Science Policy
day one project

Collaboration for the Future of Public and Active Transportation

06.15.23 | 6 min read | Text by Diane Sanchez


Public and active transportation are not equally accessible to all Americans. Due to a lack of sufficient infrastructure and reliable service for public transportation and active modes like biking, walking, and rolling, Americans must often depend on personal vehicles for travel to work, school, and other activities. During the past two years, Congress has allocated billions of dollars to equitable infrastructure, public transportation upgrades, and decreasing greenhouse gas pollution from transportation across the United States. The Department of Transportation (DOT) and its agencies should embrace innovation and partnerships to continue to increase active and public transportation across the country. The DOT should require grant applications for funding to discuss cross-agency collaborations, partner with the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) to organize prize competitions, encourage public-private partnerships (P3s), and work with the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to grant money for transit programs through the Greenhouse Gas Reduction Fund. 

Challenge and Opportunity

Historically, U.S. investment in transportation has focused on expanding and developing highways for personal vehicle travel. As a result, 45% of Americans do not have access to reliable and safe public transportation, perpetuating the need for single-use vehicles for almost half of the country. The EPA reports that transportation accounts for 29% of total U.S. greenhouse gas emissions, with 58% of those emissions coming from light-duty cars. This large share of nationwide emissions from personal vehicles has short- and long-term climate impacts. 

Investments in green public and active transit should be a priority for the DOT in transitioning away from a personal-vehicle-dominated society and meeting the Biden Administration’s “goals of a 100% clean electrical grid by 2035 and net-zero carbon emissions by 2050.” Public and active transportation infrastructure includes bus systems, light rail, bus rapid transit, bike lanes, and safe sidewalks. Investments in public and active transportation should go towards a combination of electrifying existing public transportation, such as buses; improving and expanding public transit to be more reliable and accessible for more users; constructing bike lanes; developing community-owned bike share programs; and creating safe walking corridors. 

In addition to reducing carbon emissions, improved public transportation that disincentivizes personal vehicle use has a variety of co-benefits. Prioritizing public and active transportation could limit congestion on roads and lower pollution. Fewer vehicles on the road result in less tailpipe emissions, which “can trigger health problems such as aggravated asthma, reduced lung capacity, and increased susceptibility to respiratory illnesses, including pneumonia and bronchitis.” This is especially important for the millions of people who live near freeways and heavily congested roads. 

Congestion can also be financially costly for American households; the INRIZ Global Traffic Scorecard reports that traffic congestion cost the United States $81 billion in 2022. Those costs include vehicle maintenance, fuel cost, and “lost time,” all of which can be reduced with reliable and accessible public and active transportation. Additionally, the American Public Transportation Association reports that every $1 invested in public transportation generates $5 in economic returns, measured by savings in time traveled, reduction in traffic congestion, and business productivity. Thus, by investing in public transportation, communities can see improvements in air quality, economy, and health.

Public transportation is primarily managed at the local and state level; currently, over  6000 local and state transportation agencies provide and oversee public transportation in their regions. Public transportation is funded through federal, state, and local sources, and transit agencies receive funding from “passenger fares and other operating receipts.” The Federal Transit Administration (FTA) distributes funding for transit through grants and loans and accounts for 15% of total income for transit agencies, including 31% of capital investments in transit infrastructure. Local and state entities often lack sufficient resources to improve public transportation systems because of the uncertainty of ridership and funding streams.

Public-private partnerships can help alleviate some of these resource constraints because contracts can allow the private partner to operate public transportation systems. Regional and national collaboration across multiple agencies from the federal to the municipal level can also help alleviate resource barriers to public transit development. Local and state agencies do not have to work alone to improve public and active transportation systems. 

The following recommendations provide a pathway for transportation agencies at all levels of government to increase public and active transportation, resulting in social, economic, and environmental benefits for the communities they serve. 

