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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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8 thoughts on “What drives higher public transport use?

  1. Last name First name

    Parker Alan • OAM.

    Transport Trends from 1970 to 2010 are charted suggest that bicycling has become much safer in Japan, Switzerland, Germany, the Netherlands and Scandinavia because of their intermodal bicycle/public transport planning  practices as well as more bicycle infrastructure generally.
    The future of every day cycling, and commuters using public transport in Australia are not good, because the demand for motor vehicle traffic is dependent on the growth of population which is far higher than in Germany. Indeed only in the high income countries of the EU can we see a resolution of this conflict through reduced population growth and the creation of bicycle friendly road networks.

    Of the developing countries, only in China do we see a similar commitment to constraining population growth while supporting bicycle use, public transport, high speed trains and the development of electric vehicle. We also see the sacrifice made by Chinese families in accepting the necessity of the one child policy.

    The lack of attention to detail regarding bicycle security and theft prevention of bicycles at rail stations and modal interchanges in Australia is a joke compared to the Netherlands, Switszerland, Denmark, Sweden and North Germany. The jokers of course are the transport and urban planners in Australia since the I960s and they still are.

  2. IkaInk

    @Alan – Yes, to an extent that will certainly be true, however I would stress that the financial cost differences are not the only reasons Germans own less cars than their US counterparts. They’re also less automobile dependent in the first place, so car ownership in many cases is a luxury not a necessity.

    This quote is also telling:

    In 2008/2009, households without cars had the highest shares of trips by public transport in both countries (25.2% and 21.6%). Individuals in households without cars are often “captive” public transport riders—at least for trips beyond distances that are easily covered by bicycle and foot. Having a car at all makes a dramatic difference in household travel behaviour in both countries. Having additional cars per licensed driver makes less and less difference in rates of public transport use as the total number of cars per driver increases.

    Whereas public transport use is similar for households without cars, public transport use in Germany is much higher than that in the USA for households with cars. [emphasis added]

    Regarding the sunken cost fallacy – I don’t think it plays much of a role in mode-share at all, anywhere. I think people chose their mode based on individual trips in the vast majority of cases. Unfortunately I think as an economist you frequently look for financial-based solutions, where time, and convenience are far more important. In Singapore people that have access to cars drive a heck of a lot because cars have been made very convenient. In Germany even people who have access to cars use PT a lot more than their US counterparts not because its cheaper, but because its far, far more convenient to do so. Take away SOV road space, provide better, easier, faster, sustainable options; this is how to promote a sustainable mode shift. Not free PT (stupid), or congestion charging (sensible for revenue raising), or raising taxes car ownership costs (sensible for revenue raising).

  3. Alan Davies

    IkaInk #3:

    Not once they’ve bought a car (as you say), but the effect of a high sales tax is to lessen the liklihood consumers will own a car in the first place. That should mean they’re more likely to use PT.

    A caution on the issue of the sunk cost fallacy. I previously referred to it in the context of Singapore where a permit for a car costs more than $100,000 ($AU). That’s different by an order of magnitude from the sales tax on car purchase in Germany.

  4. Dylan Nicholson

    Alan, sure (though it’s also true that there are many towns in Germany, as per the rest of Europe, where narrow roads make large cars impractical) – I’m just saying the high cost of petrol doesn’t necessarily contribute significantly to Germans driving *less*.

  5. IkaInk

    Arh… Feel free to edit the excess white-space out. Copying from PDFs and not being able to edit comments afterward, etc.

  6. IkaInk

    All in all a good article Alan, but I might have emphasised a few points differently. You’ve covered how Germany does PT better than USA quite well, but when it comes to the roads side of things you’ve once again focussed on economic levers much more than other elements, which is not to say that you’ve ignored the issues completely just perhaps given them less prominance than they deserve.

    I perhaps would have grabbed some of these quotes:

    There are many more restrictions on car use and parking in Germany than in the
    USA. Not only is the supply of roads per capita much less in German cities than in
    American cities, but motorways are also mostly restricted to the outskirts of
    German cities and rarely penetrate city centres. By comparison, most American
    cities and suburbs are criss-crossed with extensive networks of high-speed motorways and wide arterials (Bratzel, 1995, 1999). Most German cities have reduced car
    parking supply and increased its cost, whereas most American cities continue to
    focus their redevelopment plans on increased provision of low-cost or free
    parking for cars (Shoup, 2005).


    Almost all German cities feature extensive
    car-free pedestrian zones in their city centres (Hass-Klau, 1993). Only a few American cities have any car-free streets (usually pedestrian malls) and never an entire
    network of connecting streets that form a comprehensive car-free zone. In short,
    there are many more restrictions on car use in German cities, making it less convenient as well as more expensive than in American cities.


    Regarding: Alan #2
    I agree with Dylan’s point. The high sales tax might affect car ownership rates, but it shouldn’t make cars less attractive to drive once they’re owned. In fact you’ve argued that in Singapore high-ownership costs contribute to people driving their cars more (sunken-cost fallacy, etc).

    The same is true for the amount of taxes road users are paying in each country. Low petrol and usage taxes may trick Americans (and Australians) into believing they’ve paid for the roads, and that roads don’t cost that much; but German drivers having paid more than the full amount for the roads would actually be expected to want to use them more (again, the sunken-cost fallacy). The important difference is the extra revenue that gets used for other sectors: “In sharp contrast, German road users pay taxes and fees that are 2.5 times higher than government roadway expenditures, yielding an important source of net tax revenues that can be used to finance other sectors” (p. 561).

    All in all a good article Alan, and thanks for linking to that paper, it will be valuable to me.

    Also link you’ve provided is missing the “f” at the end of PDF so the link is broken.

  7. Alan Davies

    Dylan Nicholson #1:

    I’d argue a key reason why German’s drive smaller cars is the high cost of petrol.

  8. Dylan Nicholson

    Germany’s one of the most interesting comparison cases because they have excellent roads, and almost all families own cars, and love to use them. They’re just sensible enough to realise that there are some trips for which cars make sense, others where bicycles are better and others where PT is the best choice. I would say I don’t quite see why the high sales tax would make that much difference to anything other than ownership rates (Germany’s is higher than Canada’s, and not that far below Australia’s) – if anything it might make the owners more inclined to use their vehicles, having paid so much for them. Even the high cost of petrol isn’t necessarily that big a deal, given the typically shorter distances and more efficient cars that Germans are likely to drive. The lack of parking is probably the biggest downside to driving in built-up areas – plus the proliferation of one-way and blocked-off streets (only for cars).