Memo: Sustainable Transportation 1

Part of a series of “reading memos” that offer a brief summary of interesting academic content along with my personal reflections. This one covers chapter 1, 4, and 5 from The End of Automobile Dependence by Newman & Kenworthy.

Summary

In these first few chapters, the authors posit that the world is generally reaching the end of an era of automobile dependence. They show evidence that automobile usage peaked in many cities around the turn of the century, that transit use is up around the globe, and that there is both a recognition by planners of the unsustainable nature of auto-oriented development as well as a cultural shift away from car ownership in younger people.

The authors describe a theory of three urban fabrics: the walking city, the transit city, and the automobile city. In fact, these co-exist and overlap in many cities, with the walking city in traditional centers and automobile-oriented neighborhoods at the extremities. The authors argue that planners need to recognize, respect, and rejuvenate each type of urban fabric differently – with a recommendation to extend walking and transit elements into existing auto-oriented areas.

Traditional transportation planning involves the use of predictive (extrapolating) models of traffic and benefit-cost ratio calculations dominated by travel-time savings for highway users, which has led to incessant road building and expansion at the expense of walking and transit fabrics. The authors argue that this prioritization of auto mobility and speed over fundamental accessibility is deeply problematic and encourage moving away from purely scientific approaches to solving problems in the urban realm.

Reflection

At first read, I was quite surprised by the data showing that many cities have passed a peak of automobile usage. Living in the United States and being heavily exposed to car culture, I could only see automobile usage increasing over time. This led me to initially question the authors’ assertion that the era of automobile dependence was ending, as it appears to have a firm hold in many U.S. regions including the Bay Area. The authors’ argument made me feel a bit more optimistic about the state of public transit than I was previously.

I appreciated the global perspective that the authors brought to the reader. It was fascinating to learn about how trends compared in Western countries and rapidly developing Asian countries. I was also surprised to learn that many Australian cities had developed in an auto-centric way in the footsteps of the United States until very recently – the rapid changes described in Melbourne and Perth gave me hope that auto-oriented infrastructure does not have to remain that way forever.

I have historically placed a lot of trust in scientific analyses and technical solutions to problems, but I was swayed by the authors’ argument that these approaches can miss parts of the bigger picture including significant non-quantifiable human aspects. Now I see how a pure engineering-driven approach to planning can have unintended consequences, though I believe that modifications to the metrics (e.g., in the use of Wider Economic Benefits to justify projects) can be steps in the right direction.

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