In my post on Wednesday about the impact that garages have on neighbourhoods there ended up being quite a bit of discussion on the term auto-dependency. Many readers might not fully understand what the term means so with this post I thought I would take a look at it, how it can be measured and Auckland compares. Many readers wrote some excellent comments about what meaning however this one from John Smith is superb.

Let’s distinguish the meanings of ‘auto-dependent’ as applying to cities and individuals.

An auto-dependent city is one that has developed in a way that makes it difficult or impossible for most people to access the city’s amenities with reasonable convenience without a car.

In an auto-dependent city, most individuals are auto-dependent. Individuals may be able to reduce their personal auto-dependence – for example, by moving to a more transit rich inner area – but in an auto-dependent city those options are relatively costly and available to only a minority, because the less auto-dependent locations are relatively few.

The things that make a city auto-dependent are overwhelmingly a result of communal decisions made over many years (public planning policies controlling density, landuses, subdivision design, road and public transport investment….) People who live in an auto-dependent city cannot opt out of the effects of that since, even if they try to minimise their personal auto-dependence, they will find the cost higher than it would be in a less auto-dependent city.

Individuals may be able to reduce their auto-dependence fairly quickly, if they can afford to and accept the other lifestyle compromises needed. An auto-dependent city becomes less so (that is, increases the overall opportunities for individuals to choose less auto-dependence) only slowly, as the relevant policies change.

In short, we are talking about population features here. The fact that individuals may be able to choose their level of auto-dependence does not negate the validity of auto-dependent as describing *cities*.

Todd Litman from the Victoria Transport Policy Institute (that’s Victoria, British Colombia) has this excellent piece on the causes and implications of auto-dependency.

Automobile dependency (also called automobile oriented transportation and land use patterns) refers to transportation and land use patterns that favor automobile access and provide relatively inferior alternatives. It means that people find it difficult to reach services and activities without using an automobile.

The alternative to Automobile Dependency is not a total lack of private vehicles (called Carfree Planning), rather, it is a multi-modal transport system (often called Transit-Oriented Development), meaning that people have various Transport Options from which to choose, that these options are integrated effectively to provide a high degree of accessibility even for non-drivers. This allows people to use the best mode for each trip: walking and cycling to reach local destinations, public transport for travel on major travel corridors, and automobile when it is truly optimal.

Automobile Dependency is a matter of degree. Table 1 compares various attributes of Automobile Dependency . There are few places in the world that are totally automobile dependent (that is, driving is the only form of transport). Even areas that appear to be highly Automobile Dependent often have a significant amount of walking, cycling and transit travel among certain groups or in certain areas, although use of these modes tends to be undercounted by conventional transportation planning (Measuring Transportation).

Auto-dependency Atributes

Now I’ll come back to how we perform on these indicators shortly.

There’s a lot of information in the VPTI link about just what auto-dependency is and how you can tell if you really are auto-dependant (which primarily means trying to live your normal life without using a car for two weeks and seeing how easy or hard that is). But how has auto-dependency formed both overseas and here in NZ. By in large there is a self-reinforcing cycle that occurs as shown below.

Auto-dependency cycle

In Auckland we saw vehicle ownership rates start to increase at the same time as we were removing travel options by pulling out the trams. We also started building new suburbs with street network patterns that made it difficult to serve effectively by public transport. At some point (and I don’t know when) we created rules that required lots of off street parking though minimum parking requirements which encouraged away from the existing city centre and helped encourage driving further aided by what is now common commercial developments that pushed activity away from the streets with car parking given top priority. Increases in traffic then lead to greater investment in roads to try and address issues but only helped to further encourage driving by making it easier.

So what are some of the downsides auto-dependency? Well there can be quite a few including

  • Infrastructure Costs –  we end up spending more money on infrastructure like bigger roads and more car parking
  • Reduced Land Use Accessibility – land use becomes more dispersed making it even more difficult to get to by alternative methods
  • Reduced Transport Options – it’s harder for people to choose alternative transport options, for example ones that could save them money like walking or cycling.
  • PT System Cost Efficiency – less people using the PT system means that system loses its economies of scale requiring the addition or increases in subsides needed to keep the system working.
  • Increased traffic crashes
  • Health impacts – there are links between vehicle use and obesity, stress and other health problems.
  • Congestion – more people having to drive and more chances of there being congestion.
  • More fuel use and emissions
  • Poorer land use patterns – encourages more dispersed land use (sprawl)
  • Restricting economic development – increased vehicle use is often more expensive than alternatives (even poor ones) and every dollar spent on a car over and above other options is one that can’t be spent at shops or for services etc. Note: that doesn’t man that vehicle use for business activities can’t have positive impacts.

