Ten reasons why reducing automobile dependency makes sense

Like many places throughout the world, Australian cities’ transport systems are dominated by the private car. The car has offered unprecedented flexibility and reach in our personal mobility and dominated the form and lifestyles in cities since the mid 20th century. They can be convenient and versatile and fast, and now account for about 90 per cent of the total urban passenger movements (up from around 40 per cent in the late 1940s). In Australia there are about 17m cars. Worldwide, we are up there in terms of cars per capita at around 7 cars for every 10 people.

But over the last two decades or so, we have heard increasing calls for reducing automobile dependency. Like here, and here!

I’m on board with this – it seems to me that a more balanced transport system is the key to the future livability, economic success and social inclusiveness of our cities. Most planning strategies, like the South East Queensland Regional Plan and Brisbane City Plan, list reducing automobile dependency as one of their goals.

This doesn’t mean wanting everyone to abandon their cars and start using other modes. It’s about a more balanced system where people have genuine options as choices, rather than being effectively forced to rely on the car because our city design and transport systems don’t offer that choice.

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Gold Coast – offering a new transport choice!

So here are ten reasons why I reckon this makes good sense, in no particular order:

1. Public health. As the research of Larry Frank, Billie Giles-Corti and others demonstrates, shifting transport to active (walking and cycling) and public transport improves community health. In short, cars make you fat. That is, the more one drives, the more likely one is to be overweight, and designing cities for car use designs out exercise because it makes it difficult to incorporate exercise into our daily lives, for example, by walking to work or the shop. Conversely, designing cites for these other modes improves exercise, and therefore health, across the community.

2. Land consumption. The car is eating our cities. The desire to facilitate car use means dedicating more of our cites to hard stand, either for roads or parking. In suburban development, roads typically use about 10-15% of the land, then every house has two parking spots. Some studies of American cities indicate levels in cites like Houston of over 60% of its land taken to serve the car. The thing we are depending on to move us around our cities has come to dominate them. It makes more sense to design our cities are for people, not cars.

3. Environmental impacts. Cars are major contributors to air quality problems and greenhouse gas compared to other modes. Sure, significant improvements have been made by regulation on nature of vehicle emissions, but some sources estimate 30000 people die annually in the USA from pollution it causes. Can’t vouch for that figure, but years of research by Griffith University’s Rod Simpson certainly is persuasive about the true human and economic cost of poor air quality, and of course, climate change impacts are well documented elsewhere.

4. Urban design. The car adversely affect how we design our cities. My good friend Gordon Price (that’s him in the picture with the hat on!) said when in Brisbane recently that traffic engineers were the urban designers of the twentieth century. Instead of town centre high streets built for walking and transit, we have built big boxes of shops surrounded by car parks and often called them town centres. Instead of grids for walkability and transit, we have built vast swathes of suburbs featuring curvilinear streets and culs de sac, which make it much harder to find your way, and a longer distance to get there. Many have written and spoken about this – I particularly Ilke the work of Jan Gehl and Brent Toderian on the topic.

5. Public safety. Car traffic kills a lot of people – in the USA, it’s about 89 people a day, often more than are killed by guns, but without the same community debate. In Australia, it’s about 1500 people a year, with about 4800 involves in road crashes daily and 550 of those injured. A significant proportion of those injured or killed aren’t in the cars, they are pedestrians, cyclists and motorcyclists, and in most cases those are the result of driver behaviour. In contrast, other forms of transport basically don’t kill people.

6. Budget impacts. Car travel is heavily subsided. Road maintenance and construction is typically a large part of government budgets, particularly local government. A lot of the subsidy is hidden by being built in to other costs, for example by planning laws requiring parking to be provided. Some think the level of subsidy is very high . The level of subsidy is certainly high when externalities are factored in. Public transport is subsidised too, although on a per trip basis is more efficient.

7. Driving affects us psychologically. We can become quite anti-social, judgemental, and mean when we drive. Tom Vanderbilt has done a lot of work in this area and Ben Elton has provided delightful commentary in several of his books. We behave much more civilly to each other when we walk. If we are walking down the street and accidentally almost bump into someone, our first response to to apologise, not abuse them, which is often the case when we drive. And as Charles Montgomery demonstrates in his excellent book Happy City, we hate commutes.

8. Cars are a strain on many household budgets. They cost a lot to own. By my calculations in Australia, the annual cost of running the average car is about 15-20% of the average wage. On that basis, we work about 2 hours a day to own one on average. There are similar calculations done for elsewhere. This means many cannot afford car ownership, but in car dominated cities cannot access other transport options, while low income households experience financial stress from car ownership.

9. Cars are the main cause of congestion. The main constraint to their convenience and independence is of course the extent that other cars get in our way, which is known as congestion. The Bureau of Transport and Regional Economics estimates that by 2020 car use will involve social costs of $20 billion annually in Australia. Many people still think the answer to congestion is to build more roads, but I am yet to see a city that has “road built” its way out of congestion. It’s more effective to invest in other modes that use less space and resources per trip, such as public and active transport, and to redesign communities to improve walkability (as Jeff Speck explains well).

10. The dream does not match the reality. We get sold one thing, and experience another. Have you ever seen car ads showing their product stuck in traffic, rather than the only vehicle funkily speeding along city streets or sweeping majestically along rural or coastal roads?

So there you have it. No wonder there is a real trend away from car use and ownership, and many are choosing to move back into the inner city where the transport options and liveability are richest. And finally, this is not a “war on the car” rant. In fact, my New Year’s resolution this year was actually a wish that we stop declaring war on anything. It seems to just make things worse!

The purpose of this piece is to simply set out some implications arising from the dependence on them that arose in the second half of the twentieth century, and a basis to demonstrate that designing our cities to give people more transport choices is good planning.

Greg Vann
June 2014 (updated June 2015)

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  2. davidsberry says:

    Reblogged this on davidsberry and commented:
    Usually right up there with the Americans as addicted to cars and laying out their cities to accommodate them more than people, the Australians seem to be considering a change of heart. With less space and more problems, why are Scots not ahead of them in integrated transport thinking?

  3. Reblogged this on Max Stafford's Kennel and commented:
    Wanted to re-blog this article as it makes so much good sense.
    When my own car gives up the ghost I won’t be able to afford a replacement now but it would be nice if there were realistic alternatives for those in the more rural parts of these islands. Westminster transport policy since the 1950s put paid to that though there is a glimmer of light to the north…

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  6. Paul Hill says:

    I enjoyed reading your piece and agree with many of your points. I really hope the people of this world will stop to think about what the impact the car is having. I live in Sydney and this is a terrible place dependent on the car.a big point you may want to add is how the greed for oil is based around the dependence on the car.i think your approach is soft and accepting of the car in our society. Change needs to be implemented by force. The government should remove cars completely from a radius area of the city. Greed and laziness is unfortunately in power.

    • Greg Vann says:

      Thanks Paul – appreciate the feedback & comments. There are certainly many powerful vested interests involved in promoting car dependence. Also think though, that there are a lot of people who will always chose the car as their first preference. Part of the reason they do is because of the subsidy and preferential treatment car travel has enjoyed over many decades…