Institute News


The future of urban land use and travel behaviour.

Published: 26/07/2018

The future of urban land use and travel behaviour.

By Robert D M (Bob) Cotgrove,

BA(Hons), MTransEc, MSc(Econ), BDC, FCILT, ESA, IAG.


A changing world.


Since the end of World War 2, the world has experienced a major cultural transition from a declining industrial era characterised by a dominantly male workforce engaged in manufacturing and related industries to an emerging post-industrial age based on gender-neutral service employment and increasing urbanisation.


In the USA manufacturing employment as a proportion of total employment peaked as early as 1920.  Since then mass produced goods and services have been made increasingly by machines rather than human labour.  For the first time in history service employment in the USA in 1950 surpassed the combined total of all other forms of paid employment. 


The transition has continued to grow, encompassing all countries through increasing interdependence and interaction.  Globalisation has been facilitated by the development of electronic systems of communication and by the intermodal movement of freight resulting from containerisation.


Service employment, especially in the rapidly expanding quaternary sector of highly skilled professional jobs, is urban focussed.  Global levels of urbanisation exceeded 50 per cent early this century.  By 2050 it is expected that the level of urbanisation will reach 70 per cent.


The cultural transition to post-industrialism has two other fundamental characteristics, increasing personal automobility and low density residential living.


The dominant paradigm of urban planning and how it evolved.


For six decades the world’s urban planning profession has repeated the same message: “We must re-design our cities to create high density settlements along linear mass transit (public transport) corridors in order to get people out of cars and reduce car dependency”.  This dominant paradigm of urban planning has been adopted universally, not only by planners but by a majority of engineers, architects, academics, journalists and politicians of all persuasions.


Back in the 1950s engineers in America bulldozed inner city neighbourhoods to built massive elevated urban freeways to cater for the rapidly growing use of cars by an increasingly affluent and urbanising post-war population.  The accepted paradigm then was to accommodate peoples’ travel demands without regard to economic, social and environmental consequences.


The conventional wisdom of accommodating unrestricted car use spread around the world reaching Australia in the early 1960s.  The Hobart Area Transportation Study (HATS), prepared by the US engineering firm Wilbur Smith and Associates was adopted enthusiastically by State and local governments in 1964.  Typically, HATS used expensive household surveys and newly introduced computers to estimate future traffic volumes based on overly optimistic projections of future population and traffic growth.


The urban freeway paradigm changed in 1959 when outraged inner city residents in San Francisco successfully forced the abandonment of the Embarcadero Freeway, leaving it literally cut off in mid air. 


American planners searched for alternative models to deal with increasing urban traffic congestion.  They turned to Europe, where higher densities and lower rates of car ownership supported a greater dependence on systems of public transport.  European cities, undergoing major reconstruction following the Second World War and with centuries-old city centres to protect, seemed to have found an acceptable alternative to unrestricted motor vehicle use.


The Americans overlooked two critical factors in their trips to Europe.  Visitors behave differently in foreign cities to their everyday experiences at home.  They stay in the central city, adopt different daily activity patterns and use public transport to conduct them.  And they overlooked that people in Europe were buying and using cars as their incomes increased.


Nevertheless the attack on car use, and by implication motorists, quickly became a mantra adopted by planners everywhere.  Cars were attacked for being inefficient, causing urban “sprawl”, creating pollution, congestion and social disruption, while motorists were accused of being lazy, selfish, anti-social and, amongst other things, causing an obesity epidemic by living uncultured lives in suburban “Mac Mansions”.


Even the medical profession joined the attack on motorists.  The prestigious British journal The Lancet published a three-part comprehensive report in 2016 echoing planners’ call to re-design our city to reduce car use and promote “active” transport options including a shift to public transport.  Supported by medical authorities in Australia, including the National Heart Foundation, The Lancet adopted without reservation the dominant paradigm, asserting:

“Land-use and transport policies contribute to worldwide epidemics of injuries and non-communicable diseases through traffic exposure, noise, air pollution, social isolation, low physical activity, and sedentary behaviours.  Motorised transport is a major cause of the greenhouse gas emissions that are threatening human health.  The primary recommendation of this paper is for cities to actively pursue compact and mixed-use urban designs that encourage a transport modal shift away from private motor vehicles towards walking, cycling, and public transport.  Such an approach promises to be a powerful strategy for improvements in population health on a permanent basis.


