In Focus: An In-Depth Look at Public Transport

This post is also available in: Deutsch (German)

Naturally, there is one thing that people care about a lot— Growing professionally. Public transport happens to be right at the heart of that for a huge percentage of people in all countries. So, what is public transport?

Public transport is not what you see in the movies.

It is not the same thing as a protagonist unrealistically evading traffic in the opening scene of a film, riding a bicycle complete with a helmet juggling between pulling ridiculous stunts and ensuring a partially torn document case does not spill the papers the actor will present to the interview panel in the next scene.

Far from that.

Neither is it as simple as politicians make it out to be when they make haphazard changes to transport policy only to realize that public transport requires wide consultation among various stakeholders.

In that case, what is public transport?

Public Transport

Public transport is defined as the different modes of travel at the disposal of residents of a particular area, town, or city that enables them to travel together along designated corridors.

Examples of public transport modes include buses, trams, and trains.

Other examples include coaches, high-speed rails, and airlines, but these are most common in cities where residents have more spending power than their rural counterparts.

One common feature of public transport is that operators work with stipulated timelines. Another common feature is that some transportation systems operate on a full-capacity basis meaning that the journey will only begin if the vehicle, train, or plane is full of passengers.

In pure plain language, time is the most significant factor in public transportation.

Another characteristic of public transport is that it is open to all residents without any prior reservation. To access public transport, passengers have to pay a fare.

Multimodal Means of Transport

In some cities, public transport is more advanced, meaning that multimodal means of transport are applied.

If you are not familiar with the term multimodal means of transport, then picture this: Walking from home to the train station, taking the train up to the point it alights, taking a bus up to point x, and then taking a taxi to your place of work.

New York City (NYC), United States, is a perfect example of a city that puts multimodal transport routes into practice.

This is perfectly captured in a research paper published by The New York State Department of Transport dubbed Multimodal Investment Needs & Goals for the Future, which points out that NYC boasts of a wide network of highways, rail lines (both passenger and freight), roads, pedestrian and bicycle facilities, public transit systems, ports, airports, waterways and intermodal facilities that link various parts of the network.

This network includes more than 113,616 miles of highways and 17,227 highway bridges over which more than 141 billion vehicle miles are driven annually. Five hundred thirteen public and private aviation facilities provide service to 84 million passengers annually

report: multimodal investment needs & goals for the future

The Different Modes of Public Transport

In this piece, we will look at seven standard modes of public transportation.

  • Bus Transport
  • Train Transport
  • Metro Sytems
  • Trams
  • Light Rail
  • Air Transport
  • Taxi

It is important to note that public transport systems vary in different countries due to a number of factors like the strength of the economy, public transport policy, and the needs of the citizens of that particular nation.

In the same vein, some countries have multiple reliable public transport systems while others depend heavily on one.

For instance, some countries like Malaysia do not have trams, others like Kenya rely heavily on paratransit while in London, United Kingdom, commuters can board the metro, buses, trains, or trams and get around conveniently.

The bottom line is that all these are public means of transport.

Bus Transport

Bus transport is one the most common and oldest means of public transportation in all parts of the world.

It is designed to facilitate the transit of people within an urban area or the movement of people from a metropolitan area to a rural area and vice versa.

The biggest plus of using bus transport is that it is very convenient when there is no traffic. It is also affordable when passengers travel short distances.

There are different types of buses built for different transportation conditions but just to highlight, some of the different types of buses include Single Deck buses, Minibuses, Midibuses, Full-sized single deck buses, Double-deck buses, rigid buses, and Articulated buses.

Bus transport has evolved from its traditional roots. Bus transport conversations have shifted and become even more progressive.

For instance, the United Kingdom, through its Inclusive Transport Strategy co-signed by Parliamentary Under-Secretary for Transport Nusrat Ghani, aims to invest heavily to make bus transport and the other modes of public transport, in general, more accessible and inclusive to ensure disabled people bear no extra cost of transportation by 2030.

Train Transport

Train transport or rail transport differs from vehicle transport in that the former is a wheeled vehicle running on rails located on tracks, while in the latter cars, ride on a flat surface, primarily roads.

Train transport has grown rapidly since the first man/animal hauled railway was laid in Corinth, Greece, back in the 6th Century BC.

