Clear, accessible definitions for common urban planning terms.

What Is Automobile Dependency?

3 minute read

Automobile dependency is a term used to describe households who must rely on private vehicles for everyday transportation, often due to a lack of safe pedestrian infrastructure, ineffective or absent public transit options, and sprawl.

Portland Street

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Automobile dependency—the need to use private cars to engage in daily errands and activities—is largely shaped by urban development policies and design practices which, in many U.S. cities, often privilege cars as a primary transportation mode and make it inconvenient or impossible for many people to employ other modes. As a neighborhood or community becomes more car-centric in its design, more residents will be pushed into automobile dependency, creating a cycle of demand for auto-oriented infrastructure and congestion relief measures at the expense of multimodal options.

Since at least the 1950s, when a significant number of Americans could afford cars and suburban sprawl boomed, transportation policy has privileged the automobile. Concepts like Level of Service (LOS) operate on the assumption that traffic flow and throughput is the primary goal of transportation planning and the main driver of transportation policy. Data from 2010 shows that Americans used cars for 85 percent of their daily trips that year, in contrast to 50 to 65 percent in Europe. Even accounting for greater distances between destinations in American cities, the study showed that Americans drove for close to 70 percent of trips under one mile—for Europeans, that number is reversed, with 70 percent of short trips made via other modes.

Critics of vehicle dependency argue that it has many harmful effects: it increases greenhouse gas emissions and congestion, contributes to traffic deaths, and forces low-income households to spend a significant portion of their income on fuel, maintenance, and insurance in order to access daily needs. According to a analysis, the average cost of car ownership in the United States is $5,264.

Devoting a majority of road space to vehicle traffic makes roads more dangerous for users of other transportation modes and increases air pollution. In the typical American central city, over half of real estate is devoted to roads and parking. As far back as 1960, a parking study found that roughly 59 percent of Los Angeles’ central business district was allocated to roads and parking. For every car in the United States, there are four parking spots. With so much access to what is often free, unrestricted parking, Americans who own cars are encouraged to drive. Efforts to remove parking often meet with public outcry and alarm from business owners.  

Arguably, cities designed to primarily accommodate cars perpetuate automobile dependency, regardless of individual desires. By normalizing car-oriented public spaces, urban planners have helped build and reinforce a culture that frequently cannot imagine life without cars. More recently, policymakers and transportation planners are making efforts to reverse this dependency and improve access to more sustainable, multimodal transportation options and safe, comprehensive bike and pedestrian infrastructure. 

To learn more about how urban planning impacts automobile dependency, see our Planopedia entry on car-centric planning.

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