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Correlation or Causality between the Built Environment and Travel Behavior? Evidence from Northern California

UCD-ITS-RP-05-15

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Suggested Citation:
Handy, Susan L., Xinyu Cao, Patricia L. Mokhtarian (2005) Correlation or Causality between the Built Environment and Travel Behavior? Evidence from Northern California. Transportation Research Part D 10 (6), 427 - 444

The sprawling patterns of land development common to metropolitan areas of the US have been blamed for high levels of automobile travel, and thus for air quality problems. In response, smart growth programs—designed to counter sprawl—have gained popularity in the US. Studies show that, all else equal, residents of neighborhoods with higher levels of density, land-use mix, transit accessibility, and pedestrian friendliness drive less than residents of neighborhoods with lower levels of these characteristics. These studies have shed little light, however, on the underlying direction of causality—in particular, whether neighborhood design influences travel behavior or whether travel preferences influence the choice of neighborhood. The evidence thus leaves a key question largely unanswered: if cities use land use policies to bring residents closer to destinations and provide viable alternatives to driving, will people drive less and thereby reduce emissions? Here a quasi-longitudinal design is used to investigate the relationship between neighborhood characteristics and travel behavior while taking into account the role of travel preferences and neighborhood preferences in explaining this relationship. A multivariate analysis of cross-sectional data shows that differences in travel behavior between suburban and traditional neighborhoods are largely explained by attitudes. However, a quasi-longitudinal analysis of changes in travel behavior and changes in the built environment shows significant associations, even when attitudes have been accounted for, providing support for a causal relationship.