More Evidence for the Decline in Automobility

Auckland, NZ

by James A. Bacon

NewGeography is the thinking man’s blog for people who don’t like “smart growth.” It is relentlessly skeptical of smart-growth prescriptions for urban renewal such as higher densities, mixed-use development, mass transit and the like. Its writers tend to be big fans of automobility and American suburbs. So, when a contributor to NewGeography writes that “the prospect of falling car use now needs to be firmly factored into planning for western cities,” readers are inclined to take notice.

Philip McDermott, a New Zealand urbanist, shows that travel in Auckland, New Zealand, peaked around 2007 and has declined 15% since then. Automobile travel has declined more sharply than public transport. People are taking fewer trips, and they are taking shorter trips. What is going on? He lists several possible reasons:

  • The population is aging. The elderly drive less than younger people with jobs and families.
  • Public transport is gaining travel share (although it still accounts for only 3.9% of all kilometers traveled).
  • Incomes are lower and fuel prices are higher, suggesting that “economic conditions have an impact on motoring far more immediate and influential than trying to reshape the city.”
  • The decentralization of jobs, recreation and entertainment, professional services and retailing “mean that people can get more done closer to where they live.”

All of these trends apply to the United States as well. And so do the inferences that McDermott draws from them:

There is evidence accumulating to suggest that significant changes are taking place at the margin of transport demand and car dependence. If this is a sign of things to come it raises questions about long-term road expenditure, about dire predictions of road congestion, and about the benefits of adopting expensive land use and transport measures designed to force people out of their cars.

Already, within a more constrained economy, people seem to be making their own decisions to reduce car dependence. …

Auckland definitely needs  to rethink assumptions behind spending plans for major road and rail infrastructure – and confront the risks and costs of getting them wrong.

Needless to say, I have been hammering on the theme in Bacon’s Rebellion for some time now that Virginia reached an inflection point in 2007 and that past growth and travel trends are no longer predictive of future trends. The main difference between McDermott’s interpretation of what’s happening and mine is that, while I see growth gravitating back toward the urban core, he sees it decentralizing. “In terms of city planning,” he writes, “it suggests that decentralisation may be more sustainable than the compact city protagonists make out.”

That’s a debate worth having. Unfortunately, that debate is not occurring here in Virginia. Rather than building a transportation system for 21st century — whatever that may be — Virginia is still building for the 20th.

2 Responses to More Evidence for the Decline in Automobility

  1. Well … there you go again.

    New Zealand?

    A COUNTRY with 1/2 the population of the STATE of Virginia.

    A COUNTRY with a population density 1/5 of the STATE of Virginia.

    The South Island of New Zealand is 25% bigger than the entire state of Virginia but has fewer people than Fairfax County.

    This is your comparison?

    “That’s a debate worth having. Unfortunately, that debate is not occurring here in Virginia. “.

    Debate what? How “urban” traffic patterns in a largely uninhabited country are similar to Virginia? Your contention that things will be different in the future and there is no way to predict the future?

    2007 is notable only in that it was the last year of an economic expansion before a prolonged recession. That’s it. Nothing else. No inflection point. No metamorphosis.

  2. Don, you’re making a ridiculous comparison. Auckland is a metropolitan region of 1.4 million people. The rest of New Zealand is irrelevant. Auckland is affected by the same trends as regions in other regions with advanced economies — the rising cost of gasoline and automobile ownership, changing demographics, the spread of environmentalist ideals, etc. It makes just as worthy a comparison as, say, a Canadian city like Victoria, Calgary or Toronto.

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