This growth is manifested by the millions of people who depend on railway transport in the mornings and evenings to get to work and go back home in many cities worldwide.

Traditionally, train transport was more effective for long-distance travel, but in the last thirty years, governments world-over have slowly brought in rail transport in urban areas as a viable alternative to road transport which is bedevilled by traffic congestion.

In some cities, like seen in the NYC example above, rail transport can be combined with other modes of transportation to create a more convenient and faster way for commuters to move from Point A to Point B.

In transport, the adage “history repeats itself” is applicable but only if the words “with technological advancements” are included to complete the statement.

Rail transport has evolved and become much more advanced in the current age. In developed countries, trips that would take days in previous years now take hours to complete.

In Europe, high-speed trains have made it possible to crisscross a country at lightning speed.

For instance, the French Train à Grande Vitesse (High-Speed Train) moves at 350 km/hr, facilitating passengers to travel to hundreds of destinations within the country, including trips from Paris to other major French cities: Nice, Bordeaux, Nantes, Lyon, and Avignon.

Metro Systems

Metro systems, also known as subway or rapid transit, are a mode of high-capacity public transportation system standard in urban areas.

One unique feature of metro systems is that they are electric railways that operate solely on the right-of-way that is not open to pedestrians or any vehicle.

The difference between a train and a metro is:

  • The train is used to ferry passengers and cargo to long distances or link the distances within a city and its suburbs.
  • The metro, on the other hand, is a mass rapid transit system that specifically runs in metropolitan cities. A metro can either be underground (Moscow) or elevated (Chicago).

In terms of performance, metro systems have been ranked best. They are more reliable compared to other modes of transport judging by reliability, speed, and capacity.

Some of the cities with the busiest metro systems include London (United Kingdom), New York City (United States), Seoul (South Korea), Moscow (Russia), Shanghai (China), Tokyo (Japan), and Mexico City (Mexico).

Because of operations and security implications involved, cities with metro systems have formed designated bodies responsible for the safety of passengers and to ensure transportation goes on without any hitch.

Perhaps the only downside is that the development of metro systems is expensive, but once in place, the quality of life improves by a country mile in that city.

The efficiency of metro systems in public transportation will improve even further with time if transit authorities implement ideas fronted by tech researchers.

A research paper dubbed: Digital Transformation of Transport Infrastructure: Experience of European and Moscow Metro Systems authored by Anton Denisenkov, Natalya Denisenkova, and Yuliya Polyakova recommends digital transformation of the world’s metro systems observing that incorporation of  Industry 4.0 technologies in the running of subways will yield optimum results economically, socially and culturally.

The paper observes that incorporating the Internet of Things (IoT) will help cut down costs and boost efficiency.

The use of IoT for the digitalization of technological processes in the metro will provide and combine the main trends: Improving Customer Service, Reducing the Cost of Maintaining Computing Power and Operating Equipment, Development of Cloud Technologies and Big Data, Reducing the Cost of Data Transmission, Growth of Labor Productivity, The Ability to Increase the Number of “connected” Devices.

REPORT: Digital Transformation of Transport Infrastructure: Experience of European and Moscow Metro Systems


A tram, also known as a streetcar, tramcar, trolley car, or trolley, depending on the city is a rail vehicle that runs on a track designed for city streets.

Another feature of trams is that they can also run on a segregated right of way. The tracks or networks managed by tramcars are popularly known as tramways.

Trams which are powered by electricity are found in major cities where demand for public transport is high.

Another reason why trams are a perfect fit for major cities is that they are large-capacity vehicles that ferry many passengers compared to a mode of transport like a bus which carries fewer passengers.

Trams are also preferred because of speed and reliability and are much easier to install than rail but one advantage that stands out is that they are environmentally friendly as they don’t emit substances into the atmosphere.

According to Christian Wolmar, a transport expert and author of “Are Trams Socialist?“, there are two fundamental things that trams need most for them to be successful: the right route and priority on the road over cars.

The expert, who gave his opinion in an article published on Wired in April 2014, said that failure to set up tramways on the right routes has led to the failure of US systems.

He also added that failure to prioritize trams over cars has led to the latter fouling up the former in Toronto, Canada, and observed that should not be the case as trams get the priority in other European cities.

