One of the books that has most led me to becoming the public transport advocate that I am, is called Asphalt Nation: how the automobile took over America and how we can take it back by Jane Holtz Kay. In essence, it’s a damning indictment of auto-dependency – but one that’s backed up by a heck of a lot of research that turns it into a compelling read.

I will pluck out a few excellent paragraphs to give a taste of what the rest of the book is like – but I do strongly recommend people interested in transport matters either buy the book or at least get a hold of it for a read.

Anyway, without further delay, here’s what Ms Kay says about induced demand:

For decades traffic experts have observed the capacity of more highways to simply breed more traffic. “If you built it, they will come,” the popular phrase, is the bleak truth confirmed by science and history. “Generated traffic” is the professional phrase used to describe the traffic generated by increased roads. “Triple convergence,” another term, describes how more road space promotes more traffic in Anthony Downs’s Stuck in Traffic; that is, if you have more road at peak hours, more cars will converge for three reasons: Some will converge for the improved roadway (spatial convergence), some for the more convenient time (temporal convergence), and some from public transportation (modal convergence). Equally glum and mathematical, the so-called Braess’s paradox confirms that “by adding capacity to a crowded highway network you could actually slow things down”. Add the experience of history, and you see why our road building prompts even some federal highway officials to predict that congestion will quadruple in the next twenty years.

One can only wish that the concept of induced demand had reached transport planning thinking in this corner of the world. We might not be considering spending $860 million to widen the northwest motorway.

And on the amount of space in our cities we dedicate to the automobile:

The numbers are comprehensible. At rest, the automobile needs three parking space in its daily rounds – one at home, one at work and one in the shopping centre. In motion, going through the ritual of to-ing and fro-ing, driving along the street, circling through the garage to read that parking space, it needs more. The space for the car’s entering, the radius for its turning, and the dimensions for us sitting idle mean that asphalt competes for space with architecture and wins.

Put more mathematically, in an office building handing out one parking spot for every employee’s automobile – that’s 150-200 square feet per car, plus aisles and access lanes – adds 300 square feet per driving employee to the actual structure. In a shopping centre the five spaces for every thousand square feet  of store means fifteen hundred square feet of parking. Zoning and building codes insist on ever more space for ever more cars at home. Those one-, two-, and three-car garages define the design…

…On the larger scale, city by city, suburb by suburb, we have a hard-topped nation. From 30 to 50 percent of urban America is given over to the car, two-thirds in Los Angeles. In Houston the figure for the amount of asphalt is 30 car spaces per resident. The more distant suburbs are tougher to access but worse. On the outskirts, mall lots, defined by the needs at the most jam-packed periods of shopping at Thanksgiving and Christmas, stand empty much of the year. Ironically, this means that peak time requirements hurt rather than help the surroundings and make real estate pricier.

On the environmental effects of our cars:

While Americans are in denial, we have Germany to thank for a more thoughtful accounting. In the mid-1990s, researchers at the Environment and Forecasting Institute in Heidelberg pieced together a fuller portrait of car pollution and energy consumption. To do so, they divided the automobile’s life into three stages: first, its manufacture; second, its use on the road; and third, its disposal. Probing each period, the scientists diagrammed the car’s typical ten-year life. Taking a German middle-class car and tracing 85,000 miles of traveling, they calculated the making, operating and discarding to do their assessment.

Step one in the Heidelberg study charted the manufacture of the automobile: what was consumed in its creation? The environmental toll in extracting and carrying raw materials to the factory and transforming them to make the motor vehicle was astonishing to those who had reckoned only the life after birth. Before the motor vehicle had even left the plant, the car-to-be had produced 29 tons of waste and 1,207 million cubic yards of polluted air, the researchers reported. In fact, virtually all of the waste of the one-ton vehicle had occurred. Nearly half of its lifetime emissions of dirty air had fouled the atmosphere, and the vehicle had not yet traveled a single mile.

During step two, on the road, researchers reported that the automobile pumped another 1,330 million cubic yards of polluted air into the atmosphere and scattered around 40 pounds of worn bits of road surface, tire, and brake debris on the highway. Now the dream car was ready for the automobile graveyard.

In the third and final step, when the car’s useful life was over, there was still more air polluted in dumping it. At 133 million cubic yards, plus the PCBs and huydrocarbons that accompanied the burial, the car produced another package of 66 tons of carbon dioxide and 2.7 billion cubic yards of polluted air.

The high level of environmental impact from manufacturing cars is a big contributing factor to why I don’t think electric cars are our saviour. If anything, their manufacture will use even more resources and be even more polluting than you typical car these days.

