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.
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.