Tradeoffs between costs and greenhouse gas emissions in the design of urban transit systems

Julia B. Griswold, Samer Madanat, Arpad Horvath

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Recent investments in the transit sector to address greenhouse gas emissions have concentrated on purchasing efficient replacement vehicles and inducing mode shift from the private automobile. There has been little focus on the potential of network and operational improvements, such as changes in headways, route spacing, and stop spacing, to reduce transit emissions. Most models of transit system design consider user and agency cost while ignoring emissions and the potential environmental benefit of operational improvements. We use a model to evaluate the user and agency costs as well as greenhouse gas benefit of design and operational improvements to transit systems. We examine how the operational characteristics of urban transit systems affect both costs and greenhouse gas emissions. The research identifies the Pareto frontier for designing an idealized transit network. Modes considered include bus, bus rapid transit (BRT), light rail transit (LRT), and metro (heavy) rail, with cost and emissions parameters appropriate for the United States. Passenger demand follows a many-to-many travel pattern with uniformly distributed origins and destinations. The approaches described could be used to optimize the network design of existing bus service or help to select a mode and design attributes for a new transit system. The results show that BRT provides the lowest cost but not the lowest emissions for our large city scenarios. Bus and LRT systems have low costs and the lowest emissions for our small city scenarios. Relatively large reductions in emissions from the cost-optimal system can be achieved with only minor increases in user travel time.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number044046
JournalEnvironmental Research Letters
Issue number4
StatePublished - 2013


  • greenhouse gases
  • optimization
  • public transportation

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Renewable Energy, Sustainability and the Environment
  • General Environmental Science
  • Public Health, Environmental and Occupational Health


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