Promoting Public Transportation: Comparison of Passengers and Policies in Germany and the United States


Ralph Buehler

Document Type

Journal Article

Publication Date


Subject Area

operations - coordination, planning - surveys, land use - urban density, place - rural, place - urban, mode - bus, mode - mass transit, mode - subway/metro


Urban areas, United States, Travel surveys, Transportation policy, Transit, Socioeconomic factors, Socioeconomic aspects, Rural areas, Ridership, Public transit, Population density, Patronage (Transit ridership), Multimodal transportation, Multimodal systems, Metropolitan areas, Mass transit, Local transit, Intracity bus transportation, Germany, Coordination, Conurbations, Bus transit


It is often suggested that the United States adopt policies similar to those of European countries to increase public transportation ridership and sustainability of the transport system. On the basis of two national travel surveys, socioeconomic and geographic characteristics of public transportation riders in Germany and the United States are compared, and the differences in public transportation policies in the two countries are analyzed. Dissimilar policies can help account for variability in ridership not explained by socioeconomic and geographic differences. In both countries, public transportation ridership increases with population density and metropolitan area size and decreases with rising income, car ownership, and household distance from a public transportation stop. However, supported by better policies, German public transportation systems can attract more riders from all groups of society. For example, Germans living in households with more cars than drivers make three times as many of their trips by public transportation than does the average American. Even Germans in rural areas use public transportation more often than do Americans in metropolitan areas. Compared with Germany, public transportation in the United States is limited to dense areas in large urban regions, is centered around buses (65% of trips), and mainly attracts poorer residents who have less access to a vehicle and live close to a public transportation stop. Compared with the United States, public transportation systems in Germany are characterized by a longer history and more efficient use of government subsidies, higher levels and better quality of public transportation supply, better regional integration of public transportation services, more multimodal coordination, and more favorable land use and restrictive automobile policies discouraging car use. Improving public transportation service in the United States could help augment the appeal of public transportation and increase ridership among all societal groups in all spatial development patterns.