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TRB Special Report 257 - Making Transit Work: Insight from Western Europe, Canada, and the United States describes the differences in public transit use among U.S., Canadian, and Western European cities; identifies those factors, from urban form to automobile usage, that have contributed to these differences; and offers hypotheses about the reasons for these differences--from historical, demographic, and economic conditions to specific public policies, such as automobile taxation and urban land use regulation.

Travelers often return from major European cities marveling at the ubiquity and efficiency of urban transit services and wondering why U.S. cities fare so poorly by comparison in this regard. With few exceptions, such as its central role in serving New York City, public transit has a far more prominent role in Canada and Western Europe than in the United States. This is true not only in major cities, but also in smaller communities and throughout entire metropolitan areas. Transit is used for about 10 percent of passenger trips in urban areas of Western Europe, compared with 2 percent in the United States.

A number of factors have contributed to this differential, including higher taxes on motor vehicles, steep fuel taxes, and concerted efforts to control urban development and preserve the form and function of historic cities in both Canada and Western Europe. Moreover, both regions have devoted considerably more attention and resources to ensuring that transit services are convenient, comfortable, and reliable.

At the outset of the 20th century, American cities were leaders in introducing and using transit. Today, however, much of metropolitan America is largely suburban in character. The preponderance of suburban development is due to an abundance of inexpensive land available outside of cities, burgeoning metropolitan populations and economies, and perceptions of inner-city economic and social strife, combined with the ubiquity of the automobile. Transit works best in areas with high concentrations of workers, businesses, and households, whereas suburbs are characterized by low-density development.

The committee that studied the issue of making transit work better in the United States concluded that dramatic changes in transportation investments, land use controls, and public attitudes—including much denser settlement patterns, together with Western European–style fuel taxes and other disincentives to driving—would be required to reshape the American urban landscape in ways that would fundamentally favor transit use. Nonetheless, there is ample opportunity for transit to play a more prominent role in meeting passenger transportation demand in many U.S. cities. Although it is not reasonable to expect the modal share of transit in most U.S. metropolitan areas to equal that of European cities, there are many areas in which transit is appropriate and its use can be increased. American cities that have retained high levels of central-city employment and dense residential development and have a history of transit service can learn from and apply the policies and practices used abroad.


Suggested Citation

Transportation Research Board. 2001. Making Transit Work: Insight from Western Europe, Canada, and the United States -- Special Report 257. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press.

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184 pages |  6 x 9 |  DOI:

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