The reality.


Nowhere on the planet has the dominant paradigm achieved its stated goals.

Car ownership and use continue to increase, as does the low density spread of urban areas, despite the universal support of the dominant paradigm by governments throughout the world.


Planners and academics repeatedly predict the end of car travel due to various imagined reasons, including “peak oil” and “peak cars”.  Yet, despite car ownership reaching almost saturation point in developed countries, it continues to increase globally.  In 1960 the number of motor vehicles totalled 127,000.  By 1990 the total had reached 583,000 and by 2014 had more than doubled to 1,208,000. 


Governments, in trying to implement dominant paradigm policies, have spent billions of taxpayer dollars introducing light rail systems, bus-only lanes, multi-occupancy car lanes, ferry services and land use projects based on the concept of “transit oriented development”.  None of these campaigns has succeeded in reducing increasing levels of road congestion or the continuing spread of low density settlements.


As Figure 1 shows, the mode split between private vehicles and public transport across Australian capital cities has not changed for the past 4 decades, with public transport share at around 10%.


Cities throughout the USA adopted light rail systems with the explicit intention of increasing public transport usage and revitalising inner city areas.  Despite the massive amounts of money poured into them neither of these objectives has been achieved. Light rail’s actual carrying capacity in the USA on average is only 20 per cent that of a single two-way freeway and half that of an urban arterial.  Los Angeles, the planners’ dystopian city of car use and low density population, has a very far higher population density than Portland and other American cities which have embraced the dominant paradigm label of “smart growth”.


Throughout the USA and in all urban areas across the world, in developed and developing countries, including the old cities of Europe, increasing car ownership and use has led to continuing long term decline in public transport use and the spread of low density suburbia.


As urban densities decline land use patterns respond accordingly.  The old model of a central city core (CBD), surrounded by pre-industrial concentric circles of land use modified by sectors shaped by the radial linear public transport routes of the industrial age, no longer applies.  Instead widespread use of cars has led to an areal spread of urban land uses focussed on a number of subordinate nuclei associated with nodes such as regional shopping centres, industrial parks, entertainment stadiums and restaurant strips.


Reasons why the dominant urban planning paradigm has failed.


Planners largely ignore the complexities of urban travel and associated land use redistribution. Instead they focus almost exclusively on radial work trips to the central city, assuming that these trips are independent and can be accommodated by public transport.  They also focus on the supply side of urban transport and land use issues, emphasising the costs of car use rather than the benefits it provides.  Planners define concepts in narrow physical terms, such as defining efficiency by the carrying capacity of roads and vehicles, rather than by the welfare gains arising from activities undertaken within limited time/space constraints.


Planners assert that new road infrastructure is self-defeating because it leads to increased traffic.  They overlook that urban travel is a derived demand arising from people’s attempts to optimise opportunities.  Travel is undertaken only if the anticipated benefits outweigh the expected costs, to provide a hoped-for net benefit.  An unsatisfied latent demand for travel exists whenever expected costs outweigh anticipated benefits.  Hence if a new road connection is built, costs of travel decrease and some latent demand gets converted to actual travel, leading to an increase in traffic but more importantly to an increase in overall welfare.


Planners treat time as a flow variable, neglecting its vital stock characteristics.  We live our lives within the confines of a time-space realm that defines our welfare.  Accessibility to the things we want to experience depends on where they are, when they are available, and our means of getting to them.  For the vast majority of our lives we live in a daily activity cycle that begins at home in the morning and ends at home in the evening.  During that 24 hour period we need to set aside time for sleeping, eating and being with the family at home.  We then set aside time for work, shopping, recreating, and socialising with others.  Each of these activities has its own spatial location and the times when it is or is not available.  All of our desired activities, therefore, have to be planned to fit into a highly constrained time budget, a concept referred to as time-geography.  For example, there is no point arranging to meet a friend for lunch if it would take too long to get to and from the agreed meeting point.


