More on the European Transport Myth

While many people believe that European travel modes are quite different from those of the United States, a close look at the data reveals two main points. First, Europeans travel a lot less than Americans: including flying, the average American travels about 85 percent more miles per year than the average Western European. Second, the percentage shares of various forms of travel are about the same except that Europeans travel a little more by rail and a little less by auto.

But what about trends? Is Europe becoming more like the U.S., with increasing overall mobility, rail’s share declining, and auto’s share increasing? Or have Europe’s high-speed rail programs and urban transit policies led to a resurgence of rail travel?

We can answer these questions based on three sources of data. First, in 2004 the European Union published a report titled Key Facts and Figures About the European Union and included transportation data, broken down by air, rail, bus, trams & metros, and autos, in part 3. The numbers were mode shares for 1980 and 2000.

Second, in 2009 the European Union published Panorama of Transport, with passenger kilometres of travel by country for 1990, 2000, and 2006. The data were broken down by auto, bus, rail, and trams & metros. The report also included air travel data for the EU-27 but not broken down by country.

Finally, Eurostat’s web side includes transport data including the modal split of passenger transport by country and year from 1990 to 2010. However, the only modes considered are rail, bus, and auto–trams & metros are ignored. Eurostat also has population data by country and year for the same range of years.


Based on Panorama and the population data, the above table shows that per capita travel grew significantly between 1990 and 2006. Of the modes broken down by country, auto travel grew the fastest, but a chart on page 100 of Panorama shows that air travel grew even faster. The above table just shows the EU-15, as data are only partially available for the former soviet countries, but those data suggest that auto travel grew even faster in those countries.


The above table uses Key Facts & Figures and Panorama to show the shares of travel by mode from 1980 to 2006. Auto’s share grew significantly, but most of this growth was between 1980 and 2000. Since 2000, rail recovered slightly, though mainly at the expense of bus transport.


Eurostat data allows us to extend the previous table through 2010, though at the loss of the trams & metros mode. The data confirm that rail’s share grew between 2000 and 2010, mainly at the expense of buses, but there was also a slight decline in auto’s share after 2006.

[table “17” not found /]

The above table shows us exactly where rail gained. The starred (*) countries are in the EU-15 while the daggered (†) countries are the added countries that form the EU-27. Among the EU-15, rail’s largest gain was in Britain (42% increase after 2000), followed by Sweden (25%). Rail also gained about 15 percent in France, but experienced no gain in Spain despite that country’s heavy investment in high-speed rail. Switzerland, which is not in the EU, also saw a large (39%) gain in rail’s share.

We know that Britain “privatized” (really, franchised) its rail system in the mid-1990s. The incentives given to the rail contractors for increasing ridership are probably the main reason why that country has had the largest increase in rail’s share. I don’t know the exact details about Sweden or Switzerland, but neither have high-speed rail. Sweden, along with Germany and the Netherlands, has franchised some of its rail routes, while several routes in Switzerland are private and unsubsidized. It would be worth learning more about Switzerland’s rail system as rail there apparently has the highest market share of any developed country.

Some people believe that Britain’s franchising system is a failure, but the main complaint about it is that, instead of saving taxpayer money, overall subsidies actually increased. That’s probably because the subsidies were keyed to ridership, and private operators were very successful in increasing that ridership. As near as I can tell, subsidies per passenger mile stayed about the same.

Average subsidies per rail passenger mile between 1995 and 2003. Source: Amtrak Inspector General report, page 7, with overall subsidy divided by the average passenger miles carried in 1995, 2000, and 2004.

Those subsidies also appear to be lower than subsidies in other European countries. Four years ago, the Amtrak Inspector General published a report comparing European rail costs with Amtrak’s costs from 1995 to 2003 (British rail routes were franchised between 1995 and 1997). Far from being unsubsidized, the Inspector General found that European nations heavily subsidized their rail lines, and often disguised those subsidies in various ways. As shown in the above chart, Amtrak’s average subsidies per passenger mile were about the same as in most European countries except for Austria, which was much higher, and Britain, which was much lower.

All of which leads me to conclude that franchising–at least, if done right–could probably do far more to increase rail ridership than building high-speed rail. Amtrak privatization, on the other hand, would be likely to save taxpayers money, but may not lead to an increase in rail’s market share, at least nationally.


20 thoughts on “More on the European Transport Myth

  1. paul

    There are several reasons for Switzerland’s higher rail use. Much of the population is clustered in valleys at the foot of mountains which is also the natural route for railroads. Cantons in Switzerland have great national power and when rail was the most economical form of transport in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s vigorously fought to make sure they each got a share of the rail network. Then with the food shortages of the second world war the Swiss became very concerned about building on their very limited flat farm land where their major cities tend to be and would naturally want to expand. This resulted in very strict land use regulations pushing Swiss housing prices to very high levels. The relative abundance of hydro electric power resulted in Switzerland electrifying their railways relatively soon and may have kept operating costs down. Swiss people can buy a annual rail pass which is relatively economical compares to buying individual tickets which the many tourists are forced to buy, essentially meaning that tourists subsidize the local Swiss travel. All these reasons keep Swiss rail use relatively high.