The last extract I’m going to quote relates to the financial cost of our auto-dependency, and the hidden subsidies that accompany it. While these are US figures, the situation in NZ is relatively similar as only state highways are fully funded by petrol taxes – whereas local roads are a 50/50 split between petrol taxes and local rates.

The first [part of this cost] is what we pay out of our own pocketbooks. Every year we hand out $6,000 to own and operate a two-year-old vehicle, to pay for its gas, parking, tires, depreciation, maintenance, and insurance, plus tolls for the administering, building, repairing, and operating of roads. Direct costs are visible. We open our wallets and pull out more for our car dealers, mechanics, and gas stations than for our grocers. According to the US Bureau of Labour Statistics, the average American household allots almost a fifth of its budget for the car and its related costs. With 1.77 cars per household, we’re spending 6 percent more on the car than on income tax, making the car second only to the home in the family budget and close behind our mortgage fees. That’s only the visible half.

The second, the external costs, could be more. This second sum, $3000-$5000 (but as much as $9,400 by some estimates) reflects the indirect costs of market and nonmarket expenditures. Things we rarely consider bear a dollar sign: from parking facilities to police protection, from land consumed in sprawl to registry operations, environmental damage to uncompensated accidents. These intangibles weigh us down as we pay for the car’s share of municipal and state taxes and traffic congestion. According to one estimate, exactions from US cars and trucks carry three-quarters of a trillion dollars in hidden costs each year. Nationally, that’s 35 cents a mile, in dense urban zones up to a dollar and a half…

…By hiding roadway costs in general taxes, property taxes, and sales taxes, our transportation accounting cloaks the price and promotes demand.

The whole economy suffers from the automobile’s disproportionate and unseen costs. The Automobile Club of Southern California assesses the cost of driving a relatively new car fifteen thousand miles a year in Los Angeles at the national high of $7,127. Examined closely, however, that is only a faction of the total expense. Parking given to downtown employees, for one example, is an eleven-cents-a-mile subsidy to the driver, sixteen times more than the federal gasoline tax he or she pays for the commute.

I could go on forever with good an interesting sections from the book, but I really suggest that you read the whole thing yourself.

Share this


  1. A car in New Zealand represents for the owner
    1) A symbol of wealth and acceptance
    2) Right of passage for younger folk
    3) Freedom

    The list goes on.

    These are intangible emotive virtues in grained within the national physic over a century and inter generational.
    A car to a kiwi in 2009 has the same status as owning a horse in 1889
    A statistic review no matter how compelling…will do nothing to change this.
    The dilemma you face is not education of the people. But what can you replace the car with

  2. Well I think there is a difference between owning a car and being hugely dependent on it. Germany has a similar car ownership rate to NZ yet is less car dependent in my opinion. Though I agree there are a lot of intangible attractions of the car. I think it is worth pointing out the costs though.

  3. Education at an early age at school is good place to start.Teaching the benefits of walking / cycling and public transport. Most would argue ..keep this topic out of schools…
    But if my young 6 year old said to me…can we walk to the shops together instead of the car….can we catch the ferry into the city instead of the car…..
    What parent would say no?

  4. I figure that the cost of owning a car would have very similar costs to using public transport…
    $250 rego
    $45 warrant
    $500 maintenance (est)
    $250 insurance (depends on age and history)

    That’s more than $1000 a year, and I haven’t even mentioned the cost of the car and the petrol. Most people borrow money to buy cars and often end up in a situation were there loan is far greater than the value of their car. I often talk to friends about the benefits of having one in a relationship and the massive amount of money that can be saved by couples through only owning one car instead of two. Why pay all the transport costs twice, when a bit of common sense means you only have to pay it once.

  5. It is an excellent book. I plan to do a series of posts on recommended reads, though I would also appreciate suggestions from others in case there are books out there that I have not come across. The current exchange rate is pretty kind for purchasing off Amazon

  6. Extract from the Herald online today:
    CANBERRA – Australia could become a world leader in the design and production of zero-emission electric cars within the next decade, a government report says.

    The federal government has joined with the Victorian government to predict trends in the local car industry leading up to 2020.

    It predicts that from 2012, the adoption of electric cars will accelerate.

    “Through advanced green car initiatives with global export potential, Australia can become one of the world’s leading designers and producers of competitive, large, powerful, zero-emission passenger vehicles,” the report released on Monday said.

