Feargus O'Sullivan is a contributing writer to CityLab, covering Europe. His writing focuses on housing, gentrification and social change, infrastructure, urban policy, and national cultures. He has previously contributed to The Guardian, The Times, The Financial Times, and Next City, among other publications.
One chart shows which cities do best when it comes to biking, walking, or taking public transit to work.
When it comes to public transit, the cities of the European Union are generally viewed as success stories. In the union’s larger cities, an average of 49 percent of people use transit to get to and from work. But as recent figures published by Eurostat reveal, ridership numbers vary greatly from city to city—and the same goes for people who drive, walk, or cycle to work. Recent news from Copenhagen suggesting a decline in bike commuting shows that locals’ preferred modes of transit are always subject to change. Indeed, looking more closely at the stats reveals some interesting, sometimes surprising features of Europe’s urban transit map.
So where is public transit a popular choice for Europe’s commuters? The map below provides some pointers.
Perhaps what’s most striking here is how much higher the levels of public transit commuting are in capital cities than in regional cities. This might seem an obvious phenomenon—generally less populous second-tier cities seem less likely to have the sort of snarled up roads that propel commuters towards public transit. Still, some capitals post a relatively poor showing, with less than 30 percent of commuters using public transit in Lisbon, Dublin, Vilnius, and Riga.
Some outliers suggest that investment, not size, is the key issue. Modestly sized Zurich (whose population is just over 400,000) shows public transit commuting rates of over 60 percent, considerably higher than the 40 to 50 percent share for far larger Rome (population 2.88 million). And the city with the highest rate of public transit commuting—Vienna, at 74 percent of all commuters—isn’t even in Europe’s top 20 metro areas. The map implies, without explicitly confirming, that it is a combination of wealth and closeness to power that gets a city endowed with a public transit system good enough to attract large majorities of workers to use them for their daily commutes.
The map above nonetheless remains a blunt instrument. The Eurostar-produced table below gives a far clearer, more nuanced picture of which cities are doing well in which area. It shows commuter journeys divided by mode—note that respondents were allowed to choose more than one mode, so people who walked a distance, then took a subway, might count twice. The table reveals three clear trends.
European cities are not all bike paradises
Amsterdam and Copenhagen have a justified reputation as Europe’s most bike-friendly capitals. As the table above makes clear, they may also be Europe’s only bike-friendly capitals, at least to an extent. According to Eurostat’s figures, only in these two cities does bike commuting exceed 50 percent of modal share—although even this is contradicted by figures from Copenhagen Municipality quoted in Danish newspaper Politiken this week which suggest bike commuting has dropped to 41 percent.
Whatever the real figure is, the jump between these two cities and their nearest competitors is perhaps more significant. Apart from the Dutch and Danish capitals, no other city surpasses a 25 percent commuter share for bikes. Berlin and Ljubljana, Europe’s Green Capital for 2016, both approached the 25 percent mark, however. Berlin may be a considerably larger, more sprawling and polycentric city than Amsterdam and Copenhagen, but if plans advance for a major injection of new bike infrastructure, that top two may feasibly become a top three.
Island cities have the worst public transit rates and the highest rates of car use
Scan the chart for the lowest uptake of public transit and three cities stand out. Levkosia, Cyprus; Reykjavik, Iceland; and Valletta, Malta are the only cities where less than a quarter commute by public transit, while Levkosia and Reykavik are the only cities where drivers constitute more than 75 percent of the commuter total. There may be geographical factors at work here: public transit planning is somewhat complicated by Levkosia’s recent history of division, while central Reykjavik’s location on a narrow peninsula has encouraged a surprisingly wasteful, sprawling layout for such a small city. There’s still a sense that Europe’s more peripheral nations are falling far behind when it comes to modern transit policy. Reykjavik is at least planning a light rail network that should do much to speed urban connections, but the first step in preparations for this (as opposed to actual construction) will not be completed until summer next year.
Parisians walk a lot more than Copenhageners
Paris is the only city where a (very narrow) majority walk for at least a portion of their journey to and from their workplace—an impressive number given that public transit commuting is also especially high in the city. At the other end of the scale, the city with the lowest number of walking commuters surveyed is actually Copenhagen. So why are the rates so different?
Probably because in Copenhagen cycling is so easy that walking can seem like a waste of time. When you can take your bike door to door and get a gentle, healthy workout in the open air without breaking a sweat (Copenhagen is a flat city), there’s less incentive to submit to the relative slowness of going anywhere on foot. Paris’s core, meanwhile, is densely populated enough for many people to be in easy walking distance of their workplace, but still it has car-congested roads and a far from perfect bike lane network that disincentivizes cycling. Paris’s strength in walking may thus be the product of its environment inhibiting the uptake of cycling.
The message from this is perhaps that encouraging greener commuting habits and better public health is not a zero-sum game. Pushing cycling infrastructure may reduce the number of people walking—but if it also reduces the number of drivers, that’s absolutely fine. Europe’s cities are by and large still far from weaning themselves off car dependency, but at least there seems to be a continent-wide commitment to the value of investing in full, decent quality public transit. That has to be worth something.