By Ralph Buehler, February 4, 2014
Traffic in New York's Times Square; A street
is decorated with golden crowns and red, white and blue banners in the
city center in Amsterdam.
Between the 1920s and 1960s, policies adapting cities to car travel in
the United States served as a role model for much of Western Europe. But
by the late 1960s, many European cities started refocusing their
policies to curb car use by promoting walking, cycling, and public
transportation. For the last two decades, in the face of car-dependence,
suburban sprawl, and an increasingly unsustainable transportation
system, U.S. planners have been looking to Western Europe.
The numbers show the need for change. In 2010, Americans drove for 85
percent of their daily trips, compared to car trip shares of 50 to 65
percent in Europe. Longer trip distances only partially explain the
difference. Roughly 30 percent of daily trips are shorter than a mile on
either side of the Atlantic. But of those under one-mile trips,
Americans drove almost 70 percent of the time, while Europeans made 70
percent of their short trips by bicycle, foot, or public transportation.
The statistics don't reveal the sources of this disparity, but there
are nine main reasons American metro areas have ended up so much more
car-dependent than cities in Western Europe.
Mass motorization. Mass motorization occurred
earlier in the United States than in Europe, mainly facilitated by
assembly line production that brought down cost. By the mid-1930s there
was already one registered automobile for every two U.S. households,
while car ownership in Europe was mostly limited to wealthy elites.
Moreover, greater personal wealth in the U.S. allowed households to more
readily afford cars than comparatively poorer European households,
particularly in the years immediately after World War II.
Road standards. As a result of early mass
motorization, American cities were first to adapt to the car at a large
scale. U.S. planners and engineers developed initial standards for
roadways, bridges, tunnels, intersections, traffic signals, freeways,
and car parking. Successful innovations quickly spread elsewhere, often
in the form of standards. Europeans also experimented with automobile
infrastructure—Stockholm opened a large inner city clover-leaf
interchange in the 1930s—but European cities adapted to cars much more
slowly than U.S. metros did, especially before World War II.
Vehicle taxes. Taxation of car ownership and
use has traditionally been higher in Europe and helped curb car travel
demand. Today a gallon of gasoline is more than twice as expensive in
Europe than in the United States. Moreover, in Europe gas tax revenue
typically contributes to the general fund, meaning roadway expenditures
compete with other government expenditures. In many U.S. states and at
the federal level, large parts of the gas tax revenue are earmarked for
roadway construction, assuring a steady flow of non-competitive funds
A typical American-style highway interchange, running straight through a residential area.
Interstate system. In the 1950s, the U.S.
federal government offered a 90 percent match to build the Interstate
Highway System that soon crisscrossed most U.S. urban areas.
Combined with urban renewal and slum clearance programs, interstates
destroyed and cut-off entire urban neighborhoods and facilitated
suburban sprawl (itself subsidized through mortgage policies). European
national governments also provided subsidies for roadways, but typically
at a lower level or for shorter periods of time. Moreover, European
highways, such as Germany’s high speed Autobahn system, typically link
cities rather than penetrate them.
Government subsidies. Over the last 40 years,
gas taxes, tolls, and registration fees have covered only about 60 or
70 percent of roadway expenditures across all levels of U.S. government.
The remainder has been paid using property, income, and other taxes not
related to transportation. These subsidies for driving reduce its cost
and increase driving demand in the United States. In European countries,
meanwhile, drivers typically pay more in taxes and fees than governments spend on roadways.
Public transit. Sustained government support helped European transit systems to weather the rise of the car more successfully.
Particularly after World War II, privately owned U.S. transit systems
increased fares, cut services, lost ridership, and either went out of
business or were saved by public ownership — with help from U.S.
governments often coming too late. For instance, many cities saw their
trolley systems disappear entirely in the 1950s and '60s, though there
has been a streetcar reemergence of late.
Bicyclists in Copenhagen, Denmark.
Walking and cycling. Only a few U.S. cities,
such as Davis, California, have a tradition of implementing pedestrian
and bicyclist amenities since the 1970s. By contrast, many European
cities, led by Muenster, Amsterdam, and Copenhagen,
have implemented entire networks of bike lanes, separated cycle tracks,
off-street bicycle paths, and traffic calmed neighborhood streets —
allowing easy travel by bicycle between any origin and destination in a
city or region. European cities also have a longer history of providing
networks of sidewalks, crosswalks, and car free zones in city centers.
Additionally, European traffic laws protect pedestrians and cyclists,
often putting the responsibility for a crash on the driver, while U.S.
traffic laws, police, and court juries often fail to prosecute or punish
drivers who kill pedestrians or cyclists.
Zoning laws. There are many differences
between land-use planning systems in the United States and Europe.
Europeans tend to allow a greater mix of uses in their residential
zones, thus keeping trip distances shorter. For example, in Germany, a
residential zone can include doctors' offices, cafes, corner stores, or
apartment buildings. By contrast, single family residential zones in the
United States typically forbid those uses. Zoning in Germany also
occurs for smaller land areas—almost at the block level—facilitating
shorter trips than in U.S. cities, where zones tend to be much larger.
And while most U.S. zoning codes still require a minimum number of
parking spots, many European countries operate with maximum numbers to