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Do Transit-Rich Neighborhoods Lead to Less Car Use?

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A new empirical study in the journal Housing Policy and Debate has set off extensive discussions about Smart Growth and related ideas such as “location-efficient mortgages.” In the study, Nicolas Klein (Cornell) and Michael J. Smart (Rutgers) analyzed data from 11,000 families in a range of income brackets over the decade 2003-2013. The data come from the Panel Study of Income Dynamics, which tracks household expenditures over time by the same households. The idea was to see if families that live in or move to neighborhoods with lots of transit have lower transportation costs, as predicted by organizations such as the Center for Neighborhood Technology.
First, Klein and Smart looked for a relationship between greater transit access and lower transportation costs, but found only a weak correlation. Next, they looked at households that had moved from one neighborhood to another, to see if a change in transit access led to a change in transportation spending, but found nothing definitive. Third, they built a model looking at how transportation spending changed when a household moved to a better or worse transit location. Again, there was only a weak relationship. Among the variables that did not predict transportation spending were the neighborhood’s density, the area’s employment density, neighborhood compactness, and walkability. Klein told CityLab’s Laura Bliss, “It’s not that transit doesn’t help people. But lots of people who are making a totally rational decision not to use transit and to have their car are doing it to help their family.”
Assuming these findings hold up as further research is done, they undercut ideas such as focusing affordable housing on areas near transit stations and that lenders should provide “location-efficient mortgages” to those who buy near transit, since they will have more disposable income, etc. Scott Bernstein of the Center for Neighborhood Technology, a long-time proponent of location-efficient mortgages, challenged Klein and Smart’s findings as having drawn on too limited a sample, and reiterated his long-time (but unproven) claim that “People can, and often do, spend less in areas with high location efficiency.”
This debate will likely go on for a while, as more research is done. But from an overall societal basis, there is a glaring omission in using only consumer expenditure data on transportation. In a blog post on Planetizen (February 21, 2018), Steve Polzin of the Center for Urban Transportation Research pointed out that most of the spending on transit comes from taxpayers and is therefore not measured in consumer expenditure data on transportation. As an extreme case, he cited the example of Seattle, where the 2016 ballot measure imposed a transit sales tax that will add $326 per year to the average household’s expenditures, on top of $303 per year in pre-existing transit taxes. So counting only transit fares and auto operating and maintenance costs does not accurately reflect what households are paying for transportation.
(This article first ran in the May issue of Surface Transportation Innovations.)

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