Wolmar noted that if trams do not get the priority, commuters might as well travel by bus because there will not be much difference.

Light Rail

Light rail is a mode of public transport, usually rapid and limited to urban areas. It combines metro and tram features.

Whereas a light rail’s rolling stock resembles a traditional tram, it operates at a more incredible speed and has room for more capacity.

One notable aspect about the light rail is that it operates on an exclusive right-of-way.

Overhead electrical wires power light rails, while Light Rail Vehicles (LRVs) are a technologically advanced version of trams.

Light rail lines are isolated from street traffic compared to tramways, especially in crowded urban areas but to a lesser extent compared to subway lines.

According to research published by the Federal Bank of St Louis, one of the major drivers of setting up light rail is environmental considerations with St. Louis, Missouri city officials believing that this particular mode of transport can alleviate pollution and traffic congestion.

The paper also points out multiple metropolitan areas across the United States see rail transit as a mode of transportation that can spark economic growth if the light-rail stations are located strategically in addition to city officials and private developers cooperating.

The report further lists the biggest benefits of light rail as:

  • Cuts down on traffic congestion
  • Cuts down on pollution
  • Provides the poor with a means of transport
  • Sparks economic development by providing people with a convenient way to get around and increases property values

Air Transport

Air transport is a mode of transport used to ferry passengers and freight from one point to another using various types of aircraft including aeroplanes, helicopters, and jets.

One of the biggest advantages of air transport is that it is faster compared to other modes of transport such as road, water, and rail transport.

However, the two biggest disadvantages of air transport are that this particular mode of transit is expensive in addition to aircraft being expensive to acquire and maintain.

Air transport is the most common mode for intercountry travel and for long distances on the domestic front.

Aeroplanes carry hundreds of passengers simultaneously.

In commercial planes, seating is divided into four classes for international flights namely: First Class, Club Class, Business Class, and Economy Class.

For domestic flights, the classes are narrowed down to two: First Class and Economy Class.

However, the aviation industry has been one of the biggest casualties of the Covid-19 Pandemic, losing billions of shillings in revenue as governments grounded flights and initiated lockdowns as a means to curb importation and spread of the disease.

Data shared by the International Civil Aviation Authority (ICAO) shows that since the outbreak of the disease, international air traffic has plummeted by 60% while airport revenues have tumbled -66.3%, or $ 125 billion.


The German Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development through its Taxis as a Part of Public Transport: Sustainable Urban Transport Technical Document #16 report defines taxis as private cars owned by private citizens or organizations that offer public transport services mostly in urban areas but cover shorter distances than other modes.

Taxis operate 24 hours from point to point and are a vital link in the public transportation cog to supplement conventional public transport.

Taxis generate income for many families. In the past, taxis charged very high rates but that was disrupted by the rise of ride-hailing apps in 2009.

Uber, one of the most popular ride-hailing apps globally launched operations in the United States in March 2009.

One of the main ripple effects following the entry of various ride-hailing apps in the taxi business was the steadying prices.

Customers could now know how much they will be charged for a trip even before making the payment. The presence of multiple players in the market also contributed to the prices becoming even more affordable for passengers.

However, the German Ministry’s report notes that taxis are becoming a nuisance in developing cities due to crowding limiting the space available to people.

Public Transport & Big Data

Public transport authorities, researchers, governments alongside other stakeholders are always looking to improve public transport to make it easier for everyone to move from Point A to Point B.

One of the ways this is being achieved is through various applications of public transport Big Data namely: Analysis of occupancy data, punctuality, demand for public transport routes, optimisation of multimodal means of transport, and recurring delays.

Home Sweet Home

We have already learned that one of the reasons many people rely on public transport is that they cannot afford to buy their own cars.

We also learned that it is detrimental for economies when the economy movers (citizens) are stuck in traffic.

Naturally, there is one thing that people care about a lot— Growing professionally. Public transport happens to be right at the heart of that for a huge percentage of people in all countries.

The journey to becoming a full professional begins at university or college. Students are also affected by unreliable public transport systems.

However, evidence is pointing to Big Data being key to ensuring that professionals and students are not caught in traffic congestion.

When that is said and done, the one thing that people look forward to after a hard day’s work is getting home.

After all, that’s why the doormat reads—Home Sweet Home.