This explains why the go anywhere anytime characteristics of personal automobility are superior to public transport.  The time-space flexibility of the car enables us to undertake a wider, and hence richer, set of activities than is possible with public transport which necessarily is confined to fixed routes and timetables.  Cars enable people to live more active and fulfilling lives according to their personal preferences.


Another mistake of planners is to treat cars simply as a mode of transport.  Hence the dominant paradigm suggests that, with the advent of autonomous vehicles, private ownership of cars will be unnecessary as “public” vehicles can be summoned for individual trips on demand.  This overlooks that cars also function as personal trucks, carrying books, shopping bags, baby carriages, children’s toys, golf clubs and all manner of personal items that would be impossible to continually transfer from one vehicle to another.


The economic and social benefits of motor vehicle use.


The widespread use of cars for passenger travel and trucks for freight movements are fundamental components of economic growth.  Employers have a wider employment field from which to choose a specialised workforce to better suit their production plans.  Employees have greater opportunities to choose jobs that better fit their skills and aspirations.  High transport costs protect inefficient producers from more efficient rivals.  Reducing transport costs encourages competition and promotes efficiency in production, distribution and consumption.


Cars have been directly responsible for the three great socio-economic revolutions of the post WW2 period.


First, owning a car gave ordinary families the opportunity to live independently of where they worked, a privilege previously available only to the wealthy.  As a result families were able to move from cramped inner-city slums or living close to tram and train tracks and, according to their budgets and desires, re-locate to larger dwellings on hill slopes, in bush settings, close to rivers and beaches, or on cheap land at the urban periphery.


Second, the shift from a male-dominated industrial workforce to a gender-neutral post-industrial service-based workforce has seen the entry of large numbers of women, predominantly mothers with dependent children into paid employment.  This unprecedented revolution would not have been possible without the development of effective contraception to allow women to choose the number and spacing of their children and the ownership of a car to enable them to combine work with home and family responsibilities.  Women in urban areas now have workforce participation rates equal to men.


Third, and more recently, cars have allowed the growing proportion of post-work retired elderly people to live more socially, mentally and physically active lives and to reduce the effects of age-related diseases such as dementia.


Increasing car ownership and use is compatible with the direction of social change which, like smart phones and life-style choices, is towards greater personal choice and autonomy.


Personal modes of transport are at the control of the user who determines where and when to travel.  Public transport, on the other hand, is controlled by remote third party administrators, often monopolies, who determine not only routes and timetables but also other service variables such as fare structures, size and capacity of vehicles, comfort and configuration of seating to suit their corporate goals.  Rather than the system serving the passenger, the passenger is required to serve the system.


Universal car ownership not only has reduced the demand for public transport but also has restructured urban land uses to create multi-nuclei low density areal spreading settlements that make it uneconomic for public transport systems to serve.  In all major cities public transport’s reduced role is now narrowly confined to the central city and serving a declining proportion of central city workers who simply go to work until its time to go home again.


The small proportion of citizens who for various reasons are unable to drive cars typically have travel demands that are off centre and off peak, therefore unsuited to public transport.  Their specific needs are generally met by community transport, school buses and other means. The advent of autonomous vehicles will increase their options.


The need for a new paradigm for urban transport and land use planning.


The above discussion points to the need for a new urban planning paradigm that recognises the following fundamental realities based on the emerging post-industrial culture:


(a)            an acceptance that universal personal automobility, especially by the private motor car, is here to stay and will remain the dominant mode of urban travel,

(b)           an acceptance that low density suburban residential settlement is the preferred option for most families, notwithstanding the preference for a minority of the population to live at higher densities in the central urban area.  The latter group includes young single adults and many elderly persons who have low space needs and who value proximity to the services and amenities of the inner city,

(c)            an acceptance that the structure of urban areas no longer consists of a dominant central business district acting as the focus for a concentric and sectoral arrangement of land uses, but that motor vehicles have re-shaped the urban area to a more areal spread structure with land uses arranged around multiple nuclei, and,

(d)           an acceptance that public transport’s role is a diminishing one in the mix of urban travel behaviour.