Plan of Action

Recommendation 1. The FTA should require grant applicants for programs such as the Rebuilding American Infrastructure with Sustainability and Equity (RAISE) to define how they will work collaboratively with multiple federal agencies and conduct community engagement. 

Per the National Blueprint for Transportation Decarbonization, FTA staff should prioritize funding for grant applicants who successfully demonstrate partnerships and collaboration. This can be demonstrated, for example, with letters of support from community members and organizations for transit infrastructure projects. Collaboration can also be demonstrated by having applicants report clear goals, roles, and responsibilities for each agency involved in proposed projects. The FTA should: 

  1. Develop a rubric for evaluating partnerships’ efficiency and alignment with national transit decarbonization goals. 
  2. Create a tiered metrics system within the rubric that prioritizes grants for projects based on collaboration and reduction of greenhouse gas emissions in the transit sector.
  3. Add a category to their Guidance Center on federal-state-local partnerships to provide insight on how they view successful collaboration. 

Recommendation 2. The DOT and HUD should collaborate on a prize competition to design active and/or public transportation projects to reduce traffic congestion. 

Housing and transportation costs are related and influence one another, which is why HUD is a natural partner. Funding can be sourced from the Highway Trust Fund, which the DOT has the authority to allocate up to “1% of the funds for research and development to carry out . . . prize competition program[s].”

This challenge should call on local agency partners to provide a design challenge or opportunity that impedes their ability to adopt transit-oriented infrastructure that could reduce traffic congestion. Three design challenges should be selected and publicly posted on the website so that any individual or organization can participate. 

The goal of the prize competition is to identify challenges, collaborate, and share resources across agencies and communities to design transportation solutions. The competition would connect the DOT with local and regional planning and transportation agencies to solicit solutions from the public, whether from individuals, teams of individuals, or organizations. The DOT and HUD should work collaboratively to design the selection criteria for the challenge and select the winners. Each challenge winner would be provided with a financial prize of $250,000, and their idea would be housed on the DOT website as a case study that can be used for future planning decisions. The local agencies that provide the three design challenges would be welcome to implement the winning solutions.

Recommendation 3. Federal, state, and local government should increase opportunities for public-private partnerships (P3s). 

The financial investment required to develop active and public transportation infrastructure is a hurdle for many agencies. To address this issue, we make the following recommendations: 


The road to decarbonizing the transportation sector requires public and active transportation. Federal agencies can allocate funding for public and active transit more effectively through the recommendations above. It’s time for the government to recognize public and active transportation as the key to equitable decarbonization of the transportation sector throughout the United States.

Frequently Asked Questions
What are examples of transit public-private partnerships (P3s)?

Most P3s in the United States are for highways, bridges, and roads, but there have been a few successful public transit P3s. In 2018 the City of Los Angeles joined LAX and LAX Integrated Express Solutions in a $4.9 billion P3 to develop a train system within the airport. This project aims to launch in 2024 to “enhance the traveler experience” and will “result in 117,000 fewer vehicle miles traveled per day” to the airport. This project is a prime example of how P3s can help reduce traffic congestion and enable and encourage the use of public transportation.

How can P3s be further supported through federal policy beyond the recommendations in this memo?

In 2021, the Congressional Research Service released a report about public-private partnerships (3Ps) that highlights the role the federal government can play by making it easier for agencies to participate in P3s.

What are examples of existing green banks and infrastructure banks?

The state of Michigan has a long history with its Michigan Saves program, the nation’s first nonprofit green bank, which provides funding for projects like rooftop solar or energy efficiency programs.

In California the California Alternative Energy and Advanced Transportation Financing Authority works “collaboratively with public and private partners to provide innovative and effective financing solutions” for renewable energy sources, energy efficiency, and advanced transportation and manufacturing technologies.

The Rhode Island Infrastructure Bank provides funding to municipalities, businesses, and homeowners for projects “including water and wastewater, roads and bridges, energy efficiency and renewable energy, and brownfield remediation.”