  2. Dan

    the average American travels about 85 percent more miles per year than the average Western European

    Excluding or including air travel, Europeans still take many more transit trips. As we have already pointed out, compact land uses in Europe make the italicized a tendentious claim (that doesn’t stop it being repeated, tho).


    Jardinero1 Reply:

    Gotta agree with Dan. There is always a qualitative aspect to those miles which one has to consider.

    Europeans do make many more short trips, but only because they can. And the reason they can has nothing to do with smart growth planning, except for Paris, maybe. The time of development drives much of the density in European cities. Most European cities saw their great growth in the nineteenth century when all still walked to their destinations. Urban development was denser only because the market conditions and the transport available demanded it. All subsequent additions to transportation followed the pre-existing urban forms. The current public rail and bus transport systems get a free ride on the pre-existing density not the other way around.

    Dan Reply:

    The other part of Jardinero’s point is that many of these dense areas were built before parking was dreamt of. Even if you drive into a non-London or Paris city from the ‘countryside’, you probably will want to park close to the place where you are going to purchase something bulky. Then the transit is good enough that you can go to a bakery or butcher or whatever else is close that you are also going to visit, because gas is so expensive that you want a productive trip. Some of the newer areas of places like, say, Lyon with their new manufacturing still have transit options in addition to parking spaces.


    Scott Reply:

    More trips by Europeans are partially due to the ‘carrying capacity’ in products bought (even more stuff/capita in US, relative to income, but decreasing due to excessive gov) by manual means (walking/actual carrying) on transit versus a car’s trunk, along w/retail availability — “corner” type stores vs big-box & malls.

    Another benefit [for cars & suburban density) — besides accessibility, efficiency & more choices — is that more retail options lead to more competition, resulting in lower prices.

    You statists don’t understand that, do ya? There are many crony-capitalists, relying on legislative favors, who conflate the concepts.

    the highwayman Reply:

    Though there are malls in city centers too.

  3. Andrew

    Europeans use cars less primarily because they don’t need to travel as far as Americans.

    1) They live closer to work so their commutes are shorter.
    2) They live closer to shopping, so those drives are less and more can walk.
    3) They tend not to move out of their countries, meaning there are few family trips home for the holidays that might involve a long drive.
    4) Europe generally has more midsize cities and fewer large cities than the US. Trips are generally shorter in smaller metro areas. Europe has just two large metro areas – London and Paris where America has three (NY, LA, Chicago), and just two second rank areas – the Ruhr and Madrid. America in the second rank has Boston, Philadelphia, Washington, San Francisco, Dallas, and Houston.
    5) Gas is more expensive, so Europeans make fewer “frivilous” trips and tend to combine trips more to save money.

    Americans are mobile, but it comes at the cost of having to work to support multiple cars at an average cost of well over $5000 per year, and sacrifice more time to being on the road in their car.

    Jardinero1 Reply:

    On items one, two and four please see my reply to Dan above.

    On item three I think that is mostly conjecture so I will counter with my own conjecture: most of the French, Germans and Brits I know, frequently fly or drive all over the continent during their months long vacation.

    On your last point, I will take the high cost of auto ownership here which is about the same as auto ownership there and keep the low cost of housing and everything else I have here which is decidedly higher there.

  4. Dan

    Also, too, if we look at where the auto made its gains, we find the east bloc countries. They are gaining wealth (mostly) and freedom, and they have choices other than cars made of mud and gerbil wheels.


    Scott Reply:

    You don’t even realize that your dream of central control has been shattered by the fall of the Warsaw Pact — collectivism/communitarism — call it what you will & attribute its failures to whatever wrong control that you think it had.

    There is also a math & choice problem in compactness:
    1. Distance vs area varies by 1.41 (root-2). So, in reduction, the area covered by a distance is only 70% vs 50%.
    2.The other fatal assumption is that destinations will be reduced, proportionally.

    Example: You live an area that has doubled its density — somehow, all your trip-distances (work, shopping, friends, visiting & such) are not just supposed to be halved, but down to 35% of the previous.

    Do the math.

    the highwayman Reply:

    So having a built environment that favors automobiles controls people.

  5. Frank

    I continue to love the sweeping generalizations about Europe, one of the most diverse continents on the planet.

