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Book Review: "The End of Automobile Dependence: How Cities Are Moving Beyond Car-Based Planning" by Peter Newman and Jeffrey Kenworthy

In a tightly packed yet readable marvel of comprehensiveness, Australian transportation scholars crunch the numbers on density and mode choices and come up with surprising grounds for optimism - provided planners get certain critical decisions right.

By Bill Millard
November 19, 2015

Dissenters from the dogma of Motorism, the windshield-perspective ideology that attained a nearly theological status in the U.S. during the mid-20th century, have pointed to signs over the past decade suggesting that King Car's dominance over behavior, space, and mindsets may be slipping. Copenhagen, New York, and other cities have embraced human-scale public-space redesigns informed by the observations of Jane Jacobs, Jan Gehl, Jeff Speck, and other incisive critics of cars-first planning. The “creative class” economic and cultural trends documented by Richard Florida favor urban density and diversity (in transit choices as well as demographics), over suburban/exurban sprawl and its essentially mandatory auto-monoculture. Members of the Millennial generation, for reasons ranging from residential and employment trends to social-media preferences to expanding transport options, are driving less. Petroleum's share of national transportation energy expenditure peaked a few years ago, giving small but nontrivial ground to alternative fuels, in part because of more efficient vehicles, but also because alternatives are gaining in economic as well as environmental credibility. Vehicle miles traveled per capita are likewise dropping. It has become possible to speak not only of peak oil, the controversial hypothesis of M. King Hubbert, but also of peak car.


All this doesn't mean American streets are anywhere close to shedding their burden of dino-fueled behemoths any time soon. Defenders of Motorism have been quick to attribute recent declines in auto purchase and use, particularly by younger generations, to the economic convulsions following the 2008 global recession, rather than any decisive and lasting preference for post-automotive living (though per capita measurements still support inferences about Generation Y shunning cars). It is plausible, with shifts in certain economic variables and perhaps a glut of subsidized oil from the Bakken shale fields, that the nation could revert to the unmitigated drill-drive-and-discard habits that advocates of post-automotive life such as James Howard Kunstler mock as unsustainable (or grievously irresponsible) relics of “the age of Happy Motoring.”


One reason Motorism resembles a religion is that people tend to hold ferocious opinions about it, impervious to evidence, cost/benefit analysis, or rational critique. Some Motorists' allegiance to their rolling second home is as passionate as any family bond, romantic attachment, or supernatural belief, and just as impossible to dislodge with information about congestion, obesity, or effects on natural and built environments. Conversely, some opponents view the car as not an obsolescent technology, but an unholy thing, unsafe for the planet at any speed, a wholesale abomination irredeemable by tech fixes like Google's autopilots or Elon Musk's charging stations. Others fall into fatalism, recognizing the many downsides of auto dependence, but viewing it as path-dependent and intractable, hard-wired into the nation's built environment and reinforced by custom, law, subsidies, and relentless propaganda (more popularly known as advertising). The more the debates over America's auto addiction become prominent in wider public discourse about the environment, public health, oil-related wars, and myriad other concerns, the sharper the need for a soberly, scientifically-developed fact base.


Rigor, clarity, scale


Peter Newman, professor of sustainability and director of the Curtin University Sustainability Policy Institute in Perth, and Jeffrey Kenworthy, who teaches both at Curtin and at Frankfurt University of Applied Science, have now supplied green-urbanism advocates with the potent weapon of statistical rigor, organized into a framework of theory and practical recommendations that is logical, accessible, and at times devastatingly persuasive. The End of Automobile Dependence: How Cities Are Moving Beyond Car-Based Planning (Island Press, 2015), the final volume in a trilogy that also includes Cities and Automobile Dependence (1989) and Sustainability and Cities: Overcoming Automobile Dependence (1999), is a tightly packed yet readable marvel of comprehensiveness, clear interpretation of evidence, and accessible communication. It addresses specialists' need for reliable granular data without befogging the interested lay reader in a haze of bureaucratese or theoretical bafflegab.


