Inputs vs. Outputs


An article in CityLab purports to show “why public transit works better outside the U.S.” However, it never actually demonstrates that public transit does work better in other countries; it merely shows that governments have attempted to make it work better.

Many American visitors to major European cities come away thinking that transit works great in Europe. Travelers can reach most major tourist attractions by taking trains between cities and metros and trams within cities. But they are necessarily constricting themselves to a small slice of life on the continent, and the reality is that Europeans don’t use transit all that much more than Americans do.

The CityLab article by Jonathan English argues that, whereas Levittown and other American postwar suburbs were auto-centric, European governments required that suburbs there be built around rail stations. In other words, where the U.S. government gave people the freedom to live the way they wanted, European politicians felt it was their duty to socially engineer people’s lifestyles.

Back around 1900 or 1910, American developers knew that access to a streetcar or rapid transit line was crucial for the success of their developments. But by 1920, auto ownership had grown so much that transit was no longer important. A developer once told me that he would rather have no transit access to his development because the transit lines brought in vandals and burglars. The notion today that transit stimulates economic development is more of a self-fulfilling prophecy: when new transit lines are built, planners rezone areas around the stations for higher densities and offer subsidies if there is no market demand, so developers build in those areas.

For some reason, English thinks it is important to mention that, in 1960, Switzerland’s auto ownership rate was only one-fourth that of the United States. He neglects to add that, despite all of the emphasis on transit, auto ownership and auto driving exploded in European cities after 1960, whereas transit ridership remained flat. As of 2016, Switzerland had 524 automobiles (including cars and light trucks) per 1,000 residents, about 70 percent of the United States average of 760 autos per 1,000 — well over a quarter. (I calculated the U.S. number from Highway Statistics tables MV-1, which shows cars, and MV-9, which breaks out light trucks, and divided by the Census Bureau’s population estimate for 2016.)

Germany and Italy have even higher numbers of automobiles per capita than Switzerland. So if post-war European policies were so successful at making transit work, why did people nearly triple their auto ownership rates?

The greatest indictment against European transit policies can be found in the Panorama of Transport published by the European Union in 2006. As the Antiplanner has previously shown here, this document reveals that Europeans ride buses (including both intercity and urban) about 80 miles more per year than Americans and they ride urban trams and metros (what we call light rail and heavy rail) about 55 miles more per year than Americans. That’s not much especially considering that about three times as many European cities have tram and/or metro lines than American cities.

The big differences between Europe and the U.S. were intercity trains and driving. Europeans rode trains about ten times as many miles per year as Americans — roughly 400 vs. 40. But the difference is small compared to the fact that the average American travels nearly 8,000 more passenger miles by auto than the average European. Transit advocates say that European cities are so well designed that they don’t need to travel as much, but it’s hard to imagine that design alone can reduce travel needs by two thirds. It is more likely that Europe’s high fuel taxes have heavily suppressed total intercity travel.

Despite the huge difference in the amount of driving, Europeans still drive for 75 percent of their travel, compared with 85 percent in the United States. If urban bus travel is the same proportion of total bus travel as it is for rail travel, then urban transit provides about 3 percent of passenger transportation in Europe, compared with 1 percent in the U.S. Yes, that’s more, but the difference is mainly due to the suppression of auto travel, not the increase in transit travel.

The problem comes down to the transit industry’s usual focus on inputs rather than outputs. Transit agencies want American taxpayers to increase their budgets and prestige by subsidizing more inputs in the form of transit infrastructure even if it doesn’t result in more outputs in the form of travel riders or overall mobility. Transit advocates such as English have fallen for this argument when they should be looking at what works and what doesn’t work for transportation users.

This piece first appeared on The Antiplanner.

Randal O’Toole ( is a senior fellow with the Cato Institute and author of the new book, Romance of the Rails: Why the Passenger Trains We Love Are Not the Transportation We Need, which will be released by the Cato Institute on October 10.

Photo: Pline [GFDL, CC-BY-SA-3.0 or CC BY-SA 2.5 ], from Wikimedia Commons