Urbanism gets people out of cars

New Urban News has recently presented some survey research done comparing greenfield new urbanism with nearby sprawl around Calgary, Montreal, Portland, and Toronto [article on Canada and on Portland]. Among the hypotheses tested is that New Urbanism, by creating places where walking is more possible and more pleasant, can cut driving trips and increase non-motorized mode share. (A common complaint about contrasting travel behaviors for residents of existing places — say, between old urbanism and new suburbs — is that the populations aren’t always comparable, and that selection biases are more likely.) One potential way of proving this would be to compare the walk/bike and transit share for commute vs. recreational trips: transit mode share for commuting is unlikely to differ substantially, since all of the locations are in the suburbs where work destinations are widely dispersed. (As we’ve noted before, most of the difference between European and American cities’ modal splits lies not in an increased share for transit, but in a much higher share for walk/bike trips.)

Sure enough, there’s a big difference in how residents of new urbanist neighborhoods travel within their neighborhoods and a mild difference in how they travel regionally. At Orenco Station west of Portland, residents are 10X more likely to regularly walk to shops than residents of a nearby subdivision; indeed, only 7% of Orenco residents don’t walk to the store, vs. 58% in sprawl. Occasional transit use is 60% higher among Orenco residents, even though both subdivisions studied are a five-minute walk from light rail stations; 65% report using transit more since moving in, vs. 23% in sprawl. Yet transit use for commuting is identical in both neighborhoods.

The Canadian study found a 8-point difference in driving’s mode share between new urbanism and sprawl, resulting in 19% fewer vehicle kilometers traveled. Yet the mode share of transit was the same, at 9%; the difference was solely in walking and cycling. Residents of new urbanism are 2.7X more likely to regularly walk or bike to local stores. (This is a lower factor than at Orenco; not all of the Canadian neighborhoods had town centers as comprehensive as Orenco’s, and the baseline sprawl figure in denser Canada is much higher.) 37% report walking “a lot more” since moving (85% higher than in sprawl), perhaps because 55% said their streets’ designs were “very safe” for walking and biking (49% higher than sprawl).

Some critics of New Urbanism loudly disclaim the physical determinism that some New Urbanists proclaim — often stating that neighborhood design has profound social ramifications. I have generally remained less sanguine about new urbanism’s impacts on social capital, but the impact of urban design on transportation choices seems pretty clear: if you give people safe, pleasant routes to quickly walk/bike to convenient destinations, they will walk and bike more.

The research also shows that New Urbanism is more than just a prettier version of sprawl. When done right, it has real effects on transportation outcomes — and, the surveys indicate, perhaps also social outcomes.

In related research, Robert Cervero at UC finds that even though peak parking demand at TOD apartment projects in the East Bay and PDX were similar to national ITE standards (just 5% lower), “trip generation rates for some projects were well below ITE standards.” This could indicate that TOD residents keep cars in storage due to subsidized parking — a great opportunity for expanded car-sharing services.

The possibility of selection bias still lurks behind all of this research: it could be that a small proportion of people are just predisposed to drive less. Even if that were the case, that choice should be applauded (since driving costs society), and places that allow people to express that preference should be encouraged. Yet this preference apparently isn’t nearly as much of a minority view as it might seem, particularly among younger Americans. A Concord Group survey of Millennial homebuyers, noted in Builder, found that 81% of young people thought living “near alternative modes of transit” to be “very or somewhat important.” A full 67% would pay more for that choice.

In other news about encouraging walking/cycling, this month’s “Mode Shift” includes a history of the Albany Home Zone. Traffic calming on Chicago’s side streets has long used just the blunt-force (and bicycle-unfriendly) tools of stop signs, speed bumps, and one-way restrictions; here’s a great opportunity to test out a wider menu of options.

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