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
Miles Per Capita in 2006
|Tram & Metro||89||34|
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.