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The end of the car dependent empire is upon us

Curtin University professors Peter Newman and Jeff Kenworthy have released a new book on the transformation of our urban transport modes, The End of Automobile Dependence: How Cities are Moving Beyond Car-Based Planning. The third in a series of books on automobile dependence the pair have completed over the past 25 years, it explores phenomenons such as “peak car use”, the new era of urban rail, central cities being revitalised and the reversal of suburban sprawl.

Newman and Kenworthy look at how we can accelerate a planning approach to designing urban environments that can function reliably and conveniently on alternative modes, with a refined and more civilized automobile playing a very much reduced and manageable role in urban transportation. Professor Newman last week told Radio National of the huge benefits of a modal shift towards public transport. The moving potential of one lane of freeway for cars, he said, was 2000 people an hour, compared with 5000-8000 an hour for a busway, 20,000 an hour for light rail and 50,000 an hour for heavy rail.

Following is the book’s preface.

The Trilogy

In 1989 we published Cities and Automobile Dependence based on a decade of data collection and a short lifetime of urban experiences. We had both lived in a city based around the car and had glimpsed that it was not as edifying as cities could be. Twenty-five years later we are convinced. But now we have an army of supporters and cities everywhere are showing that it is a mistake to give over cities to the car. We all know cars are useful, but there is a big difference when cities are built to depend on them as they are good servants but bad masters.

Public transport offers a much more efficient use of road space.

Public transport offers a much more efficient use of road space.

Perhaps more importantly in 1989 we also published “Gasoline Consumption and Cities” in the Journal of the American Planning Association. This had been rejected when first submitted but a new editor had found it in the files and was immediately intrigued by the data showing the large differences between the world’s cities in their automobile dependence. The publication released a storm of outrage. How could we attack the American shibboleth of a car-based culture? We suggested that cities were not so much car-dependent because they were wealthy and could afford it, but because they had prioritised the car in every aspect of their physical development, in particular through urban sprawl, the development of urban freeways and ignoring walking, cycling and urban transit. They therefore needed to reorient their transportation priorities, and to re-urbanise rather than suburbanise.

The emotional reaction was something to behold when in the next issue of JAPA we were rocked by the rhetoric of Gordon and Richardson (1989):

“The idea of planners turning our world upside down in pursuit of a single-minded goal is as horrible as it is alien. [Newman and Kenworthy’s] world is the Kafkaesque nightmare that Hayek (1945) always dreaded, a world in which consumers have no voice, relative prices have no rule, and planners are tyrants… NK have written a troubling paper. Their distortions are not innocent, because the uninformed may use them as ammunition to support expensive plans for central city revitalisation and rail transit projects or stringent land use controls in a futile attempt to enforce urban compactness… Perhaps Newman and Kenworthy would be well advised to seek out another planet, preferably unpopulated, where they can build their compact cities from scratch with solar powered transit.”

Although we were severely taken aback by such responses, we slowly realised that there was a lot at stake in the politics of land development and transportation priorities underneath the critique. Indeed the horrible nightmare future they railed against seemed pretty good to us – and to an increasing group of urban dwellers worldwide. Wherever we went in car dependent cities there were NGOs and local governments using our book and papers to show why and how they must build rail projects and revitalise central cities. The talks we gave throughout North America, Australia, Asia, Europe and the people we met, revealed a mounting tsunami of protest about the shortcomings of cities built predominantly around the automobile. It gradually became clearer that the vision we had put forward was not as alien as Gordon and Richardson had attempted to cast it, not even in the USA. Thus we continued to gather data, life experiences and a lot of telling visual evidence about how cities could deal with automobile dependence.

This second stage in our work culminated in 1999 with the publication of Sustainability and Cities: Overcoming Automobile Dependence, which was launched at the White House. There were many stories of hope from cities around the world seeking to modify their automobile dependence. The book has helped to set the agenda for city planning ever since.

In this second period a lot of changes took place. For example, New Urbanism, Smart Growth and the Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act of 1991 (ISTEA) all came to the fore as part of a major urban reform movement in the United States designed to produce the more compact, transit-oriented development patterns and provide funding for the more extensive rail-based transit systems we had spoken about in our original book and article. Nations and cities everywhere are now competing to reduce their car dependence in central city revitalisation, new transit projects and associated transit orientated developments (TODs).

The third stage in the trilogy is now appearing. We have a new phenomenon where cities are showing “peak car use”, urban rail is thriving, central cities have revitalised and are attracting young people to live, work and play, and suburban sprawl is reversing. Many cities (Vancouver, Los Angeles, Washington…) have become more polycentric with significant sub-centres based around rail transit systems built in the last 30 years or so. Some cities such as San Francisco and Seoul are even looking to how urban rail, in conjunction with tearing down of major freeway infrastructure, can help to revitalise urban environments (such as the Cheongyecheon river restoration and ongoing similar projects in Seoul). Walking and cycling are growing again in many cities, along with ubiquitous bike sharing schemes, which have led to central cities like Melbourne, Seattle, Chicago and New York having new investment and vitality. Privately owned electrically assisted bicycles, which greatly extend the comfortable range of a normal pushbike (Pedelecs), are on the rise and are increasingly being used in bike sharing schemes.

