Is it a good idea to have a transport system oriented primarily around the car? Cars are useful for a lot of things, but is it a good idea for most people to use them for most trips?

This is a practical question rather than a philosophical one. Over the last 70 years, different countries have taken very different paths. Some countries, particularly the US but also New Zealand to a lesser degree, have invested heavily to make driving the go-to transport option. Others, such as Germany and the Netherlands, have taken a different course, with a greater focus on public transport, walking, and cycling.

In a 2015 CityLab article, Eric Jaffe tallies up the results for the US and Germany. Here’s the scorecard:

To summarise, Americans have a transport system that:

  • Requires them to spend more on transport, because they own more cars, travel longer distances, and hardly use zero-cost transport modes like walking and cycling
  • Requires their government to spend more to build roads and provide public transport subsidies to compensate for all the underpriced roads
  • Kills all types of road users at much higher rates
  • Contributes to a serious obesity epidemic, which in turn jacks up healthcare costs
  • Adds greenhouse gases to the atmosphere at a much faster rate.

Basically, a car-dependent transport system is a bad deal on pretty much every level. Germans do plenty of driving, but cars are part of a much more balanced transport system. As a result, their advantages are maximised and their disadvantages mitigated.

As Jaffe observes, differences in transport choices can be observed at pretty much every spatial scale in the two countries. Although Germany has its share of suburbs, people living in them have a much greater range of choices and much less need to hop in the car to do everything.

The data come from a recent comparison of German and U.S. planning approaches led by transport scholar Ralph Buehler of Virginia Tech. Drilling down to the city level, Buehler and collaborators find more of the same driving trends in an analysis of two large metros from each country: Washington, D.C., and Stuttgart.

Both areas have similar economies, labor markets, core populations (roughly 600,000 people), regional planning organizations that outline local transport policies. Yet Stuttgart comes off as less car-reliant than D.C. on all sorts of measures…

What’s especially notable here is that driving behavior in the remote periphery of Stuttgart is about the same as it is in the suburbs of D.C. To wit: the two most car-dependent suburbs of Stuttgart (Nürtingen and Geislingen) have shares of all trips by car roughly equivalent to the two least car-dependent suburbs of D.C. (Arlington and Alexandria): roughly 70 to 75 percent in each place. Meanwhile, walking and cycling account for 6 percent of trips in most D.C. suburbs, while in Stuttgart’s most car-oriented areas these modes still account for more than a fifth of all travel.

So the suburbs of D.C. are basically as car-oriented as the cow pastures of Stuttgart. The map below lays it out pretty clearly:

Shares of trips by car in jurisdictions of D.C. and Stuttgart. (Buehler et al, 2014, International Planning Studies)

But, you ask, isn’t one advantage of American car-dependency that it’s allowed cities to open up vast tracts of land to build new suburban homes? Surely America has benefitted from greater housing affordability as a result?

Yeah, not really. As the Economist‘s House Price Index shows, between 1975 and 2016 real house prices in Germany only rose 9%. In the US, they rose 56%, even accounting for the collapse of a massive house price bubble in the 2000s. So it’s hardly the case that cities need more cars to get affordable housing.

What do you make of the data on transport outcomes in the US and Germany?

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  1. They are very, very different cities. It’s been a while since I was in Stuttgart, but my recollection is that they had a great public transport system and you could walk everywhere. But I lived in DC recently, and while they have a great Metro system, it is not that extensive, and most places you really do need a car to get places. Being America, of course everyone has one. There is also a river cutting through (the Potomac) and several motorways from the next State over (Virginia, across the river) zoom in from a heavily wooded fringe. Of the 5 road bridges near the centre of DC, only one has a single footpath – the others have none – so basically: do not walk across the river. I did (trying to walk to the nearest Metro station near the Pentagon), and almost got arrested as I took a photo of the Pentagon from about half a mile away on my iPhone (clearly I was a terrorist, or was exhibiting threatening behaviour – bipedal motion). Massively, massively car oriented.

  2. Germany also leads the world in production of great popular music: you’ve got Kraftwerk, The Scorpions, Rammstein, the band that sung 99 Luftballons, and the band that sang that lemon tree song in the 90s. What has American popular music ever done for anybody?

