encourage you to explore the options in your area (see sidebar). You might just find a way to add a healthy boost to your lifestyle.