    Question : is the author advocating – indictment of auto-dependency on CO2 emitting automobiles.
    Or the indictment of automobiles full stop.
    Significant difference in political position

  7. I think it is a bit of both. Of course electric cars are better for the environment, however they will not fix all the problems mentioned above. Critically, their manuacture will still be pretty nasty on the environment – particularly as the batteries have some rare and nasty metals/chemicals in them.

    In terms of effects on land-use planning I don’t think electric cars will help much. They will still need super wide motorways and zillions of parking spaces.

  8. Electric cars will only improve local emissions and reduce oil dependency. However in Australia at least, they will increase overall emissions and increase fossil fuel dependency, as almost all electricity comes from burning brown coal.

  9. Cities and its people evolve
    Enviromental Literacy will be the driver of change
    May I suggest the enclosed.
    It will give you a holistic view of transport including auto dependency

    “Air pollution science for the 21st century By Jill Austin, Peter Brimblecombe, William Sturges”

  10. NZ is fairly lucky in that respect as so much of our power comes from hydro, geothermal etc. So in Australia electric cars will actually make emissions worse? Is that because oil is more efficient than coal?

  11. A lecture at University of Auckland for those interested…

    (I have nothing to do with organising this – merely passing on relevant information….)

    Thursday 15 October
    Professor Avishai Ceder, Civil and Environmental Engineering: Public transport: Innovations in operations planning to bridge the gap between users, practitioners and academia.
    7-8pm Lecture Theatre 1.439, School of Engineering, 20 Symonds Street.

    The motivation for the subject presented is to bridge the world of the researchers, the world of the practitioners, and the world of the public-transport users. The presentation will cover a description of the planning process for public-transport operations. It will provide an overview and a critique of currently used service worldwide and in Auckland, pointing out those elements that warrant research and those for which administrative decisions are sufficient. It will attempt to show how to deal with and to solve in a practical manner current public-transport-service dilemmas and confusions follows Pablo Picasso, who said: “I do not seek, I find.”

    Methods and procedures will be demonstrated not only for improving public-transport design through the provision of an attractive and viable service, but also for reducing its cost and increasing efficiency from the operator perspective. Finally it will be pointed out that improving public-transport routing and coordination is one of the ingredients of resolving successfully Auckland’s traffic struggle. It was Galileo Galilei who said: “Science proceed more by what it has learned to ignore […past plans] than what it takes into account.”

  12. Fortunately, even with some of the most polluting power stations on the planet, emissions from electric cars will be less than from petrol ones (I can’t say whether this includes whole of life accounting though – I suspect it doesn’t).

    There are also the costs from pollution. Car pollution kills 400 people in Auckland alone, every year. If that was figured into costs (as far as I can remember, the “value of a statistical life” in NZ transport planning is $1.3 million), then the equation would change quite dramatically again.

    Noise pollution has very real negative effects on health, which can be costed or at least approximated, and again this is not figured into planning in any real way, as far as I know.

    Mobility adds great value to communities. But it needs to be delivered in a way that minimises other costs.

  13. Yes Victorian brown coal is the worst fossil fuel source there is in terms of emissions and carbon output.

    Burning coal to turn steam turbines to generate electricity which is transmitted to the city then transformed to consumer voltage to charge batteries in a car is much less efficient that refining crude oil into petrol, distributing that to petrol stations and burning that in cars.

  14. I seem to recall a recent scientific paper emanating from Australia that suggests a more accurate monetary value for life is around $6 million as opposed to the figure you cite is used in NZ transport planning. As with most transport planning estimates used in this country, monetary figures, social and environmental costs, etc that might be used to argue against things like more motorways are significantly undercosted. Sadly, no amount of academic argument seems to affect the employment of these weighted estimates by the Ministry of Transport, etc.

  15. Molten salt batteries are a class of primary cell
    and secondary cell high temperature electric battery that use molten salts as an electrolyte
    . They offer both a higher energy density through the proper selection of reactant pairs as well as a higher power density by means of a high conductivity molten salt electrolyte
    They are used in services where high energy density and high power density are required.
    These features make rechargeable molten salt batteries a promising technology for powering electric vehicles And it’s totally ‘green,’ molten salt is a non-toxic, readily available material, similar to commercial fertilizers.”

    Nick R
    Given that zero emmision vehicles will eventually become standard.That 100% green Battery cell technolgy will be avaliable by 2020
    Is the argument now based around the manufacture of vehicles and the source supply of power?. Or the elimination of personal mobility itself?

  16. Working out ways to ensure that electric vehicles are manufactured in a more environmentally friendly manner would seem to me like an important task. Also, ensuring that their power comes from a non-polluting renewable source seems essential if there’s to be much point at all in electric vehicles making a difference to the environment.

