The European Transport Myth

An article in Transport Reviews compares U.S. and European transit usage and argues that Europeans use transit more because they have better transit service, low fares, multi-modal integration, high taxes and restrictions on driving, and land-use policies that promote compact, mixed-use developments–all things that American planners want to do here. One obvious problem with the paper is that it doesn’t quantitatively assess how much each of those factors actually contributes to transit usage. If high fuel taxes are responsible for 95 percent of the difference, then efforts to promote transit-oriented development or multi-modal integration in American cities are likely to be a big waste.

A more subtle problem with the paper is that it measures transit usage in trips, not passenger miles. This leads to a bias in favor of shorter trips: Netherlanders, the Transport Reviews article says, take 26 percent of their trips by bicycle, but they certainly don’t cycle for 26 percent of their passenger miles. Yet longer trips are actually more valuable than shorter ones because they can reach more destinations: a two-mile trip can access four times as much land as a one-mile trip.

When measured in terms of passenger miles, instead of trips, European transit mobility looks a lot less impressive. Eurostat measures four kinds of personal mobility by country: autos, buses, intercity trains, and metros/trams. The agency’s latest report that shows passenger kilometers by country has data through 2006. The table below compares these numbers (converted to passenger miles and divided by 2006 populations) with similar data for the United States.

EU-15United States
Auto79.285.2
Rail6.30.5
Bus8.53.2
Air5.911.1

Source: Panorama of Transport; National Transportation Statistics.

In 2006, the average American traveled 49 miles by heavy rail (what Europeans call metros) and 6 miles by light rail (what Europeans call trams), for a total of 55 miles. By contrast, Western Europeans traveled 98 miles by trams and metros, about 79 percent more than Americans. That’s not real impressive considering that more than four times as many European cities have trams and metros. If Europeans take four or five times as many tram/metro trips, as the Transport Reviews article suggests, those trips must be less than half as long as U.S. rail transit trips.

Americans also traveled 35 miles a year by commuter rail; Eurostat combines data for commuter trains with intercity trains. Adding 18 miles of Amtrak travel per year gives a total of 53 miles of per capita travel by commuter/intercity rail. While Europeans travel nearly 500 more miles by rail than Americans, Americans travel 337 more miles by bus than Europeans. Unfortunately, Eurostats doesn’t separate intercity from urban buses, so we can’t really compare public transit passenger miles by country. For what it’s worth, the average American traveled about 69 miles by transit bus; the remaining 930 miles of bus travel includes intercity buses, airport shuttles, tour buses, charter buses, and school buses.

Counting all bus and rail together, Europeans traveled about 1,300 miles per capita by common ground carrier while Americans traveled 1,100 miles–not a huge difference. The 200 miles by which Europeans exceeded Americans is swamped by the 9,100 miles by which American auto travel exceeded Western European.

Americans are also travel far more by domestic air. Eurostat doesn’t break down air travel by country, but the average resident of the EU-27 flew about 650 passenger miles within Europe in 2006, compared with 1,972 miles for the average American.

Planners argue that more compact cities increase the number of potential destinations per square mile and so reduce the length of trips people need to take to do what they want to do. The problem is that density can’t increase enough to keep up with travel needs. For example, this report from Arizona claims that increasing density reduces congestion. Yet the data in the report clearly show this is wrong: doubling population densities, the numbers show, reduces per capita driving by less than a third, so (unless the doubling in density is accompanied by a 37 percent increase in road capacities) there will be more traffic and more congestion. Most comparisons of density and per capita travel are even less optimistic. If density were sufficient to meet travel needs, then travel per square mile wouldn’t increase with increasing density.

Put another way, if driving is limited and people access mainly those jobs and shops within walking, cycling, or transit distance, there will be less competition among employers and retailers, and per capita incomes will be lower while per capita consumer costs will be higher. Per capita incomes in Western Europe (EU-15 plus Norway and Switzerland) are only 75 percent of those in the United States, and lower mobility likely contributes to those lower incomes.

While these data are not 100 percent conclusive, they suggest that European use of urban transit, intercity rail, and other common carriers is not all that much greater than in the United States. Americans are far more mobile than Europeans, and that mobility translates into better jobs, higher incomes, better housing, lower-cost consumer goods, and access to all sorts of social and recreation opportunities that Europeans can only dream about.

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43 thoughts on “The European Transport Myth

  1. metrosucks

    Thank you for writing this. Planners love to point out Europe as an example of a successful, transit-dependent society. I have often suspected this was a lie (and I knew car usage in Europe was much higher than the planners claimed), but these numbers clear up the remaining myths.