So there are quite a few potential downsides. At the end of the day it’s not about saying that people can’t or shouldn’t drive but that people should have realistic choices in how they get around (and realistic doesn’t mean a bus every hour). Below is a great example of someone who loves cars, owns a lot of them and even is doing a web series partly based inside a car but who isn’t auto-dependant. On reddit Jerry Sienfield was asked:

What, above all other things, is the neatest most fascinating and cool thing you get to do on a daily basis?

To which he replied

WOW. First of all, GREAT question.

That I get to do on a daily basis? Probably walk to work. I think that’s about the coolest thing that there is. Or take my bike. If you can walk to work or take your bike on a daily basis, I think that’s just about the coolest thing that there is. Every morning I listen to the traffic on the radio, and they talk about how they are jammed and I just laugh. I love traffic. I love traffic reports because I’m not in any of them.

Now coming back to the auto-dependant attributes table above. Here’s how Auckland rates.

  • Vehicle Ownership – 622 cars per 1,000 people. I’ve only used light passenger numbers so that doesn’t include  light commercial, motorcycles, heavy trucks or buses.
  • Vehicle Travel – 8,147 km per capita. This is down from a peak of 8,559 km per capita in 2006
  • Vehicle Trips – 79%
  • Automobile commute mode split – 78%. It would be another 11% higher if passengers were counted too.

For all of the other measures my best guess would be that Auckland is either in the high or medium to high category making us a fairly highly auto-dependant city. In coming years I think the new electric trains, new fare structure and new bus network should all combine to really help address the PT alternatives that do exist so at least we’re kind of on the right path.

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  1. Great post! I think in a nutshell auto dependency is when you feel like a second class citizen because you’re not in a car.

  2. Great post Matt! I think there is just something between Car/free and Multi Modal, as in a multi modal more than 50% of trips are made by car. Yet most of the European cities, which are then listed in the examples car free, have well above the Car ownerships of 250 (probably of fleet cars), but definitely not 50% of trips are done in a private vehicle, so would be interesting how they got the thresholds.

    For the downsides of car dependency you should add Increased consumer prices. Car dependent cities are as mentioned low dense, thus all retail (banks, groceries etc.) do not have large customer bases, so they have to divide overhead costs among less people.

  3. I think lots of kiwis want a garage for more than just cars – bikes kayaks, sports gear, gardening gear, cars, seperate office. But design is key in high density – inner city areas. An old villa in Central Nelson we stayed in had an alley with all the garages efficiently serving a row of homes in a Ponsonby style along the street. One of main issues with garages and density and shared driveways is child safety. I’m thinking of a traditional fenced home on 1/4 acre, then subdivided with another family house on back that had also had a 2 car garage and boat. And the developer removed all the fencing so the kids in all three homes now have no fenced yards and play on the shared drive. So I like the idea of parking being clustered but i think a garage is very useful in the burbs. But design is key.

    1. Infil housing can be a major issue as opposed to a planned development where garaging can be put in it’s own area. That being said, it is the operator of the motor vehicle who has the responsibility to ensure no children are at risk of being injured. As most of these people in driveway incidents are family members, they are usually given pity and a slap over the wrist with a wet bus ticket. Not enough to remind all people that the driver is responsible for their actions.

      1. True. The driver is always responsible. But having a new baby is the craziest most sleep deprived time in your life. Where you are on a steep learning gradient and exhausted.

        I think we need to stop blaming and start thinking like volvo. Volvo don’t say the drivers at fault. They say how can design result in zero crashes and they are aiming for a zero deaths in their cars philposophy. They acknowledge human error is inevitable. Education is important but I think we need to spend more on designing and building safe infrastructure (cycleways and infil housing). Build Infrastructure for zero deaths that should be our mantra.

        1. I said a long time ago that every car should have reversing sensors as standard and retrofit them to all cars. That would alleviate the issue but imagine the outcry.

        2. Yep. I agree to sensors. They make a huge difference. And they pay for themselves with less trips to the panelbeaters. People aren’t too keen on pool fences either. But they enforce those even if you are have a pool next to a river. And just felt like new home and road builds are an opportunity to build in safe design with relatively little extra cost.

  4. The key thing about the ‘cycle of auto-dependency’ is that it’s a CYCLE.

    It’s simply not meaningful to step onto the circle at one point and say, ‘Everything behind me is cause, and everything in front of me is effect’, because the things in front go round the circle and come back behind!

    This is the key point missed by commenters who say ‘Our cities have become auto-dependent because most people choose to drive.’ You can equally say, ‘Most people choose to drive because our cities are auto-dependent.’ Both are true up to a point; neither are particularly helpful in answering the questions ‘Are we happy with the way the city is, and if not what do we want to do about it?’

