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Car or public transportation?  The Swiss and Americans commute to work very differently

Car or public transportation? The Swiss and Americans commute to work very differently

Without a car, nothing works in US traffic.Image: Shutterstock

How do people around the world travel to work? A new study reveals surprisingly large differences between continents, regions and individual cities. While a diverse mix of mobility exists in many places, Americans rely almost exclusively on cars.

April 25, 2024, 1:15 p.mApril 25, 2024, 2:45 p.m

Philip Reich
Philip Reich

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Different countries, different customs: what is considered “normal” here is considered completely strange elsewhere. Cultural differences exist between individual countries or regions in almost all areas of life – including mobility.

The new study is dedicated to this phenomenon “Navigation Alphabet” Center for Complex Sciences in Vienna. Work movement in nearly 800 cities and urban areas in 61 countries around the world was examined. The focus is on how residents transition to work. The researchers distinguished between three different types of mobility: active mobility (on foot/by bike), public transport (train/bus), and car (private/taxi).

The author's path to work.

There were sometimes significant differences from one continent to another, but also from one region to another. The researchers found an almost complete range of commuter mobility in Europe: in many large cities, such as Paris, London, Barcelona or Milan, public transport is the most widely used mode of travel to work.

But this is by no means the case in all major cities on the continent: in Rome, Madrid and Athens, residents most often go to work by car. The city's most active residents can be found in Berlin and Amsterdam, where nearly half of the population commutes to work by bike or on foot.


Example reading: In Paris, 20.2 percent actively go to work, 59.6 percent use public transportation, and 20.2 percent go by car. In Zurich, 45.92% of them walk or ride a bike. 32.65 percent travel by public transportation and 21.43 percent by car.

However, the Netherlands only partially lives up to its reputation as the top cycling country in the study. Although almost all of the cities examined have a high percentage of active commuter traffic, only the university city of Utrecht is clearly at the top, with more than 75 percent traveling to work by bike or on foot.

The active share of passenger traffic in the four Swiss cities included in the study, Basel, Bern, Lausanne and Zurich, is also large and ranges between 45 and 51 percent. However, while public transportation plays an important role in German-speaking Swiss cities (27 to 33 percent), Lausanne residents clearly prefer to take a car (36 percent).

The car and (almost) nothing else

Passenger traffic in the United States and Canada is very different from that in Europe. In these two North American countries, cars are mostly used to get to work. Only the two Canadian cities, the American university town of Ithaca and New York, which have the highest proportion of public transportation in North America, stand out from the mass of car cities. Overall, 91.9% of passenger trips in the United States and Canada are made by car, while only 3.5% can be attributed to active commuting and 4.6% to public transportation.


A completely different picture emerges for major cities in Asia: public transport and active mobility are clearly the most widely used for getting around there. In Hong Kong, for example, the share of public transport is approximately 77 percent and in the South Korean capital, Seoul, it is still 66 percent.


Residents of African and Latin American cities also travel relatively little by car. On the other hand, in Australia and New Zealand, private motor transport is becoming more important again, although not to the same extent as in North American cities.

City size is the most important factor – at least outside the United States

However, the greatest influence on a city's traffic pattern is not its geographic location, but rather its size. In smaller cities, active commuting and car travel are more common when commuting, as public transportation is limited in many places.

In cities with a population of less than 100,000, only about 10 percent of all passenger trips are made using public transportation. In cities with a population of 1 million, this percentage jumps to 25 percent, and in urban areas with a population of more than 20 million people, this percentage averages more than 40 percent.

It seems logical: the larger the city, the greater the share of public transport in passenger traffic.

It seems logical: the larger the city, the greater the share of public transport in passenger traffic.Image: Shutterstock

However, this does not apply to the United States. Because most American cities were designed early on so that you could easily get anywhere by car. Although New York has now introduced and promoted alternative mobility options, residents of most American cities still rely heavily on cars.

17 pictures showing how we used to travel by train


17 pictures showing how we used to travel by train

Feet out, can open, roots in: This guy is having a good time in first class between Schoepfheim-Konolfingen in 2003.

Source: Keystone/Martin Ruetsch

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