This is an adaptation of sections of my final fellowship paper found here.

Waiting for the bus in Hamburg

Ralph Buehler and John Pucher in their paper Demand for Public Transport in Germany and the USA: An Analysis of Rider Characteristics, have analyzed historical trends and events in transit in Germany and the US. Objectively speaking, Americans do not take many transit trips, on average. Between 2005 and 2010, the average American made 24 per year. In Germany that number was 139. (Figure 1) The US figure is lower than any other Western European country or Canada.

Figure 1. Number of annual public transport trips per capita in Europe and North America, 2005–2010. Note: Due to differences in survey design, trip definitions, and timing, travel survey results among countries are not entirely comparable. Sources: APTA, 2012; BFS, 2011; BMVBS, 1991–2012; CBS, 2011; DfT, 2011; DMT, 2010; ITF, 2011; SIKA, 2007; SOeS, 2010; TOI, 2011; USDOT, 2010; WSP, 2006.

And while total number of trips in both countries has been rising in recent years, trips per capita have been rising consistently in Germany since the 1990s. In the US, they have stayed constant since the 1970s. (Figure 2)

Figure 2. Trend in total public transport trips and trips per capita in Germany and the USA, 1945–2010. Notes: Data from 1950 to 1990 are for West Germany only. West German data from 1950 to 1960 exclude West Berlin and the Saarland. German data from1991 to 2010 are for the re-unified Germany, including the former East Germany. The strong increase in Germany between 2003 and 2004 is a statistical artifact due to a change in data collection methodology. Public transport trips as shown in this graphic are defined from origin to destination; thus, a trip involving transfers between public transport lines or modes is counted as one trip (technically designated as a linked trip). Since 1970 official data for the USA report unlinked trips, with transfers counted as additional trips. This study converted the unlinked trips to linked trips in order to ensure comparability with Germany, using a methodology explained in Polzin and Chu (2003). Source: APTA, 2012; BMVBS, 1991–2012.

So what happened? Between the 1940s and 1970s, transit use in the US dropped by 75% due to the ending of wartime rationing, increased automobile production, increasing incomes, and suburban sprawl. This drop was stopped by extensive support from all levels of government, averaging $23 billion per year (in 2010 dollars), which, despite a drop in the 1980s, continues today.

In Germany, most public transportation infrastructure was usable again by the early 1950s after being damaged in World War 2, and the combination of increased work trips, low automobile ownership, and cities crowded with ethnic Germans arriving from Eastern Europe kept transit ridership high. However, by the 1960s, car ownership tripled, sprawl grew on urban fringes, the federal highway network expanded, and cities widened roads and built parking garages. Subsidies in transit operating and capital costs raised ridership as in the US until the 1980s. The large spike in Figure 2 around 1991 represents the reunification; however the increase in ridership between 1991 and the early 2000s occurred almost exclusively in the former West, and offset heavy ridership losses in the former East. Since the early 2000s, ridership gains have been seen throughout Germany. These gains are partly due to a doubling of the gas tax (from $0.41/liter in 1990 to $0.88/liter in 2010), but also to better transit service (regional coordination, vehicles, information, etc.).

Germany and the US, as mentioned in the last article, both experienced high motorization rates and ridership declines. However, German authorities deliberately implemented policies to increase ridership. The US has not yet done so with such vigor.