When touring cities in Western Europe and Canada, as well as some other parts of the world, Americans frequently marvel at the ubiquity, convenience, and popularity of the urban rail and bus systems they encounter. They may wonder why so few U.S. cities are as well served by transit or as easy to stroll or bike through. The differences in urban character and lifestyle become more palpable upon their return.
To be sure, such impressions are often derived from visits to large capital cities by tourists, students, and business travelers who have had little opportunity to observe urban life on a regular basis. They may have limited understanding of how transit fits into the daily activities of most urban residents or how patterns of transit use are changing over time. Still, even visitors to many smaller Western European and Canadian cities find transit systems that are both extensive and heavily used, especially as compared with their counterparts in the United States.
Indeed, the data back such common impressions of public transit’s omni-presence and popularity abroad. Transit ridership—whether on motor buses or rail (rapid, commuter, and light rail lines)—is consistently higher in Western Europe and Canada than in the United States. On a per capita basis, Western Europeans and Canadians ride transit two to five times more than Americans living in cities of comparable size. Moreover, even those Western European and Canadian cities that are not frequented by tourists—such as Bremen, Germany; Halifax, Canada; and Lyons, France—have higher transit ridership levels than much larger U.S. cities with extensive public transportation systems, such as Chicago, Atlanta, and Philadelphia.
Yet almost in the same breath, returning visitors can be heard bemoaning how much more American the urban landscape of Western Europe is becoming. When venturing outside the traditional city centers, they may have encountered many more fast-food restaurants, supermarkets, office parks, and
shopping malls than in years past. Those who traveled the countryside by motor coach or automobile are apt to complain about the chronic traffic congestion they encountered—not only on the car-crowded thoroughfares outside the largest cities, but also on the narrow and meandering streets of the smallest Western European villages and towns.
The data support such observations as well. Automobile ownership levels have more than tripled in Western Europe during the past three decades, with cars becoming the main mode of personal transport for most Western Europeans. More affluent Western Europeans are living and working in lower-density urban developments and are increasingly reliant on the automobile for their travel needs. Automobile use, however, has not grown as rapidly in Western Europe as automobile ownership, and transit use remains strong as compared with the United States.
A commonly cited reason for this difference is that Western European governments provide significant financial aid to transit operators, coupled with many other transit-supportive policies and practices. For many years, large government subsidies have been accompanied by high taxes on automobiles and motor fuel, a long-standing public commitment to the preservation of historic cities, and concerted efforts to protect open space around cities, fostered by land use policies that emphasize dense and clustered urban and suburban development. Hence, while suburban development has increased in Western Europe, urban areas there remain far more compact overall than those in the United States. Consequently, European suburbs and their cities remain far more transit-oriented than their American peers.
Even in Western Europe and Canada, however, urban form and transit usage often vary widely from city to city, depending on local circumstances. Historical factors are important in these variations, along with the geographic setting and character of the local economy. Older cities that are bounded by bodies of water or hills, and that have few surface corridors as a result, are more likely to rely on transit than cities lacking such physical limits on outward expansion or the addition of more highway capacity. Likewise, urban areas with a service-based economy are more apt to have higher transit patronage than cities with economies oriented around manufacturing and heavy industry. Manufacturing plants, which require more land, are typically dispersed across the urban region. Office buildings, and the many white-collar workers that populate them, are more often clustered. Transit systems are most effective and efficient when serving commuter destinations that are concentrated.
Still, even when considering such localized factors, one cannot help but suspect that broader, more deep-rooted reasons underlie the marked differences in transit usage among Western European and North American cities. Their uniformly higher use of transit suggests that Western European cities and their residents share many experiences and conditions conducive to public transit that are not prevalent in the United States. Likewise, the consistently higher transit ridership in Canadian cities—which are more similar to American than Western European cities—suggests that factors other than local circumstances are at work.
This report therefore takes a wide-ranging look at the circumstances and conditions affecting transit use in Canada and Western Europe, from transportation planning and tax policies to demographic and economic trends. The focus is on Canada and Northern and Western Europe—especially Great Britain, France, Germany, the Netherlands, and Sweden—because they are closest to the United States in affluence, urban development, and political climate and because their policies are often offered as models for application in the United States. Where sufficient data are available for other nearby countries—including Austria, Belgium, Denmark, Norway, and Switzerland—they are examined as well.
More detailed country-by-country and city-by-city comparisons, which were not possible within the scope of this study, would undoubtedly have enhanced our understanding of the factors that differentiate the United States, Canada, and Western Europe with respect to public transit use. Nevertheless, a general review can also provide useful insights about common differences and their causes. To that end, this report
Describes the differences in public transit use among U.S., Canadian, and Western European cities;
Identifies those factors, from urban form to automobile usage, that have contributed to these differences; and
Offers hypotheses about the reasons for these differences—from historical, demographic, and economic conditions to specific public policies, such as automobile taxation and urban land use regulation.
As explained in the preface, no attempt is made to determine whether any of the particular policies discussed could or should be implemented in the United States. Conditions relevant to transit use vary among the countries examined, and there is no guarantee that the conditions that have
helped make policies work in one place are essential and sufficient for them to work in another.
The remainder of the report consists of four chapters. In Chapter 2, international trends in transit ridership, automobile use, and urban development are compared. The chapter begins with a review of historical trends in ridership on buses and urban rail systems, including streetcars, light rail, and rail rapid transit (consisting of underground, surface, and elevated trains).1 How transit is currently used, funded, and organized in Canada and several Western European countries is described. The chapter ends with a comparison of past and recent trends in North American and Western European urban development and automobility and their effects on public transit.
In Chapter 3, descriptions are given of a number of policies and practices that have been directly supportive of transit in Europe and Canada, enhancing transit quality, reliability, and availability. The discussion then turns to other, broader policies that have been complementary to transit, including high taxes on automobiles and motor fuel. The chapter concludes by comparing the extent to which urban land use and transportation infrastructure are coordinated in Western Europe, Canada, and the United States.
The external factors and conditions that have spurred transit use and the many transit-supportive policies found abroad are examined in Chapter 4. Differences in political institutions, public attitudes, and economic and social trends, among other factors, are discussed.
The main findings of the report are summarized in Chapter 5. Opportunities for applying the successes of Canada and Western Europe in the United States to enhance the use and availability of public transit are indicated.