Rush hour congestion on a Berlin highway. SP-Photo / Shutterstock.com

Major European cities may use cars less, but they still have a long way to go.

Americans are not the only ones still caught up in their love affair with the car. Although we may like to imagine Europe’s major cities to be veritable nirvanas for pedestrians and cyclists, two of the densest European metros—London and Berlin—remain seriously car-dependent. That’s according to a new report from the London School of Economics, which takes a detailed look at transit and mobility patterns in these two cities.

The chart below, which tracks kilometers driven per person from 1970-2008, shows that the U.S. remains the leading country for car use, while Europeans drive less. Indeed, 86 percent of American workers get to work by car, according to the U.S. Census. All of this confirms our expectations about America’s car-oriented, sprawling suburban pattern of development versus Europe’s more compact transit and pedestrian-friendly urban centers.    

But, the key findings from the study challenge this conventional wisdom. The findings, which come from a survey of roughly 1,000 residents each in London and Berlin, show how startlingly car-dependent these dense urban centers still are.

The chart below shows the key findings for London. While 46 percent of Londoners use public transit, 35 percent still rely on their cars for daily travel. Another 11 percent say they get around on foot, while 3.8 percent use bicycles.

These numbers change quite a bit when we look at residents’ preferred methods of transportation as opposed to actual daily usage. The largest share of Londoners—nearly half—say they prefer to travel by car over any other form of transportation. This compares to 37 percent who prefer transit and just 6 percent who prefer cycling.

Now let’s look at Berlin. Although Berlin is often thought of as a walkable city, the car remains the leading way for residents there to get around. As the chart below shows, 37 percent of Berlin residents use their cars on a daily basis compared to 30 percent who use public transit. On a brighter note, 17 percent of travelers in Berlin cycle on a daily basis (compared to 3.8 percent in London), and eight percent walk.

But, again, more Berliners—45 percent—would prefer to get around by car. Public transit declines from the 30 percent who actually use it to 22 percent of residents who prefer it. On the plus side, cycling increases from 18 percent who use it to 21 percent who would prefer it.

So even in London and Berlin, cars are used frequently and are the preferred mode of travel by a pretty substantial margin. Strikingly, residents in both cities actually use cars more than in New York City, where only 23 percent of residents get to work by car and 56 percent use public transit. In London, a whopping 75 percent of households surveyed own a car, as do 73 percent of households surveyed in Berlin.* In contrast, less than half of New York households—1.4 million out of 3 million—are car owners. There’s plenty of work to be done to emphasize alternate, more sustainable forms of transportation, even in big, dense European cities.

But how?

To get at this, the report looked into the attitudes of travelers toward alternate, more sustainable modes of transportation, separating travelers into six different groups.  

The following chart compares the distribution of these six traveler groups in London and Berlin. The pattern was quite similar across both cities. In both London and Berlin, the largest attitude group was “technology-focused individualists”—those who value technology and prefer private modes of travel like driving and cycling. This group made up 29 percent of London travelers and 24 percent of travelers in Berlin.

The second largest group was “pragmatic transit skeptics” who prefer cars and dislike technology, but are open to alternate modes of transit. Next in line were “green-oriented” travelers who value environmental sustainability and favor public transit. In London, this group tied with “innovative access-oriented” types, who value innovation and are more inclined to use alternate methods of transportation. In Berlin, “traditional car-oriented” people—those who prefer driving and are more reticent to use mass transit or rely on new technologies—trumped the “innovative-access oriented” type. The smallest group in both cities was the “pragmatic transit-oriented” category, which values public transit but not technology.

The behavior and attitudes of these travelers suggest that there is still plenty of room for improvement. To accomplish this, the report advocates a combination of “pull” and “push” policies. The former involve making alternate forms of transportation more attractive, promoting shared mobility, and encouraging the use of electric vehicles. The latter means making more use of road pricing, parking fees, and other restrictions. In order for these policies to be effective, however, the report adds that they must be targeted to the behavior of specific types of travelers.

Until then, the unfortunate reality is that the car remains an ever-present pillar of society, our cities, and our daily lives. Even in big, dense European cities, the car is still cemented as the dominant and preferred mode of transportation, making it all the more difficult to shift toward alternate modes of transit. If this transition seems challenging in places like Berlin and London, just imagine the challenges facing smaller cities across Europe and the United States.

*UPDATE: This post has been updated to clarify that car ownership shares for London and Berlin are based on the households surveyed in the study, not on citywide data.

Top image: SP-Photo / Shutterstock.com

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