    I’m sure the usual suspects will be around in the morning to grouse and try to nitpick the data & calculations you delivered, but none of that changes the fact that no no matter what obstacles are thrown in their way, people want to drive, cars increase wealth and opportunity, and the automobile is an overwhelmingly positive influence in the world.

    the highwayman Reply:

    Sounds more like that’s a double edge sword, being automobile dependent isn’t good for a society either.

    Also Europeans aren’t public transit dependent, they just have more transportation options intact compared to Americans.

    metrosucks Reply:

    You can have all the options you want, as long as you pay for them. Don’t ask car drivers to pay for your nonsense options.

    the highwayman Reply:

    Damn you’re a spoiled brat metrosucks, why do I have to keep reminding you that roads are mostly funded by property taxes and don’t exist on a profit or loss basis.

    JimKarlock Reply:

    Highwayman: why do I have to keep reminding you that roads are mostly funded by property taxes and don’t exist on a profit or loss basis.

    JK: because it is a lie. The nations roads are 100+% paid for by road user fees. And road user fees are stolen by congress to give to transit to make people transit dependent.

    Thanks
    JK

    the highwayman Reply:

    Karlock, even if there were no automobiles there would still be roads.

    Why do you keep basing some thing on a false premise?

  2. paul

    Another fact that planners keep forgetting to mention is that Europeans live in much smaller houses with smaller gardens or in apartments. I have met Swiss people who do not distinguish between a house and a condominium and consider themselves very lucky to be able to buy a condominium. This is one huge advantage to the United States that planners, who typically live in single family homes and drive to most places, fail to acknowledge.

  3. Dan

    When measured in terms of passenger miles, instead of trips, European transit mobility looks a lot less impressive

    If you are trying to hand-wave and dissemble away from reality, then yes this is a good way to do it.

    DS

  4. FrancisKing

    Antiplanner:

    “Yet longer trips are actually more valuable than shorter ones because they can reach more destinations: a two-mile trip can access four times as much land as a one-mile trip.”

    How so? The journey is to a particular place. If you have to travel twice as far to get there, the journey is not four times more valuable. Particularly, since it was the opportunity to space things out more which has led to the longer journeys.

    In fact, the opposite is likely to be the case. The short journeys are likely to be urban journeys, where capacity is in short supply, and these are the times when non-car forms of transport are more useful.

    The Antiplanner Reply:

    Let’s say you want to go to a grocery store. If you can go five miles within your time budget (and stores are evenly distributed), you can reach 25 times as many possible stores as if you can only go one mile. That means there will be more competition among stores.

    Dan Reply:

    That means there will be more competition among stores.

    Hogwash. Retail stores have a catchment area for population, and anyone who works in land use knows that stores – esp grocery stores – prefer denser neighborhoods with sufficient income (provided rents aren’t too high). Any store planner looks at DU/ac for location decisions, among other factors such as income, competition, existing stores, etc.

    Or unless you are trying to say that auto-dependent WalMart fosters competition…naaaah.

    DS

  5. FrancisKing

    Antiplanner:

    “Americans are far more mobile than Europeans, and that mobility translates into better jobs, higher incomes, better housing, lower-cost consumer goods, and access to all sorts of social and recreation opportunities that Europeans can only dream about.”

    No data is put forwards for these conjectures, because there is none which support it. If salary data is adjusted for the number of hours worked and benefits, Europeans make as much money as US citizens – they just don’t drive so far to get it.

    When I left university I could have worked every hour of my day in the city. I chose not to, take home less money, and having a higher quality of life.

    I work 37 hours per week. And you?

    Dan Reply:

    Don’t forget to include in your compensation things such as how much vacation you get each year as well, Francis. Or how much less money you spend on health care.

    DS

    Frank Reply:

    Don’t forget to subtract how much more you pay in taxes.

    bennett Reply:

    All great points. I suppose I romanticize Europe for all of these reasons (Even Frank’s. See: you get what you pay for). I suspect that much of my romanticism is “the grass is greener” syndrome.

    However the extra weeks of vacation, working 37 hrs per week, longer paternity leave, and a NHS are very, very seductive.

    Frank Reply:

    “you get what you pay for”

    No. You get what others pay for. In the case of “free” health care, younger and more productive people pay disproportionately more taxes toward health care and use disproportionately less health care goods and services.

    Dan Reply:

    In the case of [universal] health care, younger and more productive people pay disproportionately more taxes toward health care and use disproportionately less health care goods and services.

    With better health outcomes, lower per-capita costs, less burden on businesses for coverage (leading to higher competetiveness), fewer complaints, no fighting with corporations, fewer worries when aging…

    DS

    Frank Reply:

    Hard to argue with that. BTW, he USnA also spends the largest amount on pharmaceuticals, which may account for part of the problem. Not feeling well? Take a pill!

