Transit: land use is key
Housing market trends could drive increased transit use, suggests a study by TransitCenter, a philanthropy focusing on mass transit located in New York City.
The nationwide TransitCenter survey explores what transit agencies and policymakers could do to boost transit in coming years.
Of particular interest to urbanists: “The top predictor of whether or not you use transit is what type of neighborhood you live in,” the report states. “This is especially interesting when you consider that: Many Americans would prefer to live in a different type of neighborhood than they do now.”
The biggest unmet desire in the housing market, according to the report called Who’s On Board 2014, is to live in a mixed-use neighborhood. TransitCenter surveyed more than 11,000 people in 46 metropolitan statistical areas spanning the US geographically. Thirty-nine percent of respondents currently live in mixed-use neighborhoods, but 58 percent would like to do so. If that sample is nationally representative, the gap in unmet demand approaches 60 million people.
The biggest dissatisfied group lives in suburban bedroom communities. Thirty percent of those surveyed currently live in residential-only, suburban areas. Only 16 percent of respondents pick this kind of living arrangement as their ideal.
This finding builds on the research of Arthur C. Nelson of the University of Utah and Christopher Leinberger of George Washington University. Nelson has found that America has a significant oversupply of large-lot single family houses—a market imbalance that will influence real estate for decades to come. Leinberger’s research indicates that the desire for walkable urban neighborhoods is the most powerful force in commercial real estate investment.
Impact on riders
“We’ve observed that it’s not how people feel about transportation modes so much as neighborhoods that is driving transportation choices,” note the authors of Who’s On Board. “This observation, along with the knowledge that many Americans would be happier in neighborhoods that are not exclusively residential, leads to a powerful conclusion: it is not transportation policy per se but, rather, land-use and housing policies designed to encourage mixed-use development that have the potential to draw large numbers of people out of cars and onto transit.”
Mixed-use development doesn’t necessarily mean a return to the city, TransitCenter finds. It could be in a suburb or town. People want mixed-use neighborhoods, but they don’t always want the intensity of urban life that is found in the city, the survey finds.
While city centers are reviving—most major US cities are now growing faster than they have in decades—the mixed-use trend is likely to be just as strong in suburbs, small cities, and towns. The ideal neighborhood types most lacking are small town or suburbs “with a mix of houses, shops, and businesses.” The small town desire is tempered by a lack of jobs—but people could retire to these locations. Small cities offer job opportunities, especially within larger metro areas, and also may offer the small-town feel (see “Small cities and towns are urban places, too,” on page 2).
The urban-to-rural Transect diagram makes clear that small cities and towns represent pockets of urban place, even when the surrounding context is suburban or rural. Towns and suburbs with pockets of mixed-use urban neighborhoods and centers are likely to benefit from this demand identified in the TransitCenter survey.
The preference for mixed-use is not likely to fade—it is strongest among young adults. Seventy-four percent, nearly three quarters, of those up to age 30 want mixed-use or urban neighborhoods. The Millennial generation is more prone to use transit in general, even accounting for the bias toward transit among the young. “Parents of school-age children who are under 30 are, it appears, more likely than parents of school-age children over 30 to use public transit, even when controlling for income,” the authors note.
The survey offers hope for boosting transit use outside of major cities.
“We draw the conclusion that land-use and housing policy would better serve Americans if it were to favor mixed-use development,” the authors say.
Note: This article is in the November-December print issue of Better Cities & Towns.
Robert Steuteville is editor and executive director of Better Cities & Towns.