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NatGeo surveys countries' transit use: guess who comes in last

Kaid Benfield

Posted May 18, 2009 in Living Sustainably, Moving Beyond Oil, Solving Global Warming

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Americans are far less likely to use public transportation than residents of other countries, according to the National Geographic Society's 2009 Greendex report.  Only five percent of Americans surveyed report daily use of public transportation, and only seven percent report taking public transportation at least once a week.  61 percent of Americans report that they never use public transportation.

Internationally, 25 percent of respondents in the 17-nation survey report using public transportation daily, and 41 percent report using it at least once a week.  Even Canadians are more than twice as likely to report weekly or more transit usage than Americans; Germans are almost five times more likely to use transit at least weekly, and Russians are over ten times more likely:

     reported use of pblic transportation, by country (by: National Geographic Society) 

Greendex surveyed over 17,000 consumers for indicia of "progress toward environmentally sustainable consumption."  Parameters measured included "energy use and conservation, transportation choices, food sources, the relative use of green products versus traditional products, attitudes towards the environment and sustainability, and knowledge of environmental issues," according to the report's home page.  You can download the 14-page highlights here and the 296-page full report here.

(The selection of countries surveyed is far from comprehensive and a little arbitrary.  Germany, Spain, France and the UK were surveyed, but not Italy or Switzerland; Argentina and Brazil but not Chile; Sweden but not Denmark; and so on.)

The results were numerically scored, with the developing nations of China, India, and Brazil scoring the best overall, and the US scoring worst.  Personally, I don't put too much weight on the overall rankings, which surely contain a fair amount of subjective judgment, but I do find the responses to particular questions to be telling.  I took a close look at the transportation section.

Americans were also the least likely of those surveyed to report walking or biking to destinations "often."  Overall, 51 percent of the survey respondents reported regular walking or cycling, while only 26 percent of Americans did.  71 percent of Germans report regular walking or cycling, 68 percent of Brazilians, and 58 percent of Japanese:

     reported walking or cycling to destinations, by country (by: National Geographic Society) 

Americans did report a decline in overall travel and in fuel consumption over the last year, because of higher fuel prices.  However, Americans are far more likely to drive SUVs or minivans (33 percent, compared to 13 percent internationally) and far less likely to drive compacts (18 percent; French, Japanese, Germans, and Swedes are all more than two and a half times more likely).  92 percent of Americans own cars, tied with Australians for the highest rate of reported ownership, and Americans were far more likely to report owning two or three cars per household.

Americans surveyed reported that the biggest obstacle to their use of public transportation was lack of availability (55 percent), followed by "takes too long" (40 percent) and infrequent service (30 percent).  Only 18 percent of Americans report that public transportation is easily available to them, a far lower percentage than the international average:

     reported availability of public transportation, by country (by: National Geographic Society) 

Note that even Canada has a significantly higher portion of respondents reporting public transit to be easily available.

Altogether, the study scored 17 (National Geographic seems fixated on the number 17; call Robert Langdon at once) parameters pertaining to transportation, including these:

  • Driving
  • Ownership of motorized vehicles
  • Size of vehicle driven
  • Distance vehicle is driven
  • Owning an ultra-low emissions vehicle (ULEV or hybrid)
  • Air travel
  • Use of public transit
  • Taking trains
  • Riding a bicycle
  • Walking
  • Location of residence relative to primary destination

China ranked first overall, the US last.  More Greendex goodies may be found here.

Full credit to Elana Schor's post on Streetsblog, where I first learned of this study. 

Kaid Benfield writes (almost) daily about community, development, and the environment.  For more posts, see his blog's home page.

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Switchboard is the staff blog of the Natural Resources Defense Council, the nation’s most effective environmental group. For more about our work, including in-depth policy documents, action alerts and ways you can contribute, visit NRDC.org.

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