    And then there’s physician wages, which in the USnA far surpass the average of other countries. Of course, USnA doctors also have to pay back a mountain of student loans, spend more time in school, and have to deal with more lawsuits.

    While the USnA spends the most as a percent of GDP and per-capita (we’re number 1!), several other countries (all with universal health care) have higher annual growth of total expenditures on health care, in real terms, according to the OECD. (The USnA grew 4.3%, 0.4% below the OECD average.) UK spending grew 1.1% more on average from 2000-2009 (and to cherry pick, it grew 7% in 08-9, more than 2.5x than the USnA). Spain spending grew at 5.6%, Netherlands at 6%, Greece 6.1%, Ireland 8.4%, and the Slovak Republic led the charge at 10.9%. Of course, several European countries (with universal health) grew at a lower rate than the USnA. Germany has one of the lowest growth rates, but its system is highly corporatist.

    At any rate, it is easy to make sweeping generalizations about “Europe” but it is much more difficult to describe, analyze, and understand the rather significant differences and outcomes of each country’s health care systems.

    Costs are hard to control in totally socialized health care systems, but our corporatist health care system has major problems. Again, I think choice is preferable to mandate. I think a truly free market in health care and health care insurance would drive down prices and increase quality.

    MJ Reply:

    If salary data is adjusted for the number of hours worked and benefits, Europeans make as much money as US citizens – they just don’t drive so far to get it.

    Yes, when you work longer you tend to produce more, and hence earn higher incomes.

    And while Europeans may not drive farther, they do spend more time traveling to and from work. This is the tradeoff for their higher public transit mode share.

    Dan Reply:

    Yes, when you work longer you tend to produce more, and hence earn higher incomes.

    As you know, here in the US we have been working longer yet wages are flat. So the returns to working more are less. And less vacation time means less leisure time.

    DS

  6. Dan

    One obvious problem with the paper is that it doesn’t quantitatively assess how much each of those factors actually contributes to transit usage.

    That would be a huge hole in the paper if that was the purpose of the paper. Since that isn’t what the paper is about, the point is moot. It is the simplest thing ever to look at the title of the paper to see the point is completely irrelevant. Or misleading. Either way.

    DS

    MJ Reply:

    The first few words of the title are “The demand for public transport”. A primary determinant of the demand for public transport, as with many other types of goods, is cost. Without this, any demand function is fundamentally misspecified.

    The authors do attempt an empirical analysis, and the characteristics of travelers certainly do matter, but without data on costs the rest of the parameter estimates are probably biased and/or inconsistent.

    Dan Reply:

    And the last few words of the title are An Analysis of Rider Characteristics. That is: riders, not what Randal complained about, namely transit service, low fares, multi-modal integration, high taxes and restrictions on driving, and land-use policies that promote compact, mixed-use developments.

    See the difference?

    DS

    MJ Reply:

    And I’ll say it again. Any analysis of the demand for public transport is highly incomplete when it ignores some of the most important causal factors, including fuel taxes, parking costs and transit service levels and fares, which the authors also emphasize the importance of. There isn’t even data on income. It seems to be a severe case of this.

    The authors assert that several factors are responsible for the differences in public transport use between Germany and the US. But the lone piece of empirical support the paper lends ignores most of these factors. Read the concluding section and ask yourself what the basis for these statements is.

    Dan Reply:

    You are wishing for something that the paper wasn’t written for.

    If you want a different paper, write the authors and ask them to do an update of their earlier work (both have several pieces of work on the topic you wish they wrote).

    And if you want to wish that the paper is bad because they didn’t look at income, then I suggest you read the paper.

    DS

  7. Dan

    Yet longer trips are actually more valuable than shorter ones because they can reach more destinations:

    What if your typical non-work destinations are all within a short trip? Then the italicized is moot.

    DS

  8. Dan

    The problem is that density can’t increase enough to keep up with travel needs.

    Except in Europe, where your typical non-work destinations are within a short trip.

    DS

  9. Dan

    if driving is limited and people access mainly those jobs and shops within walking, cycling, or transit distance, there will be less competition among employers and retailers, and per capita incomes will be lower while per capita consumer costs will be higher.

    If transport costs are lower, then there is more discretionary income. If consumption levels in these different societies were the same as in the US society, then your point would be relevant. But how many countries are like the US, where every last penny should be spent on trinkets?

    DS

  10. Frank

    Lots of sweeping generalizations being made about Europe. Macedonia, Bulgaria, and Romania have little in common economically, linguistically, or culturally with the UK, France, or Germany. Their transit systems are strikingly dissimilar.