        1. The Germans, with some rare right wingers excepted, are neither particularly touchy nor particulary interested in that thing. This is more a fascination of the Brits…

      1. By the way, got a near perfect transit system to sell you.

        It won’t cost you much, largely just gas, rusting metal, a small weight gain, a touch of noise, slightly terminal air and a lifelong hole in your pocket.

        A few people will have to periodically die, but aside from all that, it’s a mobility nirvana.

        Cars? A German joke that keeps on giving.

  3. A bad deal for govt and ultimately the people. Pretty good deal for carmakers, petrol companies and insurance industry. It is a matter of priority

  4. For the most part agree with the premise of this post – Germany has a very good mix of PT to private vehicles.

    There are a few caveats with some of the things in here:
    1) America is a lot larger than Germany so to travel anywhere is going to involve more distance (even if you treat Germany as like a state in the EU the EU still isn’t as large – although with lots of PT rail that also reduces the amount of distance travelled).
    2) American’s like large vehicles (particularly SUV/pickup trucks) which bumps up their CO2 usage as well as the cost of vehicle ownership (this is of course a choice they make, would be helped if the government there charged a reasonable fuel tax).
    3) Stuttgart to DC is a bad comparison. DC has a huge proportion of government workers many of which need to use a vehicle (you don’t get many national level politicians anywhere using PT for example). Boston would be a better city to compare with.
    4) In both Germany and the USA with their different approaches to housing they both manage to keep their housing prices down – what the hell is wrong with NZ?? – several factors –
    We have no real capital gains tax.
    We have a smaller country with one prime city so demand is concentrated here.
    There are tax advantages to owning property so we have a large mum&dad property investor market.
    We don’t have an undeveloped land tax (so owners landbank).
    We have restricted zoning (particularly relating to height/density) meaning we don’t have the middle market of 4-7 level complexes)
    We allow foreign buyers to buy up as much as they like – firesale.
    We have an out of control level of immigration (particularly from India and China) that is focused almost entirely on Auckland.
    The last two points in particular are the main driving factor (we aren’t the only country to have booming house prices – in pretty much every country that does have this phenomenon they have one factor in common – Chinese buyers. Think Vancouver, Toronto, Sydney, Melbourne, Hong Kong, etc. Every house that is sold to an offshore buyer is one less house that is available to local buyers – supply/demand means less supply and more demand = expensive house prices. Most places can deal with that to an extent however Auckland also has a booming population being foisted on it due to the governments lax immigration policy meaning that the construction industry has no spare capacity to accommodate the new arrivals. It is pure greed by the National Party and their chums.

  5. There’s another angle you didn’t mention which contributes massively to the differences. Germans eat healthily, are more encouraged to look after their health and sugar is scarce in all forms of food. America on the other hand has massive obesity, children are not taught healthy eating and living, all foods seem packed with sugar and fast food is the main food source for many. The cultures are as pretty far apart as you can get in the west. And that is why cycling and walking is low – you could build a million cycle and path ways and nothing would change in the US. Sadly our society is fast heading that way too, healthy NZ lifestyles are becoming rare, just look around.

    1. The causation runs from car dependency to obesity, not the other way around. A century ago Americans weren’t especially unhealthy. Although it is true that other factors such as diet play a role.

      Also, your comments are now being moderated due to the fact that you repeatedly disregard the user guidelines. Most of your comments on the blog are rehashing the same point, without providing any data or evidence to support it, and without engaging with replies or counterarguments.

      1. That was the point of the comparison between Stuttgart and Washington DC. DC was first laid out in the late 1700s, well before the car. But it, like just about every city in the US, has been profoundly affected by the car – expressways have been ripped through, and population has dispersed. So even the cities that have relatively PT-friendly central areas have big car-dependent suburban areas in all directions.

    1. miffy: you are muddling cause and effect here. Auto-dependency is dispersive; cars eat distance but also enforce it. Germans live closer together because they have a better more rational approach to transport investment, not the other way around.

      1. Paddy the Germans have high density cities and towns because they have a history of wars and violence. The eighty years war, the seven years war, the seven weeks war, the Northern war, the Napoleonic wars, the Silesian wars, the any number of days, weeks or months war. They built towns with walls and their history was to build houses within the walls for safety. Not because they wanted to live like that or because of public transport but because you would get killed if you didn’t cram together. The people who liked that kind of life lived and the people who didn’t like that didn’t survive. The US was sprawling west well before cars and developing a low density rural middle. Can I call it Manifest Density?
        I have no doubt cars resulted in lower densities in the US, but they did so because people prefer lower densities.

