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Individual incentives for public transportation

Health Factors: Housing & Transit
Decision Makers: Community Development Professionals Employers & Businesses Local Government State Government
Evidence Rating: Some Evidence
Population Reach: 50-99% of WI's population
Impact on Disparities: No impact on disparities likely

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Offering incentives to encourage individuals' use of existing public transit options decreases consumer’s cost for such transport. There are several types of individual incentives, including free or discounted bus, rail, or transit passes offered through deep discounting or transit pass incentive programs, and reimbursements, partial payments, or pre-tax payroll deductions offered through transportation subsidy programs.

Expected Beneficial Outcomes

Increased use of public transit
Increased physical activity
Increased active transportation
Reduced obesity rates
Increased mobility
Reduced vehicle miles traveled
Reduced emissions

Evidence of Effectiveness

There is some evidence that offering individual incentives for public transit increases public transit use (VTPI-Litman 2017a, Graham-Rowe 2011). Such incentives can also increase physical activity for individuals using non-motorized travel to and from transit stops (MacDonald 2010, Martin 2012, Webb 2012). However, additional evidence is needed to confirm effects.

Combining incentives such as discounted passes with improved transit service, better marketing, and higher private vehicle user fees can increase public transit use and reduce automobile use (VTPI-Litman 2017a). Transit pass incentive programs have been particularly successful in increasing use among college students (Myers 2006, Nuworsoo 2004). Other factors that increase the likelihood of using a transit pass include high gas prices, not having children, and having a flexible schedule or one that matches transit availability (Zhou 2011).

Model-based research suggests that reducing fares may generate small ridership increases, while increasing fares may significantly reduce ridership (Chen 2011). Overall, price sensitivity to fares depends on whether or not a traveler is transit dependent, the type of trip, time of day, and geographic conditions such as population density and the character of the built environment (VTPI-Litman 2017a).

Recent studies suggest that public transportation users walk more and have approximately 5 to 10 minutes more daily moderate physical activity than non-users (Lachapelle 2009, Wener 2007). Incentives for public transit use have been shown to increase public transit use, as well as active travel options such as walking and cycling (Martin 2012, Coronini-Cronberg 2012), which may reduce the likelihood of becoming obese (MacDonald 2010, Webb 2012).

Individual incentives may reduce disparities in transportation access; the greatest improvements in mobility accrue to transit dependents--those who are too old, too young, physically unable, or cannot afford to drive (Garrett 1999). Such incentives are also a suggested strategy to reduce single occupancy vehicle trips, vehicle miles traveled (VMT), and emissions (CDC-Alternative transportation, RAND-Sorenson 2008, Herzog 2007, Su 2012, Graham-Rowe 2011), and may be a cost effective strategy to reduce greenhouse gas emissions (Gallivan 2011). Public transportation systems produce significantly fewer emissions per passenger mile than private vehicles, especially when operating with full passenger loads (US DOT-FTA Transit and climate).

Public transportation systems have a good safety record. Private vehicle transportation (passenger cars, light trucks, and motorcycles) accounted for over 75% of transportation fatalities in 2011. Public transportation (school, intercity, transit bus, light rail transit, and subway) accounted for just 0.5% of transportation fatalities in the same year (US DOT-BTS Fatalities).

Incentive programs may also raise transportation revenue (RAND-Sorenson 2008, Nuworsoo 2004), reduce transportation costs for employers and individuals (RAND-Sorenson 2008, Myers 2006, Nuworsoo 2004), and cost less than providing parking spaces for commuters (Shoup-Eco passes).


United States

The federal government has a transportation subsidy program in place for any federal employee in the National Capital Region that uses public transportation to commute to work (US DOT-TRANServe). Some states (e.g., Oregon) award energy tax credits to businesses or organizations that offer financial incentives to encourage employees to use public transportation or alternatives to single occupancy vehicles for their commutes (ODOE-Transportation). Municipalities can adopt transportation management plans that include incentives to encourage public transportation use, walking, or bicycling, and reduce single occupancy vehicle use, as in the City of Alexandria, Virginia (Alexandria-TMPs) or use a Transportation Management Association (TMA) for the same purpose, as in Sacramento, California (Yolo-TMA).

Other individual incentives, such as transit pass incentive programs for employers, students, and state or city employees are available in many municipalities, including Austin, Texas; Seattle and Olympia, Washington; Monroe County, Pennsylvania; Nashville, Tennessee; and Portland, Oregon (TRB-Boyle 2010).


Madison Metro has a service agreement with UW Madison to provide bus passes to students, faculty, and staff; this opportunity is also available to other organizations and companies. Milwaukee Transit also offers discount Commuter Value Passes for employers with more than 20 employees.

Implementation Resources

ALBD - Active Living by Design (ALBD). Increasing physical activity and healthy eating through community design. Accessed on June 16, 2017
APHA-Transportation toolkit - American Public Health Association (APHA). APHA online toolkit: Transportation and health toolkit. Accessed on June 1, 2017
CCAP-Transportation emissions - Center for Clean Air Policy (CCAP). CCAP Transportation emissions guidebook. Accessed on June 1, 2017
SC DHEC-Air quality - South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control (SC DHEC). Your air. Accessed on June 1, 2017
VTPI-Litman 2017 - Litman T. Evaluating public transit benefits and costs: Best practices guidebook. Victoria, BC: Victoria Transport Policy Institute (VTPI); 2017. Accessed on June 1, 2017
WisDOT-Public Transit - Wisconsin Department of Transportation (WisDOT). Travel by public transit. Accessed on June 1, 2017