    The differences even among nations in the Balkans is striking; Bulgarians have an extensive and inexpensive private bus network and one of the lousiest train systems anywhere; they’re also financially better off than Macedonians and Romanians. This explains why Bulgarians have more travel miles, and nearly 3x bus miles than the previously mentioned countries and 40% more than Western European countries. Their buses are modern, fast, spacious, air conditioned, and very affordable. Their buses have the added bonus of being highly flexible while having low capital improvement costs.

    Still, comparing transit in a country where the average person makes $300 a month to a country where the average person makes $40,000 seems dubious at best.

    Frank Reply:

    $40k/year, or $3300/mo, which is 10x more.

  11. bennett

    “If high fuel taxes are responsible for 95 percent of the difference, then efforts to promote transit-oriented development or multi-modal integration in American cities are likely to be a big waste.”

    I’m not sure that planners would agree that TOD developments are a waste, but most professional planners would agree that if you increase (or internalize) the costs of driving transit will become a more attractive choice.

    “A more subtle problem with the paper is that it measures transit usage in trips, not passenger miles. This leads to a bias in favor of shorter trips.”

    Oh lord, here we go again. Here’s my suggestion. Why not use both as both metrics actually explain different aspects of mobility. One is NOT better than the other. Yes, trip measurement leads “to a bias in favor of shorter trips,” but ppm leads to a bias for longer trips, particularly uncommon outliers.

    Also PPM doesn’t account for things like soccer moms who for many miles throughout the year are essentially a transit driver. We don’t count bus drivers in PPM calculations, but we do count drivers of cars whose only trip purpose is to transport another person. PPM is a very precise calculation, but for personal autos there are accuracy issues.

  12. bennett

    Observation:

    When I vacation I rarely use transit. The exception is when I visit Portland or Europe (and NYC).

    I don’t really have a point, but I thought I might mention it.

  13. Andrew

    Some of the US numbers are simply not believable.

    1000 miles per capita of bus riding? I can only assume this is mostly school buses if the number is close to real. It certainly isn’t transit buses given low US ridership outside a few cities, and since most intercity bus trips are less than 200 miles, its difficult to believe the typical adult is taking 3 round trips by bus per year. Transit bus is around 80 miles per capita. Greyhound, which has as many riders as all the other major public common carriers combined, has around 17 miles per capita.

    15,600 miles per capita of driving in cars (43 miles per day!)? When are the 20% of the population who are kids doing this? How about the 15% of adults without drivers licenses? If around half of driving is commuting to work, what is the 45% of the population that does not work doing to rack up such mileage?

    The Antiplanner Reply:

    Remember that’s 15,600 passenger miles per capita, which (at 1.6 people per car) is less than 10,000 vehicle miles per capita. These numbers include all cars and light trucks, but not heavy trucks.

    Andrew Reply:

    Agreed about the 1.6 factor making the numbers semi-plausible, but where does that oft cited figure really come from?

    If you look at cars passing on the road almost anywhere you go, people are driving alone.

    the highwayman Reply:

    Though the auto industry it self uses a factor of 1.2 people per car.

  14. Sandy Teal

    This is a lot of apple to orange comparisons unless you really dive into the minutia of the data and comparisons.

    Low commute distances can be terrible for lifestyle if people are greatly limited in where they live, but if it fits well, then it is a big plus.
    What screams out in the data is that people drive a lot more in the US. But it is not clear if that should be considered good or bad.

    Europeans move around far far less than Americans. Many more Europeans live within a few miles of where there great-great-grandfathers lived. Those Europeans who had the wanderlust often moved to the US.

  15. C. P. Zilliacus

    The Antiplanner wrote:

    Americans are also travel far more by domestic air. Eurostat doesn’t break down air travel by country, but the average resident of the EU-27 flew about 650 passenger miles within Europe in 2006, compared with 1,972 miles for the average American.

    I think the air travel numbers for the EU have gone up since 2006, and may have gone up a lot thanks to discount European air carriers like Ryanair.

    Frank Reply:

    Generally, air passenger numbers in the EU have increased, with a drop off in 2009 in most countries. Of course the wealthiest nations dominate, but the trend is upward in poorer nations. That’s not the case for rail travel miles in poorer nations and those hit hardest by the Euro crisis, where the trend is generally downward.

    On a side note, total auto deaths have dropped sharply over the years, with the notable exceptions of Bulgaria and Romania, where they drive like lunatics.

  16. irandom

    Looking at a tech site the other day and the guy motorized his bicycle to avoid Munich public transportation. In fairness, it looks like he needs to cross more than 4 zones in the core, otherwise it’d be $50/month.

    “Since public transportation is very expensive in Munich ( about 100€/month ) and driving a car is not an option due to traffic jams I decided to build something on the cheap.”
    http://www.doityourselfgadgets.com/2011/10/electric-bycicle.html

    FrancisKing Reply:

    The motor puts out 300W. The legal limit for the EU is 250W.

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