  6. The US had cheap fuel from it’s growing oil industry that drove car ownership it also doesn’t have the infrastructure that Germany has in it’s network of canals and railways that takes pressure of building roads and gives them more incentive to use public transport.

    1. “The US [chose to have] cheap fuel from it’s [heavily subsidised] oil industry [and fuel tax that ddn’t cover maintenance, let alone construction and externalities] that drove car ownership it also [chose not to use the existing] infrastructure that Germany [did] in it’s network of canals and railways [or invest in new infrastructure] that takes pressure of building roads and gives them more incentive to use public transport.”

      We should be careful to make sure that deliberate policy actions are always described as such.

      1. But when the car industry in the US was young and expanding the EROEI of oil was better than 100 to 1 it was awash with oil not so most of the rest of the world, the oil companies in the US even bought up public transport companies and shut the them down

        Qoute[ But in the years between 1936 and 1950, there took place one of the sorriest events in our nation’s history—what has become known as the “Great American Streetcar Scandal.”]

  7. “Surely America has benefitted from greater housing affordability as a result?”

    I thought unaffordable housing is considered a feature, not a bug. Because people don’t want Undesirable people moving into their neighbourhood.

    The same point always comes back in discussions in Auckland as well. It’s about keeping people out. Case in point, what other reason would we ever have to zone a large swath of Ponsonby and Grey Lynn as single housing zone?

  8. Our cities are in part a result of our tax system and the incentives they create. Germany has a tax system that incentivises compact cities. The US/NZ doesnt so we get sprawl and cars are the only solution.

    Someone correct me if I’m wrong but my understanding is that Germany(and switzerland) has an entirely different tax system from the US or NZ. Basically all taxes are collected centrally and handed out to the regions based on how many people they have. Land rates only account for a very small part of local government revenue. This system incentivises local government to attract as many people as possible to their region through intensification. So the regions can only get more money if they get more people to move there or levy some extra taxes that would probably be unpopular. Germany has plenty of building codes and regulations but they have proven to be able to deliver cost-effective housing for decades on end as shown by that graph. It isnt also that they have plenty of land either.

    In Germany the council has a incentive to build as many homes as possible and create a city where people want to live. Citizens want more people to come live near them because it means more money will be spent in their area. Councils in Germany have a big financial incentive to maximise people density.

    Our system is screwed up in that the land rates we collect are based on land value and not how many people live here. Hence why rural councils charge obscene rates compared to Auckland. There is no incentive to create a city that can hold more people. Councils in NZ have a big financial incentive to maximise property value. This contributes to property bubbles where people view housing as an investment rather than an commodity/expense. So they must rationally oppose anything that might hurt their property value. Hence the rise of the NIMBYs and urban sprawl and thus car dependency. It is similar in the US, but not exactly the same.

    Thus the councils behave entirely different in what environments they create. The result is that Germany gets plentiful housing where housing is a commodity/service and home ownership rates are 40-50% and among the lowest in the developed world along with Switzerland. NZ ownership rate is around 60%

    Of course I oversimplify.

    1. In Switzerland, at least, the cantons and districts tax the residents directly (though it might be administered centrally). That’s why there’s so much tax competition between different districts and cantons, and why the super-rich can make deals with a particular district, for example.
      But yes, it also means that local government generally wants to attract people. And part of that is making the local community more attractive. That’s why a city council, for example, may pay for longer public transport operating hours, beyond those financed by federal or canton subsidies.

      There are many different reasons for the differentce in transport policies between central European countries and the US, historical and ideological included. But it does indeed seem that those central European countries have ended up with the better system.

  9. This is quite possibly the silliest graphic in transportblog history.

    Comparing Germany with the USA is like comparing Earth with Mars. Kinda similar but fundamental differences. Germany is a border locked country with relatively high population vs the USA, a massive hunk of earth that takes five hours to fly across and has a comparatively low population per sqkm. They are built differently by necessity just like New York is built differently to Indianapolis. Nobody in their right mind would build a train system in any mid-west town/city because there simply isn’t the population density to sustain it financially. No wonder when land is an abundant resource. Why would you live on top of your neighbour when you can live next to them for relatively the same cost?

    What’s next on transportblog? Auckland vs Rural Waikato? It would have about as much relevance.

