Traffic and the New Urbanism
ROBERT STEUTEVILLE    DEC. 1, 2000
In making a case against sprawl, proponents of the New Urbanism (NU) have repeatedly pointed out that low-density, single-use land patterns require automobiles for all trips, eliminate mass transit as an option, and force nearly all traffic onto arterial roads, which become clogged. Defenders of conventional suburbia — e.g. consultant Wendell Cox and Libertarian activist Randall O’Toole — have argued that the NU’s higher density will increase traffic congestion. These critics of NU minimize potential automotive trip reductions from increased walking, car pooling, or mass transit. Who is right? The difficulty in answering that question until recently has been that the very newness of NU has hampered study of real developments. The few projects that have been fully completed have generally been small and unsuited for comparative studies. The fact that retail and workplace components of NU have generally lagged behind residential construction has added to the difficulty. The lack of hard numbers hasn’t prevented both sides from arguing, it has just meant that those arguments have been based on theoretical projections and anecdotal evidence. But this doesn’t have to be the case much longer. Numbers support NU Evidence is accumulating that new urbanist developments, when designed correctly, can significantly reduce automobile usage. One example is a traffic study of the 80-acre urban core in Reston, Virginia, which calculated automotive trip reductions of 49.5 percent in the morning and 46 percent in the evening. This amazing accomplishment was attributed largely to the new urbanist design, which promoted walking and made car pooling and using bus service easier. In Celebration, Florida, a recent independent survey reveals that the majority of residents drive less since moving to the NU designed town. Sixty-three percent of residents report driving less than they did in their previous community, 29 percent report no change in driving habits, and only 8 percent drive more. Both Reston and Celebration are greenfield projects. How much better would these communities performed if they were located within cities and/or connected to more competitive transit service? Ultimately, NU is about much more than traffic counts. It’s about building places that meet a myriad of human needs, physical and spiritual. Nevertheless, the evidence indicates that new urbanists will win the traffic argument hands down.