The stereotype of Europeans favoring public transport over private cars is deeply flawed, according to a new European Commission-funded opinion poll that interviewed 25,767 people in the region.
The Gallup poll confirms private cars are the most widespread means of travel in the European Union, with 53% of respondents indicating they drive rather than cycle, walk or use public transportation.
Additionally, 22% of motorists across the 27-member EU admit they would not be persuaded to drive less, even with dramatic improvements to rail, bus, air and boat transport.
Somewhat surprisingly, those polled in Eastern Europe generally are more impervious to the siren calls of public transport than other regions.
Hungarian drivers are the least likely to drive less, with 44% of respondents saying they would stick to cars whatever the alternatives.
This contention is supported by 42% of Estonians, 41% of Bulgarians, 40% of Latvians, 38% of Lithuanians, 33% of Romanians and 31% of Poles queried.
By contrast, Mediterranean drivers are more agreeable to abandoning their vehicles, with only 9% of (Greek) Cypriots saying they would stick with their cars whatever the alternative; followed by 10% of Spanish motorists, 12% of Slovenians, 13% of Portuguese, 14% of Greeks and 14% of Maltese drivers.
Of the respondents prepared to drive less, the two most popular reasons are better public transport schedules (regularity and operating hours) at 29% and better connections to regular destinations at 28%.
The highest proportion of motorists in the study who care the least about public transport generally come from countries with the most households without a car: 54% in Romania, 48% in Latvia and 42% in Bulgaria.
The lowest proportion of car-less households are found in public-transport loving Cyprus – just 6%, followed by Italy and Luxemburg at 7% each, both of whom also had low numbers of drivers prepared to abandon their cars for planes, trains and buses (16%).
Bulgarian, Slovakian and Romanian respondents are the least likely to be the primary driver of a household vehicle: 26%, 25% and 22%, respectively.
Nevertheless, the poll finds Slovakians to be relatively anti-public transport – 27% would stick with their cars even with world-beating public transport systems, currently unavailable in Slovakia.
The findings cut across long-standing European Commission notions, in which commissioners long have favored pouring money into public transport in a bid to reduce pollution and congestion.
However, there have been clear indications in the last two years that the Commission accepts the inevitable appeal of private transport, hence its enthusiasm for hydrogen fuel-cell development.
EU transport Commissioner Jacques Barrot puts up a brave front when unveiling the poll. “This survey clearly shows that mobility is an essential part of EU citizens’ lives and that they expect a high quality and reliable transport system,” he says.
“We are working for a transport policy focused clearly on our citizens’ needs and expectations as reflected by this poll: better environmental protection, higher levels of safety, less congestion in big cities and stronger rights as consumers.”
The poll also gives valuable data to the EC in trying to frame such a policy. For instance, it makes clear tolls and other road-user fees will not be popular if they are expensive.
A slim majority of EU citizens are prepared to pay more to use less-polluting transport (54%), but only 9% are willing to pay increased costs of more than 10%.
And six out of 10 respondents refuse to accept that all road users should pay for congestion and environmental damage through road tolls.
A analysis of the poll shows car owners more often are men, aged 25-39 or 40-54, with the highest educational level and living and working in rural areas. Those without cars more likely are women, aged 16-25, living in cities and unemployed.
Among the more prosperous EU countries, French drivers are the least (29%) likely to drive less due to good public transport – which is a surprise given the country’s excellent rail links.
The French also have one of the highest levels of car ownership, with only 11% of households lacking a car. Only seven EU member states have proportionately more households with cars.