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Kaid Benfield’s Blog

New data confirm European transportation habits are much greener than those in US cities

Kaid Benfield

Posted October 27, 2011

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  European Mode Share Map in use (via European Platform on Mobility Management)

It is no secret that the United States is one of the most car-dependent cultures in the world.  In data from 17 countries published by The National Geographic Society in 2009, only five percent of Americans surveyed used public transportation daily, and only seven percent reported taking public transportation at least once a week.  61 percent of Americans reported that they never use public transportation.

Internationally, however, 25 percent of respondents reported using public transportation daily, and 41 percent reported using it at least once a week. 

In both cases the international sample was five times or more as likely to use transit as Americans.  Even Canadians are more than twice as likely to report weekly or more transit usage than Americans; Russians are over ten times more likely.  shopping center parking lot, suburban virginia (by: Mrs. Gemstone, creative commons license)In another part of the study, Americans were found to walk or bicycle regularly only half as much as the full international average.

For the US, I reported some city-by city comparisons of commuting habits based on 2008 data.  As would be expected, New Yorkers were the most likely to take transit to work (54.8 percent) and the least likely to drive alone (23.3 percent).  Washingtonians were number two in both categories (35.7 percent and 37.2 percent, respectively).  Residents of Boston and Washington were the most likely to walk to work (14 percent and 12 percent).  At the other end of the spectrum, fewer than one percent of residents of Oklahoma City take transit to work.  Collectively, an overwhelming majority of American city residents (74 percent) drive alone to work.

A new, interactive website launched by the European Platform on Mobility Management displays easily retrieved data for individual European cities.  (The Platform is a network of European governments, represented through their transport ministries and organized as an international nonprofit organization headquartered in Brussels.)  Not all European cities are represented (at least not yet), but many are.  For example, here's what I found just looking at the three cities shown on the map at the top of the post:

  • The share of walking trips as a portion of the total is about twice as high in London and Zurich as in even the top American cities;
  • public transit, Amsterdam (by: Daniel Sparing, creative commons license)New York's transit share compares favorably to those of the three European cities, but five to seven times as many residents of London, Zurich and Sofia use transit regularly as do Americans as a whole;
  • A majority of residents prefer driving only in Sofia, and there only 52 percent do, as compared to 74 percent of residents in typical larger American cities. 

The good news is that analysts now have a convenient new source to turn to for comparative data on transportation habits in various cities.  The bad news, for Americans, is that our own transportation habits are environmentally pathetic by comparison, using far more oil, emitting far more carbon, and requiring far more expensive infrastructure, than those of Europeans.  Unsurprising, I suppose, but not exactly uplifting.  We are moving in the right direction, it seems, as I wrote yesterday, but we have a lot of catching up to do.

The European database appears very much a work in progress.  There are important cities yet to be included (Rome, Barcelona), and some of the interactive features are clunky.  Eric Britton of World Streets points out some of the limitations in an article introducing the system, though he is positive as to its usefulness and potential.  There are ways for users to submit additional data.  But the site is already useful and interesting, and likely to get better over time.

Move your cursor over the images for credit information.

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

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Don BabeOct 27 2011 02:46 PM

You have missed some of the great benefits of using transit. Cost is a huge benefit. In my case it is at least $50 a week cheaper to use transit than the car. The other benefit I did not expect from using transit is the social interaction. Everyone has a story of the bad company on public transport but that is definitely the exception. I have a set of acquaintances that I regularly catch up with on the bus that I would not come across in any other way. They are not my best friends but I enjoy discussing all manner of things with them on the 20 minutes a day we are together. Cars are insular, you recognise other cars but don't know the people driving them. Using the bus is definitely my transport of choice.

Kaid @ NRDCOct 27 2011 04:17 PM

Don - You raise an excellent point, one that I have covered extensively in the blog (for example, here) over time.

And, having met some of my very best friends while taking transit, I couldn't agree more!

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