Mass Transit’s Limited Employment Access in the United States and Europe

There is a perception that mass transit is dominant in the metropolitan areas of Western Europe, unlike in the United States. In fact, in all metropolitan areas of Western Europe, as well as in the balance of the high income Western world, automobiles command the overwhelming majority of the motorized transport market share. European mass transit systems are more comprehensive than in the United States and they do provide greater access. However, as in the United States, transit is “about downtown,” in Europe. Automobile competitive transit services is only provided to the commercial cores and within the dense historical cores (which few US metropolitan areas have). Further, European metropolitan areas are increasingly polycentric or even dispersed in their travel patterns. For example, according to the International Union of Public Transport, (UITP, 2001), Western European urban areas have more than 80 percent of their employment outside the the central business districts. This compares to approximately 90 percent in the United States (Cox, 2006).

Research has been published in the United States that attempts to quantify metropolitan labor markets from the perspective of employees, generally following the research of Prud’homme and Lee (1998). Tomer, et al .(2011) quantify the share of metropolitan area jobs that can be reached by the average resident in each of the 100 largest metropolitan areas.

Tomer, et al.  developed access information for 45 minute commutes by mass transit. This data indicates that 6.3 percent of the jobs in the 51 metropolitan areas with more than 1 million population can be reached by the average resident in this time period. While no similar comprehensive studies of automobile access to employment have been identified, it appears likely that automobile access is far greater, because automobile speeds are much higher and automobiles are able to provide more proximate access at both the original and destination.

On the other hand, one of the strengths of the automobile is providing access to dispersed locations, from virtually every location in an metropolitan area to every other location. For most trips, the automobile will be faster than mass transit or any other alternative. Moreover, for a large number of trips, alternative mobility by mass transit is simply not available because one or both of the trip ends can be beyond walking distance from an access point (the “last mile” or “last kilometer” problem).

The “last kilometer” problem that makes mass transit uncompetitive with the automobile for most trips in the United States is also evident in Europe. According to Gerondeau, “there is now little alternative to the car for a great majority of trips.” Gerondeau (1999) indicates that no credible alternative exists for 80 percent of automobile travel in the Netherlands, despite its high density and large transit networks. Sieverts (2003) finds little potential for replacing automobile demand in Europe: “the diffuse character of urban areas does not lend itself to a conventional economic railway or bus operating offering a frequent enough service.”

The problem is also evident in the Paris area, which is generally considered to have one of the best mass transit systems in the affluent West. Residents of new towns served by the regional metro (“RER”) in suburban Paris can reach only one-half the employment in one-hour as those traveling by car, as indicated in the Table. (Fouchier & Michelon 1999).



Paris New Towns: Automobile and Mass Transit Labor Markets

 New Town

Automobile Labor Market

Mass Transit Labor Market

Automobile Compared to Mass Transit

 Lieusaint Moissy












 Saint Quentin en Yvelines












 Employment Accessibility within 60 Minutes (Ile-de-France)Source: Calculated from Fouchier.and Michelon, 1999.



Cox, W. (2006), “Demographia United States Central Business Districts (Downtowns): 50 Largest Urban Areas 2000 Data on Employment & Transit Work Trips,” Demographia,

Fouchier V. & S. Michelon (1999), “Isochrones autour des villes nouvelles aux heures de pointe.”  DREIF & Groupe Central des Villes Nouvelles.

Gerondeau, C. (1997) Transport in Europe, Artech House.

Prud’homme, R. & Lee, C. (1998), “Size, Sprawl, Speed, and the Efficiency of Cities,” Obervatoire de l’économic et des Institutions Locals.

Tomer, A,  E. Kneebone,  A. Berube, & R. Puentes, R. (2011), “Missed Opportunity: Transit and Jobs in Metropolitan America,” Brookings Institution.

UITP (2001), “Millennium Cities Database,” (CD).




Comments (3)

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  1. Jordan says:

    Reminds me of the Las Vegas mass transit proposal. Lots of money for not addressing the inaccessability issue.

  2. Nichole says:

    Mass transit systems have to be built around population growth trends and geographic location of employment. Without the extra planning, mass transit seems to only fit 3% of an urban population.

  3. seyyed says:

    Interesting, i too immediatly thought of the xpressWest project. People like their cars too much and until mass transit becomes convenient people are not willing to give up driving their vehicles.

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