    Certainly cities like Auckland were set on their auto-dependent course largely by the post World War 2 growth of car ownership, which influenced key decisions. But a lot of other things were also involved: academic and planning fashions (garden city reacting against 19th century slums); utopian visions of the car-based future, which now seem so ridiculous; special interest lobbying (property developers, road builders); bureaucratic mediocrity (cookie cutter planning and building regulations that favoured the car solution as the line of least resistance); downgrading of public transport (destruction of the tramways)…. Where the other things have differed, the results have been different. Other low density rich western cities have had a similar trend of car ownership, but have not become so auto-dependent.

    For the main period of growth of car ownership it may be reasonable to think of that as a cause, and the political decisions that created auto-dependence as an effect. *But once the cycle becomes self-perpetuating, that is no longer so.* There is no reason to think that the cycle of auto-dependence any longer reflects the will of the majority. Where we are now simply reflects where we’ve come from. There is good reason to think that the future should and will be different (declining car use; inner city rejuvenation….). We should be planning for it.

    The folks who are happy with auto-dependency like to portray it as the inevitable result of high car ownership – like the growth of a plate of bacteria is the result of high nutrient levels. But cities are not bacteria – they are complex cultural artefacts overwhelmingly shaped by the conscious decisions of human beings acting as communities through political institutions, with all the frailties that that implies. A few key decisions, which might have tipped one way or the other for the chanciest reasons (for example, to abandon rail in favour of motorways, for Auckland) can have long term effects. There is nothing inevitable about any particular outcome.

  5. In the meantime, I always walk around the back of the car before I back out and my son has been taught not to stand behind cars and he was never allowed to play around cars. The number of kids that are allowed to play around or even climb all over cars, this giving a ‘no danger’ mindset is incredible.

    1. Although I do the same it is not guaranteed safety. I know of one case personally, where a child was killed by a person who entered the wrong driveway and then backed onto the grass area in order to turn around. The children were playing on their own front lawn safely until this point.

  6. Its a good sign that Aucklands CBD is closer to ‘carfree’ than ‘auto dependant’. Many Aucklanders visit the CBD at least occasionally, and most (I know it was 59% a few years ago) use public transport to get there. This probably means that a huge cross section of the population does at least occasionally give public transport a try, and as public transport improves many will eventually notice that the system is good enough to use for other destinations. I also believe the CBD is quickly developing in to a fine example of how easy journeys can be and how much better places can feel if people arent reliant on a car to get there.

  7. I think that a lot of the accidents where kids are getting run over tend to happen on properties with a long driveway and multiple dwellings. So basically often blocks of units. Some state housing also tends to have quite long drive ways and no fencing on the property (or just a fence along the front, facing the road).

    I have wondered whether if you required body corporates to fence off the driveways in blocks of units/apartments with a child proof fence this might help solve the problem?

    Kind of conflicted about this solution: On the one hand it could have a negative effect, constraining peoples’ free movement about their house and also meaning that more fences get put into our neighbourhoods which isn’t really good for urban design etc. On the other hand, the children most at risk are under about 6 and so the fences don’t need to be high.

    From a quality of life perspective, it would be really awesome for busy parents in units and apartments who could let their kids out to run around the garden (or scruffy green space, such as it is) without having to watch them constantly to ensure they don’t get run over.

    1. Actually it’s the opposite, at least most driveway accidents involve parents running over their own children which suggests it isn’t an issue of multiple dwellings on one long driveway, more like short driveways where a child can get right being a car and the parent isn’t expecting to look for anyone behind. On a long shared driveway you tend to have a longer sightline and expect that there may be other people using it, other cars at the least.

    2. Here is our green space. There is roughly an acre and includes a kids playground. The photo is taken from my deck and the green space is just across a 30km/h street. People stop and have conversations in the street, that’s how nice it is. A far cry from your standard residential street. Denser living with more outside living than pretty much any suburban house.

      Did I mention the pool 🙂

  8. Um pretty sure I read somewhere it was more common in rental housing. But I don’t think that precludes people running over their own kids at all. I didn’t mean people were hitting other people’s children. Just that maybe is more common on properties where the driveway is not fencded off from the garden.

    1. I would say it’s more common that shared driveways are fenced off from the garden. Most single houses seem to have a driveway coming right in the front.

  9. “Probably walk to work. I think that’s about the coolest thing that there is”….. I’m guessing this guy doesn’t get out much 🙁

    There are a lot of cool things to do – walking to work wouldn’t feature on many peoples list though. From a transport view I’d argue sitting in the drivers seat of my car, pressing the big round crystal glass start button and watching the lights on my dash light up with the words..”Power – Beauty – Soul” beats walking to work or catching the bus.

    Maybe he mistakes the words ‘cool’ for ‘koolaide’

    1. If you were at Hampton Downs, that would be cool. Driving to work, for me anyway, is a tedious exercise. My 15 laps in a midget was cool.

    2. Another criteria to add to VTPI’s definition of car dependency: Inability to conceptualise life without a steering wheel.

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