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51% of all humans rely on car commutes every day

It’s official – the world has a serious car addiction. A comprehensive new study reveals the global dominance of cars, along with the striking regional variations in how people commute.

On average, 51 percent of all commutes worldwide involve getting behind the wheel of a private automobile. However, some cities are bucking the trend and leading the way towards more sustainable transportation.

Burden of car commutes

At the heart of this revelation is the work of Rafael Prieto-Curiel from the Complexity Science Hub and Juan Pablo Ospina from EAFIT University. Their researchers looked at 61 countries and almost 850 million people to uncover the different ways we commute – cars, buses, bikes, and more.

“The takeaway is clear: we drive too many cars, and the burden of cars in cities is huge and goes beyond the combustion of petrol,” said Prieto-Curiel.

“It is also the parking space required, the driving infrastructure, the noise they produce, the toxic materials used in manufacturing and road pavement, the crashes they cause, and others.”

Europe: Varying car commutes

The picture in Europe is far more nuanced. While car commuters still dominate in cities like Rome (66%) and Manchester (71%), many European hubs stand out for their commitment to walking and cycling.

Copenhagen (47%), Utrecht (75%), Bilbao (66%), and Bolzano (58%) all boast remarkably high rates of active commuting.

Public transportation also reigns supreme in many European cities. Paris (60%), London (45%), and cities across Eastern Europe like Minsk (65%), Prague (52%), Warsaw (47%), and Budapest (45%) have robust public transit systems that carry a large share of the commuting population.

Asia: Public and active transportation

Southern and Eastern Asian cities demonstrate a strong mix of public transportation and active mobility.

Hong Kong (77%), Seoul (66%), Mumbai (52%), and Tokyo (51%) all see a high percentage of commuters taking the bus, train, or metro.

Additionally, walking and cycling are incredibly popular in megacities like Beijing (53%), Shanghai (47%), Dhaka (58%), Delhi (33%), and Mumbai (33%).

America lagging behind

Shockingly, North America stands out from all the countries. A staggering 92% of commuters in the U.S. and Canada choose to drive.

“In contrast, the US exhibits minimal variation in modal share across cities of different sizes,” wrote the study authors.

“The majority of cities in the US have been designed with a strong reliance on cars for transportation. While cities like New York City and Boulder have developed alternative mobility options, most cities in the US heavily depend on cars.”

That said, even within the US, there’s variation. New York City shines as a public transit outlier (25% of commutes), along with high rates of walking and cycling (8%).

Dense, pedestrian-friendly cities like San Francisco and Boston also have decent public transit use, as do college towns like Ithaca, Boulder, and Madison.

Electric car commuting: A partial solution?

With electric vehicles gaining traction, it’s tempting to hope they’ll cure our car woes. However, the study’s authors issue a word of caution.

“We must take into account manufacturing, infrastructure demands, congestion, particle pollution produced by tire wear, and others,” said Prieto-Curiel.

Electric cars won’t magically solve all the problems associated with our car-dependent culture.

Check your city’s scorecard

The team has developed an interactive map of global mobility patterns, a tool that invites us to compare our local commuting habits with those of cities around the globe.

Want to see how your commute stacks up against others worldwide? Explore this interactive map here.

Study insights

The study reveals just how important smart city planning is for the health of both people and the planet. Walkable cities with strong public transportation aren’t just about ditching cars – they’re about building healthier communities.

The researchers acknowledged that building walkable cities and expanding public transport is no small task, but it’s a goal worth pursuing. “Changing travel behavior is exceptionally challenging,” they note.

This study urges cities to act now, transforming into places where health and sustainability are top priorities.

The study id published in the journal Environment International.


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