Ralph Buehler is associate professor in urban affairs and planning and a faculty fellow with the Metropolitan Institute at Virginia Tech’s Alexandria Center. He's co-editor with John Pucher of City Cycling (MIT Press, 2012) and based in Old Town Alexandria, Virginia.
Understanding mistakes of the past can help guide U.S. transportation policy in the future.
Between the 1920s and 1960s, policies adapting cities to car travel in the United States served as a role model for much of Western Europe. But by the late 1960s, many European cities started refocusing their policies to curb car use by promoting walking, cycling, and public transportation. For the last two decades, in the face of car-dependence, suburban sprawl, and an increasingly unsustainable transportation system, U.S. planners have been looking to Western Europe.
The numbers show the need for change. In 2010, Americans drove for 85 percent of their daily trips, compared to car trip shares of 50 to 65 percent in Europe. Longer trip distances only partially explain the difference. Roughly 30 percent of daily trips are shorter than a mile on either side of the Atlantic. But of those under one-mile trips, Americans drove almost 70 percent of the time, while Europeans made 70 percent of their short trips by bicycle, foot, or public transportation.
The statistics don't reveal the sources of this disparity, but there are nine main reasons American metro areas have ended up so much more car-dependent than cities in Western Europe.
Mass motorization. Mass motorization occurred earlier in the United States than in Europe, mainly facilitated by assembly line production that brought down cost. By the mid-1930s there was already one registered automobile for every two U.S. households, while car ownership in Europe was mostly limited to wealthy elites. Moreover, greater personal wealth in the U.S. allowed households to more readily afford cars than comparatively poorer European households, particularly in the years immediately after World War II.
Road standards. As a result of early mass motorization, American cities were first to adapt to the car at a large scale. U.S. planners and engineers developed initial standards for roadways, bridges, tunnels, intersections, traffic signals, freeways, and car parking. Successful innovations quickly spread elsewhere, often in the form of standards. Europeans also experimented with automobile infrastructure—Stockholm opened a large inner city clover-leaf interchange in the 1930s—but European cities adapted to cars much more slowly than U.S. metros did, especially before World War II.
Vehicle taxes. Taxation of car ownership and use has traditionally been higher in Europe and helped curb car travel demand. Today a gallon of gasoline is more than twice as expensive in Europe than in the United States. Moreover, in Europe gas tax revenue typically contributes to the general fund, meaning roadway expenditures compete with other government expenditures. In many U.S. states and at the federal level, large parts of the gas tax revenue are earmarked for roadway construction, assuring a steady flow of non-competitive funds for roads.
Interstate system. In the 1950s, the U.S. federal government offered a 90 percent match to build the Interstate Highway System that soon crisscrossed most U.S. urban areas. Combined with urban renewal and slum clearance programs, interstates destroyed and cut-off entire urban neighborhoods and facilitated suburban sprawl (itself subsidized through mortgage policies). European national governments also provided subsidies for roadways, but typically at a lower level or for shorter periods of time. Moreover, European highways, such as Germany’s high speed Autobahn system, typically link cities rather than penetrate them.
Government subsidies. Over the last 40 years, gas taxes, tolls, and registration fees have covered only about 60 or 70 percent of roadway expenditures across all levels of U.S. government. The remainder has been paid using property, income, and other taxes not related to transportation. These subsidies for driving reduce its cost and increase driving demand in the United States. In European countries, meanwhile, drivers typically pay more in taxes and fees than governments spend on roadways.
Technological focus. Policy responses to problems of U.S. car travel have focused on technological changes rather than altering behavior. For example, responses to air pollution or traffic safety consisted of technological fixes — such as catalytic converters, reformulated cleaner fuels, seat belts, and air bags — that let people keep driving as usual. European countries implemented these technological requirements as well, but also more aggressively reduced speed limits in entire neighborhoods, created car free zones, reduced car parking, and implemented other policies that encourage behavioral shifts.
Public transit. Sustained government support helped European transit systems to weather the rise of the car more successfully. Particularly after World War II, privately owned U.S. transit systems increased fares, cut services, lost ridership, and either went out of business or were saved by public ownership — with help from U.S. governments often coming too late. For instance, many cities saw their trolley systems disappear entirely in the 1950s and '60s, though there has been a streetcar reemergence of late.
Walking and cycling. Only a few U.S. cities, such as Davis, California, have a tradition of implementing pedestrian and bicyclist amenities since the 1970s. By contrast, many European cities, led by Muenster, Amsterdam, and Copenhagen, have implemented entire networks of bike lanes, separated cycle tracks, off-street bicycle paths, and traffic calmed neighborhood streets — allowing easy travel by bicycle between any origin and destination in a city or region. European cities also have a longer history of providing networks of sidewalks, crosswalks, and car free zones in city centers. Additionally, European traffic laws protect pedestrians and cyclists, often putting the responsibility for a crash on the driver, while U.S. traffic laws, police, and court juries often fail to prosecute or punish drivers who kill pedestrians or cyclists.
Zoning laws. There are many differences between land-use planning systems in the United States and Europe. Europeans tend to allow a greater mix of uses in their residential zones, thus keeping trip distances shorter. For example, in Germany, a residential zone can include doctors' offices, cafes, corner stores, or apartment buildings. By contrast, single family residential zones in the United States typically forbid those uses. Zoning in Germany also occurs for smaller land areas—almost at the block level—facilitating shorter trips than in U.S. cities, where zones tend to be much larger. And while most U.S. zoning codes still require a minimum number of parking spots, many European countries operate with maximum numbers to limit parking.
Top image: Traffic in New York's Times Square (Lucas Jackson/Reuters); A street is decorated with golden crowns and red, white and blue banners in the city center in Amsterdam. (Cris Toala/Reuters)