Every weekend we dig into the archives. This post by Matt was originally published in January 2014.

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. Hard to understand how so many transport policy-makers still favour policies which take us ever-deeper into the auto-dependency trap. Are they blind or what?

    1. Cars are good. Cars mean access to jobs. Social freedom. Access to education. Trucks are great for the economy, building roads is great for the economy, just look at how much of our industry relies on it. I love my car, I must because I spend so much on it. Kiwis love cars, they spend all their time in them. Kiwis who vote love cars. Traffic is bad which is why we need to invest more in roads to fix it. We have a funding stream for building roads, but no money comes from not building roads.

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