    1. But the point made is that car-dependency is costly in many ways. Doesn’t matter what beguiling but often self-defeating opportunities it proffers. Americans in the mid-west had every opportunity to structure their greenfield cities as the Germans did but chose not to. In their already established cities they had every opportunity to build on their hugely successful transit systems from the early 1900’s but chose to run them down. And the fact that the country is big need not automatically require the average person needing to travel the length and breadth of it. After all, many Aucklanders don’t venture south of the Bombay Hills, many Brits see no need to go north of Watford, and many Russians have no interest in going to Siberia.

      America has dug a hole for itself, locked itself into a costly and mechanical way-of-life, and closed-off options which Germany and similar forward-thinking countries significantly benefit from. The way the future is heading, it is hard to see the American model as being anything other than a growing millstone around their necks.


      1. I agree with what you say. This is an Archived Edition from 1999 InTransition Magazine. they actually new electrified transit lasted 3 times longer than diesel buses and cars, not good for GM and the oil industry so electric transport had to go, they just threw it all away,

        I can’t understand why we follow the American model not the German maybe not so much in Auckland but in the rest of NZ. If reports from a team at the University of Texas at Austin in the US are correct by 2020 fracking could start to peak. what then for the price of fuel and the millstone we will have from our dependence on the car. The sooner the better if we want to cut CO2.

        1. Exactly. A similar story occurred pretty-much throughout the English-speaking world including our own shores, though the villains in most cases were greedy or agenda-driven politicians rather than business tycoons. British Transport Minister Ernest Marples (1959-1964) presided over the “Beeching cuts” to Britain’s railways at the same time as authorising massive funding for the construction of motorways – including contracts to a roading company he was head of, “Marples Ridgeway”.

          And lest anybody thinks that this trend is over, history is about to repeat again here with the impending removal of Wellington’s trolleybuses, and the move to cease electric operations on the North Is Main Trunk railway. Wellington is to get diesel hybrid buses and the NIMT more Chinese diesel locomotives.

        2. The NIMT issue is more a question of fleet efficiency – there is an old and expensive to maintain and small subfleet of electric locos – do we buy a new small subfleet with all the inefficiencies of introduction, testing, and maintenance or do we rationalize thus saving short and long term cost.

          Personally I would prefer extending the electric working but that is a large up-front cost. (Probably cheaper than the RoNS?) In the current political environment for rail in general, doesn’t seem feasible, KiwiRail is constrained in their choices and rail would not even exist if some members of Government had their way. Change the government!

        3. The cheapest and best option medium-term would be (would have been) to give the Class 30’s a mid-life overhaul so that they were no longer unreliable. This is standard practice among other railway organisations which unlike ours, have retained their engineering know-how and not swapped it for generic management. The electrics are significantly cheaper to run and maintain than diesels, but they have been neglected by successive owners and managers. This is the reason the NIMT electrified operation is now in crisis.

        4. Good call Dave. They really should have another 20 years of life left in them with an overhaul. Much cheaper than buying new loco’s and then cheaper to run. Would give a 20 year period to decide what to do with the NIMT electric sections (and by then with the leaps in PV and batteries etc and increased fuel costs it’s likely we will be wanting to do as much with electricity as possible – complete the NIMT and Tauranga for example).

  10. At least with a car you might be able to get home in Auckland tonight.
    Those on using the trains might be in for a long night.

    1. I had no problem getting home on the train last night, was there an issue later on? Looked to me like anyone driving a car was in for a long night driving home in the rain.

  11. Good article Peter. Finland and Helsinki might be good comparison country/city if you wanted a place with similar population density to the US and NZ. But I do not think it makes much difference to your well presented argument.

    1. Picking a comparison that minimizes confusing irrelevant issues definitely makes a difference to an argument (qua argument).

      1. I can see why Peter chose Germany -the information about housing affordability is more readily obtained.

        Also Peter’s comparison is good because both Germany and the US has a car loving, autobahn culture. Yet Germany has not gone overboard on that side of their culture -Germany has managed to avoid complete car dependency.

        1. Germany is a good choice. It illustrates that owning a car isn’t necessary, nor should it be, but it doesn’t complicate car ownership either. We need to be more forgiving in the assumption that vehicle ownership in Auckland automatically equates to a SOV on the roads at peak time. I might own three cars but I’ll still catch a train. Congestion factor = 0.

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