The new planning paradigm would encourage the dispersal of jobs and traffic from peak hour flows to the central city by promoting flexible working hours, working from home, and the decentralisation of jobs that do not need to be centrally located.


The situation in Hobart, Tasmania.


The following data of the Hobart Urban Area (HUA) is based on the combined municipalities of Brighton, Glenorchy, Hobart, Kingborough, Clarence and Sorell, using their current boundaries to allow inter-censual comparisons to analyse changes over time. The HUA population of 218,290 closely matches the ABS definition of Greater Hobart (222,356).


At the 1947 Census, just after World War 2, the city of Hobart had a population of 56,640, representing two-thirds (64.1%) of the HUA population of 88, 417.  Glenorchy had nearly half the remainder, 14,493 people.  The outer municipalities of Brighton, Kingborough, Clarence and Sorell (BKCS) had a combined population of just 17,284.


By 1971, Hobart’s population had declined by more than 4 thousand, while Glenorchy’s had increased by 28,158 to 42,651, reflecting the spread of low density development to the northern suburbs as a result of increasing car ownership.  Most of the new housing in Glenorchy occurred in the hill slope suburbs of West Moonah, Springfield, upper Glenorchy, Montrose and Rosetta as working families moved away from the flat transport corridor of Moonah and Derwent Park.  The opening of the Tasman Bridge in 1964 saw the population of Clarence increase from 6,822 to a whopping 38,683 as people flocked to take advantage of the residential attractions of the eastern shore.


By 2016, Hobart’s population had fallen still further to 50,439, despite impressive housing developments on the slopes of Mount Nelson, Tolmans Hill and Lenah Valley.  Glenorchy’s population increased marginally to 46,253 while population in the outer suburbs of BKCS exploded by 65,820 new inhabitants, up from 55,778 in 1971 (37% of the HUA population) to 121,598 in 2016 (56% of the HUA population).  Kingborough accounted for 38% of this growth while the eastern shore suburbs of Clarence and Sorell accounted for 41%.


In 1947 women accounted for only a quarter of the HUA workforce, with most in low and semi-skilled occupations.  By 2106, women accounted for just under half (49.4 %) of the workforce with the majority having professional occupations in education, health, legal and financial services.  Women have accounted for 42,717 of the 68,940 increase in the HUA workforce since 1947, with almost all the gain coming from women with dependent children.


In 1971 20% of households in the HUA reported having no cars, while 29% owned 2 or more cars.  By 2016 the proportion of households with no car dropped to 8% while the proportion owning 2 or more cars increased to 54%, more than half of all households.


As Figure 2 shows, Hobartians today are more active than ever before as indicated by the increase in per capita kms travelled.  The increased activity is a result of greater car use.  Public transport accounts for a mere 3.5% of all trips in the HUA.


The above trends are not confined to Hobart.  The same shift to a preference for low density, the growth of female employment, and strong growth in car ownership are typical of post WW2 trends in all Australian cities and, allowing for local cultures, in all cities globally.


The Bureau of Infrastructure, Transport and Regional Economics (BITRE) in Canberra reported that between 2001 and 2011 outer city areas accounted for 46% of Sydney’s population growth, with 53% in Brisbane, 62% in Melbourne and 68% in Perth (Information Sheet 59, p. 2). 


It is time for governments to abandon the old paradigms of urban planning, start dealing with the realities life in the 21st Century and recognise that we live in a changing world.


Aggregate modal shares for passenger task within Australian capital cities, 1945–2013.



BITRE, 2014, Urban public transport: updated trends. Information Sheet 59, Canberra, p. 4.

Figure 1.


Motorised passenger task for Hobart, 1945–2013


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