Traffic on London's M25 Orbital highway. Peter Nicholls/Reuters

An interesting, concerning insight into Europe’s commuters, public transit, and pollution

London has the worst traffic congestion in Europe—but its citizens are also among the most satisfied in Europe with their public transit. This is one of the apparent idiosyncrasies laid out in the Eurostat’s new Urban Europe Report. The report paints a striking and sometimes stark picture of European cities only just managing keep their streets fluid. Take the figures below as an example.

(Eurostat)

London’s congestion isn’t just the worst, it’s the worst by a country mile. The average driver in the London area loses 101 hours a year in traffic, 28 more hours than an average driver in the second worst city, Stuttgart. Given the effort London has put into improving public transit and introducing “congestion charging,” this might come as a surprise. The results are so bad because it seems that London’s public transit and anti-congestion efforts have done little to change anything beyond the city’s official limits, out in the wider London metro area. Conditions out there are indeed locally notorious, especially on the orbital highway—and with some train operators now well-known for cancelled services, things aren’t a lot better on the rails either.

That hasn’t stopped most people within London’s official borders from being satisfied with public transit—an impressive result considering that the city has some of the highest fares in the world. In the set of figures mapped below, more than 82 percent of respondents expressed satisfaction.

(Eurostat)

It’s arguably Brussels that should worry more here. Not only is it Europe’s fifth most congested city, its citizens don’t think much of its public transit either. Its score of between 61 and 73 percent of residents expressing satisfaction is, for Europe, on the low side. Generally, it’s in Southern European cities that people tend to be somewhat happier with their public transit. Having built a new metro system to coincide with the 2004 Olympic Games, Athens can at least console itself that its public transit system is a little more popular than its counterparts in neighboring Turkey and Italy (though less so than in the major cities of its northern neighbor, Bulgaria).

Perhaps surprisingly, the cities with the most congestion aren’t necessarily the ones with the most commuters. With 51 hours wasted by the average driver annually, Milan’s congestion record may not be great, but it’s close to being twice as good as London’s. Milan, nonetheless, has some of the highest levels of commuting in Europe, outstripping even Paris in absolute numbers of daily commuters.

(Eurostat)

As the graph above shows, just more than a million people enter Milan for work every day, a huge number for a city of around 1.3 million. As a counterweight, 750,000 workers also move in the other direction, leaving the city proper for jobs in the wider metro area. Is this a strength or a weakness? It’s arguably both. That large daily outflow points to the continuing industrial success of the Milan region—despite some decline, there are still well-paid industrial and managerial jobs worth commuting out for. At the same time, the inflow points to another trend now almost ubiquitous across the West: lower-paid employees in the city core can no longer afford to live near their workplaces.

Managing two conflicting flows like this in a clean, sustainable way is far from easy. Milan has at least managed it with congestion that stops short of being appalling, and scrapes toward plain old bad. But then, Eurostat’s report shows that, even in Northern Europe in and around cities with a good reputation for introducing some green policies, there are severe problems that sometimes outstrip those in the United States.

(Eurostat)

The table above shows particularly high levels of nitrogen dioxide in Paris, Ingolstadt (part of greater Munich and home to Audi’s headquarters), and Schiedam, part of Greater Rotterdam. Places with low nitrogen dioxide scores, meanwhile, are not uncommonly cities that have seen their industrial economies die, such as Narva, Estonia, and eastern Germany’s Frankfurt on the Oder. Northern Europe’s cities may have developed some reputation for leadership on public transit and pollution—but current figures suggest that, at present, they may just be scratching the surface of the problem.

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