Interlude
Most Europeans Don’t Ride Transit Either

Contrary to popular belief, Europeans don’t ride transit a lot more than Americans. In fact, most rarely use transit.

Conventional wisdom holds that Americans drive cars while Europeans ride transit and intercity trains. In fact, while there are some differences in travel habits, differences in rail and bus travel are a lot smaller than most people believe.

In 2009, the European Union published a Panorama of Transport that compared passenger and freight transport between members of the European Union and several other countries, including Japan, Norway, Switzerland, and the United States. Page 100 shows 2006 data for the EU-27 (the 27 members of the European Union at that time) and the United States. For accuracy in the table below, I extended the data to more significant digits by dividing total passenger kilometers by 490.0 (for the EU-27) and 301.3 (for the US).

EU27 vs US Travel Choices
Miles Per Capita in 2006

ModeEU27USA
Total6,57514,859
Auto4,86812,622
Bus 556 477
Intercity Rail 409 41
Tram & Metro 89 34
Water 81 1
Air 582 1,645

As the table above shows, we drive about 2-1/2 times as much as Europeans. Since auto numbers are in thousands of miles, that’s a big difference. We also fly more than twice as much. But our bus miles are only 14 percent less than those in Europe (the data for buses includes both urban and intercity). Europeans use urban rail about 2-1/2 times as much as we do, but since tram & metro numbers are in tens of miles, that’s not all that much: 89 miles per year. A bigger difference is intercity rail (which includes commuter rail), which Europeans ride about four times as much as we do. Still, that’s just a 309-mile-a-year difference, which is dwarfed by the 1,063 miles of extra air travel we do (air numbers include just travel within the EU or US).

If transit is counted as bus plus urban rail (i.e., assuming commuter rail roughly offsets intercity bus), Europeans only ride transit about 135 miles per year more than we do. The 7,765-mile difference between American and European auto travel is more than 135 miles every week. So one trade-off is that increasing transit travel by 135 miles a year means giving up 135 miles of auto travel each week.

While European intercity rail travel looks a little more impressive, there’s a trade off there too. Page 57 of the Panorama says that 43 percent of American freight goes by rail while only 10 percent of European freight is by rail. That means 46 percent of European freight goes by truck while only 30 percent of American freight is on the road. So the trade off for getting a few people on intercity trains is a lot more trucks on the road.

Rail passenger travel uses a little bit less energy than auto travel, but rail freight uses a lot less energy than highway freight. As Peter Baldwin writes in The Narcissism of Minor Differences: How America and Europe Are Alike, “Ecologically speaking, there is no advantage in sending passengers by rail if freight is sent by road.”

According to the EU’s Statistical Pocketbook of EU Transport, the trends are that air travel is gaining market share, bus travel is losing, and–despite huge high-speed rail construction programs–rail, tram & metro, and auto shares are remaining about the same (see page 49). Bus and low-speed rail are apparently losing to low-cost airlines while high-speed rail is (barely) making up for the decline in low-speed rail travel.

In sum, Europeans do use transit a little more than Americans, but not that much and most Europeans use it rarely if at all. Americans are better of with an extra 8,828 miles of air and auto travel than Europe’s extra 444 miles of rail and bus travel.

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15 thoughts on “Interlude
Most Europeans Don’t Ride Transit Either

  1. paul

    A consequence of Europeans travelling less is that they have much smaller houses. The USA is about 2,000 sq ft compared to about half that in most of Europe. See:http://www.elledecor.com/life-culture/fun-at-home/news/a7654/house-sizes-around-the-world/ or search terms or search terms “how big is the average house size around the world”. This may cause psychological problems, search “small house size psychological problems”. So driving further to get a bigger house may decrease psychological problems.

    Commute time is also and issue. Even though the USA commute is a longer distance, the average commute time is only 25 minutes compared to over 40 minutes in Germany and the UK, see: https://people.hofstra.edu/geotrans/eng/ch6en/conc6en/commutingtimeeurope.html or search terms “world average commute time”.

    So the US has larger houses and shorter commute times.

  2. Billll

    A maxim in business here is that rail transport works best for large bulky cargo that isn’t particularly time sensitive. This is probably true in Europe as well so the big difference in rail vs truck has a distinct odor of regional and national taxation/regulation to it. Remember: There is no idea so good but what it can’t be put to rest with the right amount of government “help.”

  3. Ohai

    Gee. Could it be that in a place with about half the land area and 60 percent more population than the USA people simply don’t need to travel as many miles?

