Where on Earth Will All the Cars Go?

When wearing my Freakonomics hat, I see my job as giving you the reader the pecan pie of transportation, while shielding you from having to eat your vegetables. Much of this involves writing about research in the peer-reviewed journals, which typically 1) is unavailable to you since you don’t pay the subscription fees; 2) involves math which you’re lucky you don’t have to learn; 3) is on subjects like asphalt concrete rutting models or multivariate Poisson-lognormal random parameter models of intersection safety improvements, which I’m guessing are not lifelong passions of yours; and 4) often contains exciting ideas but goes about presenting them in prose that has been known to induce stupor and even coma.

However, none of my massaging is necessary with the articles in Access magazine. Access, which is produced by the University of California Transportation Center, is a terrific publication which presents state-of-the art, peer-reviewed transportation research in a format that is deliberately tailored for general readers; it’s well-written, pithy, devoid of technical jargon and advanced math, concise, and generally about transportation subjects that will be of universal interest.

And wait, there’s more. Access is free, including the entire archive. For a better deal than that, you’d have to find a transportation magazine that actually pays you to read it.

(Incidentally, I came to this blog thanks to an Access article I wrote on 19th century horse pollution, which Dubner and Levitt discovered while researching Superfreakonomics. When I wrote the piece many friends and colleagues for some reason doubted that manure mania would sweep America, but somehow it has turned into a minor meme. Jay Leno was just talking about the horse manure crisis on an episode of Nova).

Okay, okay, I’m not a totally disinterested party here. I just learned I’ll be taking over from Michael Manville as Associate Editor of Access in late summer, working under the direction of UCLA professor, editor, and parking rock-star Donald Shoup (more on his ideas coming soon). So much for my plug.

To get a taste of Access, check out this article from Mark Kutzbach, an economist at the Census Bureau, in the most recent issue. He discusses a topic of great interest which I haven’t written about yet: what is going to happen when those in poor nations start to buy cars at rich world levels? All the evidence indicates that as national wealth rises, auto ownership rises with it (though as Kutzbach points out, income distribution plays an important role too). If this is the case, what are the implications as rapidly-developing nations like China and India motorize?

It doesn’t take much in-depth statistical analysis to see that if developing nations adopt the auto at levels anywhere near those in the U.S., the implications in terms of fuel consumption and pollution (including greenhouse gasses, which will affect all of us) will be sobering.

Yet do we Americans have any right to weigh in on this issue? Yes, it’s in our naked self-interest to keep those in the developing world out of autos. But somehow it doesn’t seem like we have a tremendous amount of moral suasion here. Our cushy standard of living depends on the car; do we have any right to tell the Chinese to stick to the bicycle?

Kutzbach’s article does point a way out of this conundrum; as he notes, mass motorization isn’t going to work wonders for the developing countries themselves, as they are already wrestling with heinous traffic congestion problems.

We in the U.S. at least have the benefit (cost?) of infrastructure designed to handle large numbers of autos, but developing countries do not. Congestion in cities like Bangkok and Jakarta has already reached legendary levels, and as of 2002 Thai and Indonesian per capita vehicle ownership levels were only 15 percent and 4 percent respectively of those in the U.S. Those figures will only rise. So if they want to avoid a fate of perpetual gridlock, developing nations have a vested interest in addressing these issues even without our prodding.

But is it possible to tame automania? The obvious alternative is mass transit. Kutzbach demonstrates that buses may be slow, but (when full) they’re extremely efficient users of road space. Yet the mechanics of traffic circulation dictate that rising congestion disproportionately hurts the bus, which is one of the least maneuverable vehicles on the road and thus one of the worst at coping with bumper-to-bumper traffic. Falling bus speeds drive more people into cars, which exacerbates congestion problems, which further degrades bus service, fuelling a vicious circle.

Have any places avoided this trap? As Kutzbach lays out, a few have—notably Hong Kong and Singapore. How have they done it, and can other places follow their lead? Access Access to learn more. Coming up I’ll have more on motorization in the developing world. No vegetables, I promise.


At least some European cities (no idea how many) have special bus lanes, where other traffic is not allowed to drive. Generally they don't have it for all streets, but just where it's known to get congested.


Automania seems to be assumed for the developing countries - probably based on the experience in the US; however, we have created a climate where the personal car is almost required - stores and services scattered over the city. But is it not the common experience that driving is a maddening and almost painful necessity? Who wouldn't prefer to sit and read or converse while being swept along from home to shopping and back? No insurance, no repair bills, no vehicle accident lawsuits. But our cities must first be designed to accommodate the pedestrian traveler. Developed nations already have their cities designed for short travel and easier pedestrian access, plus lifestyles to fit the slower pace of shopping and services. I'm just wondering whether those nations will not go automatically to the auto, especially if the price of oil continues to rise.


I was once live in Bangkok for over 20 years until I move to the US. The picture from this article is the "Siam Square", one the main business/shopping areas in Bangkok.

While working there, I had to wake up at 4:30 AM in order to hit the road early (by 5:30) to spend less time on the traffic and reach the office around 6:20. My work starts at 7:30 AM. And if I were have to leave my house around 6 AM, I might not be able to reach the office by 7:30 AM.

The author is correct that the problem reached the legendary level. The Bangkok metro've been subsidizing the bus fees for poor people. This causes the service to also be always low. People who could afford will choose to buy their own cars.

There are bus lanes but they don't seem to help much. Taxis are also the main part of the traffic for people who want to trvel fast but don't have or don't want to find the parking in the city. Taxi uses natural gas as the fuel is 3-4 time cheaper per km. They flourish in the oil price crisis.

We know that only less than 20% of people have cars, if people in Bangkok are richer, more people will buy their own first cars and the problem we are facing now will be much harder to imagine.

Part of the everyday conversation for people who live in Bangkok always involve with the traffic and we can make a very good excuse if we're late to the appointment. If you make an appointment with people there for non-business reasons, many of them will be late for at least 30 minutes - an hour, for always.


Eric M.Jones

In the space of one hundred and seventy-six years the Lower Mississippi has shortened itself two hundred and forty-two miles. That is an average of a trifle over one mile and a third per year. Therefore, any calm person, who is not blind or idiotic, can see that in the Old Oolitic Silurian Period, just a million years ago next November, the Lower Mississippi River was upwards of one million three hundred thousand miles long, and stuck out over the Gulf of Mexico like a fishing-rod. And by the same token any person can see that seven hundred and forty-two years from now the Lower Mississippi will be only a mile and three-quarters long, and Cairo and New Orleans will have joined their streets together, and be plodding comfortably along under a single mayor and a mutual board of aldermen. There is something fascinating about science. One gets such wholesale returns of conjecture out of such a trifling investment of fact.
Mark Twain -Life on the Mississippi,

And so it will be with cars.



Isn't perpetual gridlock a good thing if you want to get cars off the road and disincentivize people from driving? Isn't lacking the infrastructure and space also a good thing to deter driving? One of the wealthiest areas in the world, manhattan, has fewer cars per resident than almost any other location. Its density and lack of space for cars protects it from the environmental damages of the automobile. I don't think sprawl is a standard of living issue, it's a surplus of land issue along with misguided government policies that encourage spreading out. Solving terrible traffic congestion would only result in more cars on the road, more wasted resources in construction, less foot and masstransit options and then the cycle begins again with more congestion.


Surplus of land? Where do you find that, on Mars perhaps? Certainly not anywhere on planet Earth these days.

"Sprawl", as you call it, is nothing new. The Romans had suburbs. It's just the natural consequence of two opposing tendencies: 1) Most people do not want to actually LIVE in a city; 2) They do want to take advantage of the economic & social opportunities that (until the electronic age) were almost exclusively found in cities. Thus we find that those who can afford to do so live near cities but not in them. "Near" is of course a function of technology & wealth, so for Wall Street executives, the Hamptons become near - only a short helicopter ride away from the office.

Rhys Daniell

With all due respect, you're making some US-centric assumptions here.

First up, you're correct about mass transit - the high densities in the cities of many developing nations are ideal for mass transit, something that's much harder to achieve in sprawling US cities (as an ex-transport exec, I know the math).

However, you have only to see the spectacle of 5 people routinely sharing the same motorcycle in many Asian countries to realise that there are far more efficient alternatives than the automobile. What's more, many developing countries are able to legislate away choice and ensure that their citizens make use of these alternatives, in a way which more democratic countries can not.

And finally, unlike the US, cities in many developing countries were physically and culturally formed centuries before motor transport arrived, making car dependence less likely.


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