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:
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?