  4. The Antiplanner Post author

    Ohai,

    In this case, size doesn’t matter. The United States has the most mobile people on earth, but the second-most mobile are in Iceland, a country that is much smaller than Europe–about the size of Kentucky.

  5. Frank

    I’d like to see some disaggregated data. Using “Europe” to describe countries from the UK to France to Itally to Macedonia is a HUGE generalization of conditions. I’d wager that countries like Romania and Bulgaria have a much higher percentage of transit users than the US. Reason? Wages and wealth. When you make $500 a month, how can you possible afford a car and gas at $7 a gallon?

  6. prk166

    I’ll 2nd that idea about how different things are in Europe. One of the fun things I like to say when someone says “we should be more like Euriope” is to say, “I don’t know. I don’t particularly fancy being a mafia state like Moldova.” 🙂

  7. CapitalistRoader

    Frank, a good proxy may be a List of countries by vehicles per capita. As you’d expect, the very rich countries like Monaco, Liechtenstein, and the United States top the list,, followed by Australia, New Zealand, and Canada and then the Western European countries. But there are some surprises: Poland, Slovakia, and Lithuania have more cars per captia than Sweden, the UK, Denmark, and the Netherlands.

  8. msetty

    Capitalist Roader sez:
    Frank, a good proxy may be a List of countries by vehicles per capita.

    Updating the linked list to include per capita income normalized for parity purchasing power (“PPP”) as well as degree of urbanization might help shed some light on the degree of auto ownership.

    That said, per capita ridership of transit is still a better measure of the importance of transit in a given urban area than passenger kilometers or miles, per se. For example, Canton Zurich in Switzerland is about the most affluent large urban area in Europe, and has about the highest per capita ridership in former Western European nations, e.g., nearly 500 annual boardings per capita.

    Presumably The Antiplanner isn’t downplaying the importance of transit in many European cities; passenger kilometers per se is no guide in the case of Zurich or most Swiss cities, because trip lengths are very short there even by European standards. The Zurich tramways have an average trip length of slightly more than one mile, but per capita usage is north of 700-800 annual boardings per resident of Zurich city proper. This is skewed high by the quaint Swiss habit of going home for lunch during the workday, as well as a huge connecting traffic to/from SBB Zurich Bahnhof. And transit accounts for more than 40% of all trips within Zurich city proper, and more than 20% in Canton Zurich overall.

    Auto trips account for a bit over 40% of all trips in Switzerland, rail about 17%-18%, other transit including tramways another 10% or so, and the rest by walking and bicycling. And this is in the most affluent country in Europe, except for Luxemburg. You can speculate all you want about why this is so, but I think the main factor is that the Swiss never abandoned rail passenger service or transit wholesale like in the U.S., despite the fact Swiss urban areas are microscopic by U.S. (or British or German) standards, and not particularly dense compared to Asian or Islamic or Latin counties’ standards.

  9. CapitalistRoader

    Zurich, with a population density of 4,500/km2, is almost twice as dense as any US City, save Los Angeles. Not quite as dense as London but quite a bit denser than Berlin, it’s very typically European.

    In my Denver neighborhood there used to be three different tram lines going to/from downtown within four blocks of my house. They disappeared in the 1940s because car travel is superior in almost every respect. It seems ridiculous to me that a city would in the 21st Century voluntarily create a transportation system that uses permanent steel rails rather than utilize vehicles with steerable wheels. With rail a city has to conform to the transportation system rather than vice versa, which is probably why real estate developers really like rail and why they pay politicians lots of money to build it.

  10. msetty

    Capitalist Roader, you have a lot to learn.

    I suppose you think the road system is the result of the “free market,” too. Ha! Government 100%, as was the development of the suburbs–which would still exist if the New Dealers hadn’t intervened to the degree they did, but not nearly to the extent today. Let alone the negative impacts on our cities of dumb technocratic planning like punching freeways through the heart of cities, urban renewal, and dozens of other programs that subsidized the dispersal of cities beyond what would have occurred under a regime where the central government had not intervened to any degree.

    Fixing this will entail putting something of putting pricing back where it would have been, such as congestion pricing, a substantial environmental charge on “free” parking to help reduce auto mileage, proper pricing of utilities and infrastructure in cities and suburbs, etc. The actual economic situation is the exact opposite of what The Antiplanner and other auto apologists like you argue, for example, the mountains and mountains of empirical evidence cited in this letter to Trump: http://www.strongtowns.org/journal/2017/1/22/a-letter-to-potus-on-infrastructure.