The study's geographical scope is global: though Australian examples familiar to the authors are salient, North American and European cities provide the bulk of the sample (a total of 41 cities for most observations), with data from Singapore and Hong Kong allowing judiciously circumscribed discussions of phenomena in those two dense, unique Asian cities. The authors' attention to data quality is professional, addressing the developing world's needs and trends in a dedicated chapter while acknowledging the problems of obtaining reliable information from less-developed areas and refraining from unsupported claims about fast-changing regions. Their perspective, unambiguously pro-sustainability with no pretense to false objectivity about questions that prior scholarship has settled, remains calm, patient. With the possible exception of a chapter analyzing the built-in biases and historical failures of conventional autocentric “predict and provide” transportation planning, the one section where they allow excoriating rhetoric to reach a gradual and impressive boil, the book is devoid of dead-horse-flogging polemics. Explicitly aware, to use a different quadruped metaphor, that in places like the suburban United States and low-density Australia they are taking aim at the most sacred of cows, the authors stress that “the end of automobile dependence is clearly not the end of the car” (p. 75), and that different urban fabrics found within every metropolis (walking, transit, and automobile cities) call for different proportions of incentivized mode-shifting, as planners endeavor to respect and rejuvenate all three forms. An important late chapter considers the many ways different populations will find the decline of automobile dependence troubling, suggesting strategies for easing this transition in multiple realms (economics, behavior, land use, alternativist innovations, “sustainable-transport burnout”).


Newman and Kenworthy have built a comprehensive Global Cities Database, assessed patterns of economic and transportation activity across a 45-year period, and derived careful inferences about a relatively recent, unprecedented phenomenon: the decoupling of car use in major global cities from growth in gross domestic product (GDP). This decoupling, observable in diverse settings, is a key development weighing against the entrenched assumption that development and automobilization vary together (i.e., that people will inevitably choose the comfort and speed of cars over human-powered movement or public transit as they grow wealthier). Given the scale of urbanization in China, India, Latin America, and other areas, where aggressive adoption of the most energy-profligate transport mode could have dire effects on local environments and global climate, this is a consequential and timely observation. In already-wealthy First World cities – even citadels of Motorism like Atlanta and Houston – Newman and Kenworthy's documentation of the decoupling phenomenon implies that measures to reverse auto dependency are far from quixotic.


Three urban fabrics and a 75/50/25 benchmark


The Newman-Kenworthy argument is strong on quantitative realism and plausible assessment of contexts. Places built during the auto age, the authors allow, will probably never resemble “pinup cities for sustainable transportation, such as Copenhagen or Zurich,” but the latter “still have 72 percent and 67 percent, respectively, of total travel by automobile, despite their reputations for exceptional use of walking, cycling, and public transit” (p. 74). By defining freedom from dependency as the availability of meaningful options and sane incentives rather than a wholesale, unattainable replacement of the monoculture, and by suggesting achievable metrics tailored to the three urban-fabric models, Newman and Kenworthy posit an achievable set of goals. If automobile-fabric areas can lower the automotive proportion of total passenger travel from its current average of 95% to about 75%, they will attain the condition already enjoyed by 18 European and Asian cities, out of the 41-city main sample, that are currently auto-independent (not to be equated with “carfree” in the neo-Venetian sense popularized by Joel Crawford). Transit-fabric urban areas can get that automotive proportion of total travel down to 50%; walking-fabric city centers are basically incompatible with cars, as evidenced by intolerable, wasteful congestion everywhere they have invaded, and can credibly aim for 25% car use (Hong Kong, for reference, has a combined car/motorcycle proportion of 15%). The chapter presenting the “Theory of Urban Fabrics” boils down these spaces' characteristics in common-sense tables of fabric areas, physical elements, functions, and qualities, then explores their contrasting needs and potentials in detail. These will strike a chord with any reader familiar with Jan Gehl's analyses of human-scaled or speed-oriented spaces; planners developing and applying form-based codes can readily translate the three-fabric framework into the six transects of New Urbanist terminology.


