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Early American cities were built around dense street networks and relied upon a wide variety of modes for transportation. For more than 50 years, however, many small cities have been physically restructured in efforts to provide automobile access comparable to that in the surrounding suburbs. In those cities, the level of automobile use, the physical form, and the level of activity are now very different from cities that, instead, made greater efforts to preserve their existing urban form. This study looks at 11 small cities that have exhibited very different trends in terms of automobile use and infrastructure provision since 1960 in order to gauge how these differences have impacted long-term urban vitality in those cities.
This study relies on socioeconomic and demographic data dating back to 1960, historical travel mode share data, maps depicting the amount of land used for transportation purposes, and policy review. This approach provides unique insight regarding the aggregate impacts of automobile use on urban land consumption and urban vitality as well as a historical perspective revealing how these cities evolved and key policies that enabled these changes.
In our study, we found that higher levels of automobile use correspond with lower concentrations of activities (residential and employment). This is due in large part to the amount of land needed for automobile infrastructure. The cities were divided into two groups: “low automobile use” and “automobile dependent.” On average, parking consumes more than twice as much urban land per activity in automobile dependent cities. These cities also have fewer than half as many productive activities per square mile. The study also reveals that incomes and automobile ownerships rates are higher in cities with low automobile use, suggesting that individuals will choose not to use their automobiles if there are diverse transportation choices and if non-automobile modes of transportation are attractive options. This lessens the amount of automobile infrastructure needed.
Evidence suggests that policy decisions within each city have greatly influenced the changes they experienced over time. Based on the trends revealed in this study, a productive, long-term policy approach should incorporate measures that support diverse transportation systems and efficient use of urban space.