Change is faster than we predicted

We are thus in a new era that has come much faster than we had predicted: the decline of automobile dependence. Perhaps the only horror from Gordon and Richardson not to happen is the “stringent land use controls in a futile attempt to enforce urban compactness”; instead it is the opposite as well located suburbs fight desperately to stop market forces redeveloping at higher densities by enforcing low density controls. There isn’t much “solar powered transit” either, just a few examples like Calgary with its light rail system run on wind energy (Ride the Wind) and several Indian rail projects are to be solar powered.

So this is the third book in the Trilogy on Automobile Dependence. Like all good trilogies we have seen the rise of an empire, in this case that of the automobile, the peak of its power and now we are seeing the decline of that empire.

We have called this the “end” of automobile dependence rather than just the “decline” for several reasons. We should emphasise that we are not claiming the end of the “automobile”, only the elimination of dependence on it. This is a very big difference. Most developed cities are showing a decline in vehicle kilometres travelled per capita and even total automobile travel, but are still dominated by the car. In these cities there is still no real option other than a car in most parts of the city. We believe all cities that are to be competitive, viable and sustainable cities will need to go beyond this to a future where the vast majority of urban areas have options that can mean people do not have to use a car for all journeys. In other words they will no longer be dependent on the car. This will mean the end of automobile dependence has happened.

Already we are seeing that some parts of cities – the old walking and transit city areas – are having a revival as they have become the site of all the knowledge economy jobs that require highly efficient land use and highly intensive modes servicing them – rail, bikes and walking. Those areas of the city where cars dominate have an economy that is mostly oriented to consumption rather than creative, innovative jobs and services. With such an economic driver the end of automobile dependence is not likely to reverse.

It will take considerable analysis to show what we mean, but most people can tell when they go to a city where automobile dependence is not built into its very fabric. It is different in quality. There is likely to still be a lot of cars in all future cities, they are likely to be carbon-free but in our view they will be part of a mobility system that enables freedom and connection, but not dependence. This is the end of automobile dependence and it most of all means an end to the 20th century planning paradigm that assumes car dependence in all of its rules, planning tools and visions for urban development. The book will therefore set out to show how cities are rapidly moving beyond car-based planning.

The End of Automobile Dependence: How Cities are Moving Beyond Car-based Planning is available from Island Press (quote 2END for 20 per cent discount), and from November will be available in Australia from New South Books (quote AUTOMOBILE20 for a 20 per cent discount).

Comments

3 Responses to “The end of the car dependent empire is upon us”

  • GS Lee says:

    What’s next? Multi-modal transport options for the lay public.

    At the moment car dependent cities do not let residents have a viable choice. Imagine having to choose between taking 20 minutes by car and 2 hours by public transport. It is a Hobson’s choice.

    To move away from car dependence, we need 1. Sufficient density in public transport infrastructure 2. Mixed use zoning replacing single use zoning 3. Sufficient density of population 4. Extreme connectivity 5. Public officials that truly recognizes the economic cost & folly of car dependence and implements policies that align with, encourage and support all of the above.

    It is only when the option at peak period is between 20 minutes by public transport and 1 hour by car would we see real choices for the public. That is exactly why public transport is such a resounding success in cities like Hong Kong and even upstart like Shanghai.

  • Ryan Falconer says:

    Peter and Jeff. I have ordered my copy and look forward to reading it. I am curious to see if you address the emerging role and potential implications of autonomous transportation. I don’t see a lot of literature – and there should be a focus on this issue – that explores how AVs could reshape fundamentally our urban spaces. What do they mean (potentially) for active transport? Could they usher in a new era of hyper mobility and decentralisation? What do they mean for streetscapes?

  • Dushko Bogunovich says:

    Dear Peter and Jeff, congratulations on another important book.

    As you know, from my Auckland perspective I am not so convinced the car love affair has peaked yet. But then you make it clear that you are not claiming ‘the end of the automobile’ – ‘only the elimination of dependence on it’.

    A fair point and a worthwhile goal, even if many places we are not there yet.

    Yes, cars are getting better all the time and in ten years from now they might be clean enough, smart enough and expensive-to-run enough, to end our current habitual ab-/mis-/over-use.
    But the real question is – if the car dependence is behind us, what is ahead of us? As a philosopher said, the real question is not ‘freedom from’ – the real question is ‘freedom for what?’.

    I suspect that after the car-dependency era is over, it will not be the ‘era of public transport’. More likely, it will be the era of ubiquitous internet, energy independence and decentralized utilities. That will most probably re-ignite the centrifugal forces. Forces similar to those generated by the car, which created the sprawl we have today.

    So what’s the prospect? I fear that, under the worst case scenario, the reinvigorated decentralisation might produce the mother of all sprawls, rather than cosy, PT-oriented towns and villages, and densified suburbs.

    I am not advocating it, just saying that might happen. I see early indications of this in a radius of about 100 km around Auckland.

    My fear is that, while the local government’s attention and energy are firmly focused on increasing densities in cities and on the provision of necessary infrastructure for that, the main show will be somewhere else – in the vast, amorphous peri-urbia of the city…

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