    Wage increases in Eastern Europe, particularly those recently admitted to the EU, are accompanied by corresponding inflation that negates wage gains. Using Bulgaria again as an example, a pack of cigarettes cost 35 US cents in the early 2000s. Now they’re several dollars. Beer cost about 25 US cents pre-EU admission; now a bottle will cost about a dollar. Cost of a meal out was about three dollars; now it’s $12. Meat, grain, etc. all on the rise. The cost of electricity delivered to consumers has doubled in Bulgaria and the Czech Republic, and it has skyrocketed in non-EU countries like Ukraine.

    Go tell someone in Romania or Bulgaria or Macedonia or…or…or…that they’ve gained wealth, and they’ll call you a glupak. Life in these countries, as anyone who has actually visited them for more than a few days will tell you, is still mnogo miseria.

    Scott Reply:

    What does inflation & the rough state control to liberty & free market have to do with transportation & urban living choices?

    Frank Reply:

    This was in response to #4: “They [Eastern European countries] are gaining wealth”. Any perception of a gain in wealth, including increased wages, has largely been offset by massive inflation. Comment wasn’t properly nested in the thread.

  6. gecko55

    I’ve lived in Zurich for 12 years, and can offer some perspective on Switzerland’s high “market share” for train travel. Switzerland is small, affluent and densely settled. The train network is dense, and the trains are clean, comfortable, quiet and relatively affordable.

    Dense: I once counted the number of trains (inter-regio, inter-city, S-bahns) departing from Zurich’s main station between 12.00-13.00. It was something like 85. In one hour. There are hourly trains between Zurich and all of the other major cities. For S-bahns serving the suburbs, most lines run 2 or 4 trains per hour.

    Relatively affordable: Full fare tickets are not cheap, but most train riders don’t pay full fare. If you commute by train, you buy an annual pass that covers your route. These are a good deal, and many employers in the major cities subsidize these. Regular train riders also buy a half-price card.

    Clean, comfortable and quiet: That pretty much applies to the whole country, including the trains.

    Two further comments: 1) that Switzerland doesn’t have any high-speed rail, and 2) the assertion that “several routes in Switzerland are private and unsubsidized.” Point 1 is true but not really relevant and point 2 is not really true.

    Higher speed service is an ongoing discussion, but the general consensus is that the benefits are not very significant. It’s a small country. Zurich-Basel and Zurich-Bern both take one hour. Zurich-Geneva takes three hours. Improvements to the Zurich-Geneva line are planned that will reduce the travel time by about 15-20 minutes. And while I don’t know the cost details, I understand that it’s pretty high, and people aren’t that thrilled that the SBB/CFF/FSS is spending money on this. (Although it is investing heavily in upgrading older rolling stock and adding more capacity on heavily congested routes. That has widespread appeal.)

    There are a few private lines, but only a few. These include some car-train routes through long tunnels in the mountains (drive your car onto a train, ride the train through the tunnel, drive off on the other side), and some cog railways in the Alps. Otherwise, it’s all part of the SBB/CFF/FSS. Check out their website if you’d like to get a feel for what’s on offer:

    Finally, as noted, Europe is extremely diverse, and generalizations at the continental level will be extremely, well, general.

    And for the record, my tax bill is about 20% of my gross income. Given what I get (including an excellent school system), I don’t have a problem with that.

    Sandy Teal Reply:

    Thanks for your insight. I agree that comparisons of US to Europe are usually apples and oranges, especially mountainous Switzerland, but also cycling in the perfectly flat and canal interlaced Netherlands.

    I think the Antiplanner analyzes them because so many other people point to Europe to advocate for higher gas taxes, smaller cars, and high speed rail.

    Frank Reply:

    Switzerland is doing it right. They also don’t have a “leader of the free world” egotastic federal executive; they have the Swiss Federal Council, a seven-member executive council that heads the federal administration, operating as a combination cabinet and collective presidency. Add the stable franc that serves as a strong reserve currency to the situation gecko55 describes, and Switzerland emerges as a model for other European nations.

  7. FrancisKing

    “Second, the percentage shares of various forms of travel are about the same except that Europeans travel a little more by rail and a little less by auto.”

    This is, of course, a generalisation. It does not take into account places like Amsterdam (33% modal share for bicycles) or Groningen (57% modal share for bicycles). That would make for a more interesting analysis, perhaps?

    Frank Reply:

    It also doesn’t take into account Moscow, the paragon of central economic planning, where biking is virtually absent and one of the riskiest activities one can do, right behind rocking out in a Russian Orthodox Church.

    The percentage of people biking to work in Moscow is 0.01%, and with a population 15 times larger than Amsterdam and 63 times Groningen, adding Moscow to the mix would indeed make for a more interesting analysis.

    Sandy Teal Reply:

    Driving in Moscow is not so healthy either. Pedestrians literally jump out in front of cars for insurance fraud. Drivers have to have dash cameras just to protect themselves from lawsuits.

    Watch this video — the narration is in Russian, but the video is pretty much self-explanatory.

Leave a Reply