Passenger Travel in Europe and the US: More Similar than Different

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Probably one of the most enduring myths about the differences between Europe and the United States is that Europeans travel mainly by trains and transit, while Americans cling to their cars and airplanes. This misunderstanding comes in part from what I have called "Louvre Syndrome".

Tourists, journalists and urban planners are often smitten with what might be called the "Louvre Syndrome." This occurs when Americans sit at Paris cafes in view of the Louvre and imagine why it is that the United States does not look like this. In fact, most of Paris doesn't even look like this, nor do other European urban areas.

An overseas tourist can wrongly assume that what they see in the core of Paris reflects the rest of the city. But, in fact, the functional city Paris (the "aire urbaine" or metropolitan area, also called the labor market), covers over an area as large as metropolitan Los Angeles. To get around this expanse, you need a car. Despite their differing histories, Paris and Los Angeles have more similarities than many would assume.

Car Dominated Societies

And, of course, there are differences. But the overwhelming share of urban and intercity travel in both Europe and America depends largely on cars. According the Eurostat's 2018 edition of EU Transport in Figures, there was a less than 10 percent difference in the market share of cars between the EU and the United States. The publication reported on 2016, when 78.8 percent of passenger travel (in passenger kilometers) was by car in the United States (Figure 1). Residents of the EU nearly equaled that figure, at 72.4 percent, only eight percent less than in the United States (Figure 2). Car travel continues to increase, capturing 45 precent of the growth from 2010 to 2016, with most of the rest by domestic airline. Europe, it turns out, is more like the United States than many retro-urbanists, not to mention casual tourists, assume.


The "lower 48" states of the US cover nearly twice as much land area as the EU. It would therefore be expected that longer travel distances would result in higher airline market shares for Americans. That is indicated by the data. In 2016, 13.4 percent of travel in the US was by air. However, despite its smaller land area, and far more comprehensive rail systems, the European market share was still a substantial 10.7 percent. Air accounted for 39 percent of travel growth from 2010 to 2016.


Not surprisingly, the EU rail share is much higher than in the US. In the EU, the rail market share is 6.7 percent, while in the US it is 0.5 percent. The European advantage in rail is, at 6.2 percent, approximately the same as the US advantage in auto travel.

Perhaps most surprisingly, despite aggressive high-speed rail building programs in France, Spain, Germany and elsewhere, planes are increasing their market share. Rail market shares have not budged in 20 years. In 1995 airline and rail market shares in the EU were about equal. Today, the airlines command a nearly 60 percent market share advantage over all rail and carry six times as much volume as high-speed rail. Since 2010, airlines have added passenger volumes that are more than 15 times as large that of high-speed rail. It is clear that much of the impact of high-speed rail has been to improve service for existing users, not to attract travelers from cars or planes (Figure 3).

Urban Transport

The EU publication does not provide sufficiently disaggregated detail to accurately estimate the differences in urban transport. Rural and urban auto use is not separated. Suburban (commuter) rail, which is really urban transport, is largely in the overall rail figures. The bus data is both urban and rural. The one specifically urban category is "Tram and Metro" (streetcar, light rail and subways), where Europe's share relative to all travel is 1.6 percent, while the US is 0.3 percent.

Passenger Transport in Europe and the US: More Similar than Different

All in all, the automobile dominates both the United States and the European Union. In both geographies, airlines have a strong hold on second place. Naive visionaries who want to see a radical transport transformation such as imagined in “the Green New Deal” literally have no models.

For the casual observer sitting in a cafe across the street from the Louvre, this may not be obvious, but it's the data that tells the less romantic, but real story.

Wendell Cox is principal of Demographia, an international public policy and demographics firm. He is a Senior Fellow of the Center for Opportunity Urbanism (US), Senior Fellow for Housing Affordability and Municipal Policy for the Frontier Centre for Public Policy (Canada), and a member of the Board of Advisors of the Center for Demographics and Policy at Chapman University (California). He is co-author of the "Demographia International Housing Affordability Survey" and author of "Demographia World Urban Areas" and "War on the Dream: How Anti-Sprawl Policy Threatens the Quality of Life." He was appointed by Mayor Tom Bradley to three terms on the Los Angeles County Transportation Commission, where he served with the leading city and county leadership as the only non-elected member. Speaker of the House of Representatives appointed him to the Amtrak Reform Council. He served as a visiting professor at the Conservatoire National des Arts et Metiers, a national university in Paris.

Photograph: Boulevard Peripherique, Paris (by author)