    The Antiplanner failed badly in his recent debate with the Strong Towns president, and to date has not provided any convincing refutation of that organization’s work. You may wish to live on in the fog of the “Fake News” aura of The Antiplanner and others who believe his erroneous beliefs (like his futile efforts to prove that growth boundaries cause higher housing prices, as opposed to down-zoning and limits on new housing), but Jim Kunstler is right, despite being a blowhard in many ways like some on this blog:

    U.S. suburbs have been the largest misallocation of resources in history, even ahead of propping up the “too big to fail” mega-banks in the wake of the Great Recessions ($700 billion TARP plus $16 trillion+ in 0% loans from the Fed), or U.S. military and intelligence “community” (sic) spending since the end of the Cold War (in 25 years, perhaps saving $7-$8 trillion+ if Sr. and Jr. Bush hadn’t undertaken their stupid wars in the Middle East (who cares who pumps the oil? It will still flow because even ISIS needs the $$).

  11. msetty

    For the record, Strong Towns and its associates have estimated that all the fixed infrastructure in Lafayette, LA, as an example, has a replacement cost of $32 billion, twice that city’s total tax value of $16 billion. It would require something like quadrupling property taxes to keep that infrastructure in proper condition.

    Extending a similar estimate to U.S. cities and suburbs in the aggregate, you’d find 80%-90% of fixed infrastructure serving the suburbs, and requiring similar increases in taxes to properly maintain it. In other words, the suburbs in particular are grossly overextended, and are overdue for a huge rationalization.For the day when most roadways revert to gravel, gravel pits would be a good long term investment.

  12. msetty

    Anyone who is serious about the financial disaster that is our current infrastructure situation cannot but agree with Strong Town’s recommendations to Trump:

    From http://www.strongtowns.org/journal/2017/1/22/a-letter-to-potus-on-infrastructure

    • We need to prioritize maintenance over new capacity. With so many non-performing assets, it’s irresponsible to build additional capacity. Project proposers will try to add additional capacity with their maintenance projects. If it is truly warranted, it can and should be funded locally. Cities need to discover ways to turn such investments into positive ROI projects, a process the federal government can only impede.
    [I add that we are still spending $27 billion+ annually expanding road capacity, presumably not including developer spending on new streets. A large chunk of this is federal and should be cut off immediately. In comparison the $2 billion+/- spent on transit expansion is chicken feed.]

    • We must prioritize small projects over large. Small projects not only spread the wealth, they have much greater potential for positive returns with far lower risk. Large projects exceed their budgets more often and with greater severity — dollars and percentage — than smaller projects. A thousand projects of a million dollars or less have far more financial upside than a single billion-dollar project ever will. It’s administratively easier to do fewer, big projects, but that is a bureaucratic temptation we need to overcome.

    • We should spend far more below ground than above. Many of our sewer and water systems are approaching 100 years old. When these core pipes fail, the problems cascade throughout the system. Technology may soon dramatically change how we use our roads and streets making investments in expansion there obsolete, but water and sewer will still flow through pipes as it has for thousands of years. We should spend at least $5 below ground for every $1 we spend above.

    • We should prioritize neighborhoods more than 75 years old. We’ve modeled hundreds of cities across the country and in every one the neighborhoods with the highest investment potential are the ones that existed before World War II. These are established places where small investments have a huge impact. Most investments in neighborhoods built after World War II are simply bailouts, pouring good money after bad.

  13. CapitalistRoader

    msetty, you have a lot to learn.

    I suppose you think automobile development is the result of the “government bureaucrats,” too. Ha!

    Fixing this will entail putting something of putting pricing back where it would have been…

    Fixing what? If you want to give up the convenience of car travel please do so. Encourage all you friends to do so.

    But leave me the hell alone with your fascist schemes to place a substantial environmental charge on “free” parking to help reduce auto mileage, proper pricing of utilities and infrastructure in cities and suburbs, etc. Proper according to who? Nobody but a small percentage of the population buys that crap, and the people who do buy it are usually sucking at the taxpayers’ teat, working as planners or technicians or supervisors for a government entity or some ideological non-profit funded by taxpayers.

  14. the highwayman

    Funny how you guys complain about two ribbons of steel rebar 4 feet 8 1/2 inches apart imbedded in a road, but don’t complain about a 5 foot wide stretch of concrete next to a road. Oh yeah, it’s politics, not economics! :$

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