The zero-oil future that Newman and Kenworthy posit as a necessary and attainable goal is deeply dependent on wise decisions made immediately. It is neither a historic inevitability nor a Fourierian sea of lemonade. Of the many available mechanisms for lowering those automotive-travel proportions to the 75/50/25 benchmark, effectively transforming the car from our implacable master to our manageable servant, Newman and Kenworthy combine a few largely conjectural ones (e.g., congestion pricing, with its well-known political contingencies; smart-city Multimodal Mobility Management systems, where citizens use “a card and not a car”; renewably powered electric vehicles) with many that are already well-tested, often succeeding in sites where they were expected to fail. Fast and energy-efficient metropolitan and suburban rail, which they see enjoying a broad-based resurgence, is a particularly potent game-changer, a multiplier of the advantages of density. A particularly promising case is the rail system in their home town of Perth, “perhaps the most automobile-dependent large city in Australia” (p. 175), including lines “built deep into a totally automobile-dependent corridor that is some 75 kilometers long [and was] it had none of the kind of dense land use necessary for a viable urban railway system” (p. 123). The city's new rail lines have been remarkably successful according to multiple metrics, from ridership numbers to Gehlian reanimation of civic space. Newman and Kenworthy turn sharply critical eyes to quick fixes and halfway measures such as park-and-ride stations, recognizing that an effective urban transformation has to be thought through on multiple levels so that it combines transit-oriented, pedestrian-oriented, and green-oriented development (their acronym is a delight: TOD-POD-GOD). They are under no illusions that the requisite rethinkings and rebuildings will come automatically. They recognize that density alone, a contentious topic in which they explore and deconstruct 10 pervasive and damaging myths, is only one variable, effective in boosting sustainability only when intertwined with thoughtful transit improvements. Yet they have found enough places where coherent vision has prevailed that they can credibly generate an entity that is a foundational component of resilience in any realm: guarded optimism.


Beyond the specialists


The End of Automobile Dependence is a treatise rather than a primer, unlikely to be read by most of the people who need most to read it: a group roughly describable as “everyone in a developed or developing country who'll be making transportation decisions over the coming century.” For urban planners, transportation specialists, public officials, architects operating on master-plan scales, and students of the built environment at any level of expertise, however, it's invaluable reading. Taking on potentially wonky topics with clarity of thought and of prose, the book may take a respected place alongside classics of the counter-Motorist literature like John Keats's The Insolent Chariots, Jane Holtz Kay's Asphalt Nation, Emma Rothschild's Paradise Lost: The Decline of the Auto-Industrial Age, Kenneth Jackson's Crabgrass Frontier, Kunstler's The Geography of Nowhere and The Long Emergency, Andrés Duany, Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk, and Jeff Speck's Suburban Nation, Speck's Walkable City, and David Owen's Green Metropolis – with the added benefit of offering realizable recommendations for breaking the cycle of dependence, congestion, pollution, and civic blight that are inherent parts of Motorism's legacy. Though Newman and Kenworthy do not use the term “Motorism” (coined elsewhere for convenience, and yes, this author will humbly take credit), they have struck a substantial blow against it.


One other feature of the book bears mention, not only because it increases the potential audience, but because of its implications for broader debates between two competing social narratives about transportation. Newman and Kenworthy's accounts of cities like Portland, Copenhagen, Singapore, Frankfurt, Barcelona, and New York – the ones that have preserved, resurrected, or reimagined at least some significant part of their civic fabric against the depredations of King Car – emphasize the element of joy found in post-automotive spaces and movement. One of Motorism's most potent myths, particularly in the hedonic culture of the United States, holds that efforts to improve sustainability amount to eat-your-vegetables finger-wagging, appealing only to ascetics and moralists who don't mind freezing in the dark, a kind of Amish/Luddite/dystopian vision from which most people will recoil. There is none of that here. The atmosphere throughout the descriptions of non-auto-dependent places is redolent of what Bjarke Ingels calls “hedonistic sustainability,” informed by the recognition that life with fewer cars not only has the potential to be a better, richer life – but already is. Newman and Kenworthy do not dwell primarily on matters of memetics and beliefs – those are a related but distinct conversation – but their lived experience of post-automotive urbanity suffuses their writing naturally enough to make it as appealing as it is useful.



Bill Millard is a freelance writer and editor whose work has appeared in Oculus, Architect, Icon, Content, The Architect’s Newspaper, LEAF Review, Architectural Record, Architectural Lighting, Contexts, the Annals of Emergency Medicine, and other publications. In between periodical work, with assistance from a 2008 research grant from the Graham Foundation, he is at work on a book, The Vertical and Horizontal Americas: The Built Environment, Cultural Formations, and the Post-Automotive Era.


Also by Millard:


Book Review: Cities for People, by Jan Gehl
Copenhagen's urban-space guru explains the principles, practices, and priorities that make cities more livable - beginning, but not ending, with dethroning King Car.

(click on pictures to enlarge)

© 2015