    In terms of ‘eliminating personal mobility’, clearly a balance needs to be struck. At the moment I believe we build our cities far too much around the motor vehicle and far too little around people. Perhaps that single biggest reasons I’m supportive of public transport is that from what I’ve seen it contributes to better urban environments. It seems like perhaps we focus too much on getting from A to B and too little on what A and B are actually like – or what’s in between the two places. That’s my issue.

  17. “It seems like perhaps we focus too much on getting from A to B and too little on what A and B are actually like” indeed. The main error in the statement is that “we” don’t build anything. Cities grow organically and spontaneously, through the millions of decisions of their residents and visitors. Everytime you take money from then to spend on something they wouldn’t have chose to spend it on themselves, you have an impact.

    I might suggest that you too focus too much on getting from A to B, if people go by car, then why should anyone else care, as long as they pay for it? The whole of eastern Europe had highly planned and organised cities completely focused on public transport, and the result was at best stagnation, at worst dystopian hellholes. The US by contrast had highly planned cities focused entirely on building roads to connect suburban housing developments. What happens when cities are left to people paying for what they use and living and working where they see fit?

  18. I might suggest that you too focus too much on getting from A to B, if people go by car, then why should anyone else care, as long as they pay for it?

    I’m sure I answered that question in great detail in a previous post 😉

  19. The real value of foresight work is : to know as much as we can about the present, and the forces and factors changing it, to be able to preconceive the full range of possible future outcomes that pertain, in order to make decisions today towards an outcome we prefer ” 2025: author Adam Gordon”

    My significant green backbone aside allow me to Dialogue:

    The vision of Auckland in becoming one of the worlds great cities in the 21st century will be realised in its wealth creation coupled with its out door lifestyle.Ensuring we are the city of choice for future migrants
    Public and Personal mobility governered by personal choice is what will drive a succesful intergrated transport network.The life blood of any great city

    Auckland needs to remain flexible.If you limit its future within boarders fixed by monobasic philosophies such as maximum urban area and public prioiritised transport.Then you risk stagnation and eventual marginalisation .

    However….as a Lecturer once said:
    “You don’t have to be right, you just have to be interesting!”

  20. I’m a big believer in choice and personal freedom, the two tenants of the National Party… That’s why I find my parties transport policy so confusing, how is building roads so people have to have a car and cannot choose to live a car free life personal freedom..?

    We need a PLANNED balanced transport network, not the car centric one we have today…

  21. “Cities grow organically and spontaneously, through the millions of decisions of their residents and visitors.”

    I would say cities grow iteratively, but not organically and certainly not spontaneously, but by the plans and actions of its inhabitants.

    “What happens when cities are left to people paying for what they use and living and working where they see fit?”

    Well if you ask the Baron Keynes, they better themselves in the short term but make things worse for everyone in the long term.

    How is it that building a road based transport network is some how free, somehow it doesn’t directly influence land use and the shape of the city, somehow it has no influence on where people live or where they work? Why is it only non-road infrastructure that does these things?

    Too true Jezza, I remember reading an ACT rant on their website about how labour and the green hated freedom because the ‘wanted to force you onto public transport’, and that ACT would make you free by not having any public transport. How is forcing you into the car any less free than forcing you onto a bus? Surely having both would be most free.

  22. @ Jezza I believe you meant to say ‘two tenets of the National party’, not ‘tenants’ although Nick R might think something along those lines given his landlord status.

    @ Nick R Far be it for me to support ACT in any way, shape or form but I do remember Rodney Hide turning up at a CBT public meeting last year admitting that he’d caught a train to attend the meeting and that he did actually believe in public transport because if he did otherwise his mother, now resident in Matamata and unable to drive, would disown him.

  23. admin
    This has been a worthy blog thread of merit with significant input of diverse but passionate and enlightened input.
    Before it withers into the past. Maybe a few words from yourself to summarise the outcomes?

  24. I have a bit of a follow up post that’ll be up tomorrow morning, but effectively I think that we need to balance the need to shift people around a city while ensuring the city is not overly degraded by that need. To me, public transport has a lot more potential to solve that problem than simply providing more and more roadspace for cars.

    But yeah, more here:

    And I have found the discussion quite fascinating. Hopefully a few people might buy the book!

  25. Wow. I just came across this in researching for a document. I’d love to keep in touch.
    Jane H. Kay’s book has also had a pivotal effect on my life turning me from a moderate bicycle commuter into a staunch bike transportation advocate.
    I was lucky to have my copy autographed by her when she gave a talk in my city.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *