NZ’s car ownership culture can’t be our future

Opinion: We have the technology to take on the deeply-entrenched Kiwi idea that we all need to own our own car. So what's stopping us, asks Mohsen Mohammadzadeh.

New Zealand has the fourth-highest rate of per-capita car ownership in the world. This statistic is keenly felt in Auckland, which combines those high rates of car ownership with one of the lowest rates of patronage of public transport in the world.

As a result, Aucklanders spend a lot of time getting to work, then talking about how long it took to get to work. Little wonder our dependency on the car is predicted to be the greatest threat to the liveability of our city.

Yet we could change this. We have technologies that could revolutionise the way we travel, that allow us to get rid of the car and all the costs and hassles that come with car ownership. But taking advantage of them means a major rethink about our behaviour and the deeply-entrenched idea that we all need to own our own car.

We have, for instance, the technology for smart sharing mobility platforms that allow for flexible, reliable, and environmentally-sustainable travel, so what’s stopping us? Well, to start with, there is our cultural and historical legacy of car ownership. This can be traced back to Fordism, which made car ownership affordable for many people in the early 20th century.

Since then, we’ve also absorbed a century of persuasive automobile promotion, so that our cars are more than that which gets us from A to B. Our car, we have come to believe, says something about who we are - our social status, how much we earn, what cultural group or social ‘class’ we belong to, our personality traits and so on.

Urban planners, including those in New Zealand, must also shoulder some responsibility for 50 years of building, and prioritising, transport infrastructure that supports the car. In 2018, 59.4 percent of New Zealand households owned two or more cars. In 2019, New Zealand's car ownership rate was 837 light vehicles per 1000 people. In 2018, 70 percent of all trips made in Auckland were made by a private or company car

It is widely perceived that the electrification of vehicles will be some kind of panacea. But while this is likely to reduce our consumption of fossil fuels, it is unlikely to solve our congestion problems or our dependence on car ownership. In fact, electric vehicles could make things worse. Electrification might make driving more affordable and therefore encourage more of us to drive further - for instance, to move further away from the cities and make longer commutes to work.

(Based on Ministry of Transport figures, there are 24,770 electrical vehicles on our roads. In 2016, our target was to reach 64,000 electric vehicles by the end of 2021.)

My own research, supported by the Ministry of Business, Innovation Employment through the National Science Challenge 11, I looked at social attitudes to car ownership, in a study that involved surveying 200 residents of Hobsonville Point in Auckland.

I chose this area as it is the site of the largest planned urban development in New Zealand. It is a medium-density suburb, designed and built from scratch as a sustainable neighbourhood in close proximity to sustainable public transport.

My research showed that while the physical infrastructure for app-based mobility has been well developed in Hobsonville Point, and the people who live there are open to new technologies and car-sharing, almost all still want to own their own car. Typically, there are two cars per household. This is causing problems for the development because the streets are not designed as places for residents to park cars, and the homes were designed with a garage space for one car.

My research shows respondents mostly use sustainable transportation including buses, ferries, cycling and walking. Yet, they still prefer to own their cars; they consider car-ownership as a value and that owning a car - or cars - is expected from them as middle-class Kiwi families.

Hobsonville provides a snap-shot of many of the entrenched attitudes towards car ownership among middle and upper-middle-class households in New Zealand, and the challenges we might face if we want to adopt new technologies that allow for a cleaner, less-congested and genuinely more mobile world.

Urban planners often focus on the way residents commute in cities and they endeavour to improve services such as access to public transport, cycle roads and walkability to change residents’ travel behaviour. They refer largely to new technologies as solutions to achieve our sustainable development goals while overlooking the Kiwi attitude towards owning a car.

However, if planners and policymakers are to have any success in easing congestion in Auckland and other New Zealand cities, they must also consider how to change the socio-cultural values that our decades of car ownership reflect.

Dr Mohsen Mohammadzadeh is from the School of Architecture and Planning in the Faculty of Creative Arts and Industries.

This article reflects the opinion of the author and not necessarily the views of the University of Auckland.

Used with permission from Newsroom NZ’s car ownership culture can’t be our future 18 February 2021.

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