This is an adaptation of sections of my final fellowship paper found here.
Ralph Buehler and John Pucher in their paper Demand for Public Transport in Germany and the USA: An Analysis of Rider Characteristics, have analyzed several different policies that lead to higher transit mode share. Some of them would be fairly simple (though not easy) to implement in the US, such as increasing the federal fuel tax or vehicle registration fees. Others, such as Federal, State and Local coordination in land use planning, would be much more difficult.
Policies are key tools to promote transit ridership, but are usually not under the purview of transit agencies themselves. In Germany, they have been very successful, and generally fall under three themes:
- Transit-focused policies, programs and practices – Germany has three times as many transit service kilometers per capita as the US (59 vs. 20). Policies and practices that favor transit, such as transit signal priority and other bus infrastructure, modern buses, coordination between different providers and between different modes, all make transit more attractive. Unlimited ride passes (daily, monthly, annual, etc.) are very common, offering up to 60% reductions over single fares. This eliminates the marginal cost structure of rides in favor of a fixed cost, similar to monthly vs. hourly parking rates. There have also been deep reductions in fares for special tickets, such as student, elderly, and disabled tickets. Additionally, vehicles themselves are on average newer, and it is much more common to have bus shelters and better information at stops. All these measures make transit much more affordable and attractive.
- Restrictions on car use – policies and pricing are important tools to limit driving. From obtaining a driver’s license to sales tax on vehicles to the tax on fuel, Germany’s fees are much higher than in the US. The effect is that fuel tax revenue in Germany is 2.5 times higher than roadway expenditures; in the US, fuel tax revenue only covers 60% of roadway costs. (The rest is transferred from the general fund because the federal fuel tax has not been raised in 20 years.) In addition, Germany has several policies that restrict car use. For example, highways are generally only found on the fringes of cities, cities are reducing the number of parking spaces in downtowns and increasing parking prices, and most cities have extensive traffic calming in their residential neighborhoods.
- Land use policies – denser development with mixes of uses and restrictions on off-street (private) parking encourage more car-free households, more walking and biking due to short trips, and more efficient transit operations by transporting more people over shorter distances. German planning law requires the integration of transportation planning (as well as water, energy and environmental planning) into land use plans.
Important to note, therefore, is that transit ridership depends on a lot more factors than a transit operator has control over. Many of these German policies would be relevant and possible in the US. But keeping this in mind, there are several features to examine that transit organizations themselves can do to be more effective.