Citations - Evidence

CDC-Alternative transportation - Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Alternative transportation. Accessed on June 1, 2017
Chen 2011* - Chen C, Varley D, & Chen J. What affects transit ridership? A dynamic analysis involving multiple factors, lags and asymmetric behaviour. Urban Studies. 2011;48(9):1893-1908. Accessed on June 1, 2017
Coronini-Cronberg 2012* - Coronini-Cronberg S, Millett C, Laverty AA, Webb E. The impact of a free older persons’ bus pass on active travel and regular walking in England. American Journal of Public Health. 2012;102(11):2141–8. Accessed on June 1, 2017
Gallivan 2011* - Gallivan F, Ang-Olson J, Liban CB, Kusumoto A. Cost-effective approaches to reduce greenhouse gas emissions through public transportation in Los Angeles, California. Transportation Research Record: Journal of the Transportation Research Board. 2011;2(2217):19–29. Accessed on June 1, 2017
Garrett 1999 - Garrett M, Taylor B. Reconsidering social equity in public transit. Berkeley Planning Journal. 1999;13:6-27. Accessed on June 1, 2017
Graham-Rowe 2011* - Graham-Rowe E, Skippon S, Gardner B, Abraham C. Can we reduce car use and, if so, how? A review of available evidence. Transportation Research Part A: Policy and Practice. 2011;45(5):401–18. Accessed on June 1, 2017
Herzog 2007* - Herzog E, Bricka S, Audette L, Rockwell J. Do employee commuter benefits reduce vehicle emissions and fuel consumption? Results of Fall 2004 survey of best workplaces for commuters. Transportation Research Record: Journal of the Transportation Research Board. 2006;1956:34–41. Accessed on June 1, 2017
Lachapelle 2009 - Lachapelle U, Frank LD. Transit and health: mode of transport, employer-sponsored public transit pass programs, and physical activity. Journal of Public Health Policy. 2009;30(Suppl 1):S73–94. Accessed on June 2, 2017
MacDonald 2010 - MacDonald JM, Stokes RJ, Cohen DA, Kofner A, Ridgeway GK. The effect of light rail transit on body mass index and physical activity. American Journal of Preventive Medicine. 2010;39(2):105-12. Accessed on June 1, 2017
Martin 2012* - Martin A, Suhrcke M, Ogilvie D. Financial incentives to promote active travel: an evidence review and economic framework. American Journal of Preventive Medicine. 2012;43(6):e45-57. Accessed on June 1, 2017
Myers 2006* - Myers G, Hagen DA, Russo T, et al. Benefits of campus transit pass: Study of student’s willingness to pay for proposed mandatory transit pass program. Transportation Research Record: Journal of the Transportation Research Board. 2006;1971:133-9. Accessed on June 1, 2017
Nuworsoo 2004 - Nuworsoo CK. Deep discount group pass programs as instruments for increasing transit revenue and ridership. Berkeley: Institute of Transportation Studies, University of California Berkeley (UCB); 2004: UCB-ITS-DS-2004-2. Accessed on June 1, 2017
RAND-Sorenson 2008 - Sorenson P, Wachs M, Min EY, et al. Moving Los Angeles: Short-term policy options for improving transportation. Santa Monica: RAND Corporation; 2008: Monograph Report 748. Accessed on June 1, 2017
Shoup-Eco passes - Shoup DC. Eco passes: An evaluation of employer-based transit programs. Los Angeles: University of California Transportation Center (UCTC); 2004. Accessed on June 1, 2017
Su 2012* - Su Q, Zhou L. Parking management, financial subsidies to alternatives to drive alone and commute mode choices in Seattle. Regional Science and Urban Economics. 2012;42(1-2):88–97. Accessed on June 1, 2017
US DOT-BTS Fatalities - US Department of Transportation (US DOT), Research and Innovative Technology Administration, Bureau of Transportation Statistics (BTS). National Transportation Statistics: Transportation fatalities. Washington, DC. Accessed on June 21, 2017
US DOT-FTA Transit and climate - US Department of Transportation (US DOT), Federal Transit Administration (FTA). Public transportation's role in responding to climate change. 2010. Accessed on June 20, 2017
VTPI-Litman 2017a - Litman T. Transit price elasticities and cross-elasticities. Victoria, BC: Victoria Transport Policy Institute (VTPI); 2017. Accessed on June 1, 2017
Webb 2012* - Webb E, Netuveli G, Millett C. Free bus passes, use of public transport and obesity among older people in England. Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health. 2012;66(2):176–80. Accessed on June 1, 2017
Wener 2007* - Wener RE, Evans GW. A morning stroll: Levels of physical activity in car and mass transit commuting. Environment and Behavior. 2007;39(1):62-74. Accessed on June 1, 2017
Zhou 2011* - Zhou J, Schweitzer L. Getting drivers to switch: Transit price and service quality among commuters. Journal of Urban Planning and Development. 2011;137(4):477-83. Accessed on June 1, 2017

Citations - Implementation

Alexandria-TMPs - City of Alexandria, VA. Transportation & Environmental Services (T&ES): Transportation management plans (TMPs) - Special use permit. Accessed on June 1, 2017
Madison Metro - City of Madison, WI Metro Transit. Metro pass programs. Accessed on June 1, 2017
Milwaukee Transit - Milwaukee County, WI Transit System. Commuter value. Accessed on June 1, 2017
ODOE-Transportation - Oregon Department of Energy (ODOE). Transportation. Accessed on June 1, 2017
TRB-Boyle 2010 - Boyle DK. TCRP Synthesis 82 - Transit fare arrangements for public employees: A synthesis of transit practice. Washington, DC: Transportation Research Board (TRB); 2010. Accessed on June 1, 2017
US DOT-TRANServe - US Department of Transportation (US DOT). TRANServe Accessed on June 1, 2017
Yolo-TMA - Yolo Transportation Management Association (TMA). Current programs. Accessed on June 1, 2017

Page Last Updated

September 16, 2014

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