2022-2023 Group 2 Winning Essay by Caitlin Zhou

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Public Transportation: Incentivizing Widespread Usage

By Caitlin Zhou
Grade 10, Lynbrook High School, San José, CA


Only 5% of all US workers are using public transportation (Statista Research Department), while many contribute to greenhouse gasses that fuel rising climate change. Many choose to use personal transport due to the unsatisfactory service of the US public transportation system which can be traced back to city designs that are not fitting for public transit, as well as public transportation systems lacking money in order to upgrade.

The goal is to incentivize people to use public transportation, and to implement changes carefully to minimize unforeseen consequences. We can encourage people to use public transportation by focusing on transit-oriented development and adopting a “rail plus property” model.

Understand: What is the problem with public transportation, and why?

Common complaints of US public transportation include delays, long wait times, crowded buses, etc (Forbes). However, these are not the root causes but the symptoms of a disease that requires context.

First, routes are not optimal for public transit because so much of US urban planning took place around the 1950s during a time when automobiles grew in usage, leading now to slow transport, difficult streetgrid navigation, and higher costs. In fact, urban planning in areas before the popularity of automobiles are also now areas with the best public transit in the US (Vox).

Second, buses do not have enough funding to improve quality of service. Due to decreasing ridership in the 1950s, the government had to provide large amounts of funding which prevented companies from charging higher fares to improve quality of service. This leads to a cycle in which buses cannot charge higher prices due to their largely low-income customers, and thus cannot generate enough money to improve their system. This means potential customers instead choose to use personal transportation that produces climate-harming greenhouse gas emissions.

Strategize: What are the best methods to resolve the issues, with consideration to the resources needed to execute these strategies?

The first issue is that urban planning is not suited for public transit. The US government can focus on actions that help transit-oriented development (NPR). The main focus behind TOD is to make people aware that they have a choice between cars and public transit, as well as making public transit more appealing. For example, building shops, businesses, restaurants, homes, etc around public transit to incentivize people to use buses to reach these locations. The US government can tear down unused or awkwardly planned highways/freeways, and instead convert it to parks or public transit-oriented communities. Not only does this promote the reduction of harmful greenhouse gasses, it leads to more usage of public transit, bikes, and walking. From current studies shown of freeway removal and public transit implementation, flow of traffic improved and pedestrians/bikers had more access to roadways (United States Department of Transportation). Additional measures include adding more stations and routing buses in a more efficient manner to improve waiting and transportation times.

The second issue is that public transportation systems do not have enough funding to improve quality of service. Since Hong Kong is ranked as the best public transportation system (UMRI), it is useful to study their system. Most significant is Hong Kong MTR’s “rail plus property” model, in which the construction of railways leads to an increase in value of surrounding property. This means that transportation is cheap, all operating costs are paid for 170%, and MTR has an annual profit of around 1.6 billion (Guardian). If the US adopts this model, companies have more independence without the help of government funding. Thus, companies have enough money to offer better service (such as upgrading aging infrastructure or having a reliable, frequent schedule) which resolves common customer complaints of public transit and encourages people to use public transport at a much cheaper cost than personal transport.

Implement: How can the US government implement these strategies with minimal damage and without unforeseen consequences?

The first strategy is to improve transit with a focus on TOD, the main method of which was freeway removal. In some removal cases, issues in the design led to an increase in collisions between bikers and vehicles, as well as a 2.5 minute delay in bus times (United States Department of Transportation). Thus, urban planners should execute this process carefully and use multiple insights to approach the issue.

The second strategy is to adopt a “rail plus property” model. However, the US should not immediately rush to implement this system as there are current concerns over housing unaffordability and monopolization on the public transit system (University of Hong Kong).

Thus, the US government should conduct more studies and simulations to study the potential effects of adopting a rail plus property model, and when having determined the best implementation method, executing it while also placing regulations (price caps, antitrust laws, etc) on public transit systems to prevent monopolization.

During the implementation process, the US government should also focus their efforts towards raising awareness of their improvements in public transportation and benefits when compared to cars.


Public transportation in the US has steadily declined over the past 5 years, a statistic worsened by the pandemic (Statista Research Department). However, 2023 is an opportune time to improve public transit as more people seek to save money. By using transit-oriented development to battle urban sprawls, adopting a “rail plus property model” to upgrade public transportation service, and implementing these strategies carefully, potential customers will be encouraged to use public transportation, leading to less greenhouse gas emissions, and ultimately a greener environment for all.



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Statista. Retrieved January 8, 2023, from https://www.statista.com/topics/5669/public-transportation-in-hong-kong/

Stromberg, J. (2015, August 10). The real reason American public transportation is such a disaster. Vox. Retrieved January 8, 2023, from https://www.vox.com/2015/8/10/9118199/public-transportation-subway-buses

United States Department of Transportation. (n.d.). Budget Estimates. Retrieved January 9, 2023, from https://www.transportation.gov/sites/dot.gov/files/2021-05/FTA-FY-2022-Congressional-Justification.pdf




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