Public transport

Oct 8, 2012

What drives higher public transport use?

The high cost of travelling by car is the main reason why Germany has five times as many public transport users as the US.

Alan Davies — Editor of The Urbanist

Alan Davies

Editor of The Urbanist

Percentage of workers using public transport as main means of transport to work, 2005-06 (source data: Buehler & Pucher, 2012)

One of my consistent themes is that a significant shift toward more sustainable travel will not be achieved simply by improving public transport. The cost of owning and operating a car has to increase too.

A new paper by academics Ralph Buehler from Virginia Tech and John Pucher from Rutgers University reinforces the importance of that proposition. They’re better known for their work on cycling (which I’ve discussed before – see here and here) but in this paper they compare public transport use in Germany and the USA.

They say Germans are five times more likely to make a trip by public transport than Americans.

Public transport users in the US tend to be specialised ‘markets’ – mainly either commuters living in larger, older cities, or low income travellers without a car. In Germany, however, there’s a much broader cross-section of users by both purpose and demographics – public transport is a normal part of many more people’s lives.

Moreover, German public transport has higher productivity, lower costs, and higher financial efficiency. For example, in 2010:

The total operating and capital subsidy per passenger trip was less than half as much in Germany as in the USA ($1.82 versus $5.09). Passenger revenues in Germany covered 77% of public transport operating costs compared with only 33% in the USA.

It’s not that public transport is all roses in Germany. There’s a shortage of funding to renovate ageing rail systems, there’s increasing crime, and industrial action over the last five years has disrupted operations.

Cities are still more compact than the great bulk of US cities but they’re increasingly suburbanising. There’s a “trend toward decentralization of businesses, big-box retailers at the urban fringe, and more suburban housing developments.”

The authors argue the difference in public transport use between the two countries is due primarily to “a coordinated package of mutually supportive policies” in Germany. They posit five main differences.

First, there’s simply more public transport in Germany in the first place. Whereas 88% of Germans live within one kilometre of a public transport stop, only 43% of Americans do. It’s difficult to untangle cause from effect, but there’s 59 vehicle kilometres of service per year per inhabitant in Germany versus only 20 in the US.

Public transport is better in Germany too. Vehicles are modern and reliable, real time information is provided at stops, and on-road services have dedicated lanes and priority at signals.

Second, fares in Germany are integrated and multiple fare tickets are inexpensive. Passengers can use one ticket irrespective of the number of transfers or mode changes. Monthly tickets cost on average 40% of the single fare and there are deeply discounted concession fares (three quarters of ticket sales are weekly, monthly or annual).

Third, routes and schedules in Germany are coordinated between modes and operating regions to minimise waiting time. There are safe and extensive walking and cycling routes to stops.

Fourth, German planning encourages dense, mixed-use development which facilitates shorter distances between destinations/origins and public transport stops.

Fifth, cars are expensive to own and operate in Germany. The petrol tax more than doubled from $0.41 per litre in 1990 to $0.88 in 2010. Taxes make up 60% of the price of petrol in Germany but only 15% in the US. The sales taxes on the purchase of a vehicle is four times higher in Germany.

Private transport is more attractive in the US because it’s subsidised at a higher level. The authors say:

In the USA, road user taxes and fees account for only 60% of roadway expenditures by all levels of government. In sharp contrast, German road users pay taxes and fees that are 2.5 times higher than government roadway expenditures.

Further, parking is more restricted and expensive in Germany. The authors say 75% of streets are traffic-calmed in large cities like Berlin and Munich.

They believe all five factors matter, but the cost and ease of car use is the key difference. In their summing up they say:

The most important difference between the two countries, however, is that local, state, and federal governments in the USA have failed to restrict car use in cities, raise the cost of driving, and improve land-use policies. Indeed, all levels of government in the USA have subsidized roadways, car use, and parking.

Public transport in the US has received, on average, $23 billion in capital and operating subsidies each year from all levels of government since 1975. This has to be seen in terms of the size of the US population, subsidies for driving and the negative externalities it avoids.

Nevertheless, a 2% mode share (per capita trips increased from 22 in 1973 to 24 in 2010) seems a modest pay-off in the light of the much lower costs the authors report for Germany.

Much of the latter’s better performance doubtless stems from the synergistic benefits of a network and better utilisation in off-peak periods. That’s all the more reason for the US (and Australia!) to ensure funding for public transport is applied strategically to projects that significantly increase mode share, rather than, as happens too often, on glamorous, politically attractive boondoggles.

While Germany’s petrol tax doubled since 1990, indexing of Australia’s was removed in 2001. It’s stood at $0.38 per litre ever since – had indexation been maintained the excise would now be around $0.50 per litre.

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