Does Transportation Drive Land Use?

By Dom Nozzi

June 15, 2000

Often, I notice people express the opinion that transportation is dependent on land use. Similarly, I’m often told that land use comes first, and transportation planning and development follows to accommodate the land use. That “land use drives transportation.”

But let’s keep in mind that transportation is profoundly a vicious cycle and significantly changes behavior and markets over time. For example, when/if we add capacity or widen major roads, we set into motion some enormous political and economic pressures, and behavior changes. Widening a road will inevitably reduce the number of bicyclists, pedestrians, and transit users (because it is now more difficult, unsafe, and unpleasant to use the bigger road). This creates more car trips (“induced travel”). And the induced travel created by the widened road, is used, post facto, to justify the widened road (a classic self-fulfilling prophesy). Because the bigger road carries more high-speed traffic, it becomes unpleasant to live along the road. So, over time, housing values decline along the road, and single-family gets converted to student rental, multi-family for students, office and retail. And because it is now more pleasant and fast to drive a car, people are better able to live in remote areas and commute to their jobs in the city.

Why? Because cross-culturally and throughout history, the average daily roundtrip commute is 1.1 hours. Some people will relocate to more remote locations to create a new equilibrium when the road is widened.

Many people dream of living in a “cabin in the woods.” Therefore, wider roads create a strong demand for sprawl housing, because the wider road reduces travel time from home to daily destinations. Is sprawl possible without car travel? Could a huge number of us live in remote locations if our transportation system did not provide cheap and easy car travel?

Most people would be unwilling to live in low-density, outlying, sprawling areas — or drive a car for every trip — unless roads are designed for high speeds and high volumes, and parking is both free and abundant. All the conditions that people dislike about the city — whether real or perceived — such as noise, crime, etc., can be more easily fled if the newly widened roads allow you to get to work each day in a reasonable period of time, even if you live in an outlying area. The ultimate result is that as we add capacity to streets, we set in motion a pattern of sprawl and strip, we wipe out farms, and we accelerate the decline of in-town areas.

Another outcome is that our in-town streets become little more than “escape routes.”

Quite often, our transportation planning advisory boards are dominated by home building interests. Clearly, this industry realizes the fundamental importance of widening roads to create sprawl residential markets for them.

As for retail land use impacts caused by transportation, when there are so many cars being carried by a bigger road, business people cannot resist putting enormous pressure on staff and officials to rezone the businessperson’s property to retail in order to takearapahoe-ave-boulder-co advantage of all those potential customers driving by each day. This is precisely why we see so many big box retailers clamoring for sites at major intersections. In fact, in the planning department I work in, we get calls all the time from people who want to rezone from residential to office or retail along our major arterial streets.

High-volume big box retailers, except in large, high-density cities, are not viable unless the public sector provides large subsidies in the form of high-speed, high-capacity, multi-lane streets (big roads enable the big box to draw cars from a regional “consumer-shed”). Not only that. These retailers also depend on the public sector to allow them to build enormous and free surface parking lots, and enormous building footprints.

As expected, we so often have strip commercial – intense land use development pressure — on major roads near interstates. Could such streets have been anything else other than strip commercial, given the street design and the access to the Interstate? Are single-family homes viable along such a street? If you owned land along such a stretch, would it be rational for you not to do everything in your power to get the local government to grant you the right to sell to those 70,000 potential daily customers, as the “big box” retailer so often wants to do?

I’ve seen land use plans and maps prepared in the past, and I know that it is not a “plan” at all. Almost entirely, when we talk about a mostly built-out city, it is simply recording what is there already. Almost none of it is a proactive vision of what the planners want. If we engaged in wholesale land use changes in the land use map/plan to enact our sustainable, livable vision, all of the planners would be in fear of losing their jobs and all of the commissioners would be thrown out of office. Elected commissioners and staff are forced, by political realities, to be reactive in our land use “plan.” Transportation, on the other hand, is something we can make changes to, because it is often feasible, politically, to make the change.

It matters not a whit whether planners designate a site for retail or single-family residential. Over time, what will happen to the property is determined by the road design and traffic. If the land use designation does not correspond to what is happening on the road, the land use will get changed, or the land will be abandoned. If our street network is designed for modest car speeds, modest car volumes, connectivity, and access (in other words, transportation choice), we will get viable transit, bicycling, walking and neighborhood retail and mixed use, not to mention higher densities, more traffic congestion (which is, in cities, a good thing), compact development, and a control on sprawl. High-speed, high capacity roads will give us the reverse, regardless of what our land use “plan/map” says.

Is it not much easier to predict what will happen to the land uses along a street based on the way the street is designed than to predict what will happen to the street based on the land uses along it? Similarly, is it not more feasible to predict whether there will be a sprawled, dispersed, low-density community if we know, in advance, what the street system and form of travel will be, compared to whether there will be future sprawled community based on what the current land uses (or land use plans) are designated for various properties? For example, West Palm Beach FL is currently experiencing a dramatic, beneficial land use change throughout their city soon after they re-designed their streets by removing travel lanes, calming traffic, and doing substantial streetscaping. Land use improvements there are clearly driven by transportation changes.

Transportation engineers love to try to deny responsibility when their studies (which are flawed because they don’t accurately account for human behavior) show that a road must be widened. The engineer usually claims that land use drives transportation, and that their high-speed, high-volume roads are merely “meeting the demand created by the land uses.” “It’s not our fault that we must spend millions to widen roads, tear out houses, and ruin the environment. We are forced to because of the land use.” But this ignores the fact that high-speed, high-volume roads create a vicious cycle and substantially modify behavior, as noted above. The important danger of this highly misleading claim from many engineers is that it leads us to incorrectly believe that we have no choice. We must widen the road because of the land uses on the ground. Too often, we are mislead into believing that land use choices we made in the past are now forcing us to widen the road.

Engineers must not be allowed to wiggle out of culpability with such an excuse. The traffic engineer who explains it is the land use that “forces” the road widening seems sensible until you look closer and find out how the market brings enormous and unrelenting pressure to change the designations when we change the roads, and how human reactions to road conditions draws or repels residences. If we are incredibly courageous and true to our principles, we might be able to delay the re-zoning for a few years on a widened road that is now hostile for residences. But that just means that because the road carries so much high speed, high volume traffic, it is no longer feasible to keep the property residential because the quality of life is so miserable (as a result, the residential building eventually is abandoned, or is downgraded from owner-occupied to rental), or it is no longer rational to keep it as a farm because you can make millions by selling it for a shopping center or subdivision.

Here is what Newman & Kenworthy (Cities and Automobile Dependence, 1989) have to say:

“In general, [transportation] modeling has assumed that land use is “handed down” by land use planners and that transport planners are merely shaping the appropriate transport system to meet the needs of the land use forecast. This is not the case. One of the major reasons why freeways around the world have failed to cope with demand is that transport infrastructure has a profound feedback effect on land use, encouraging and promoting new development wherever the best facilities are provided (or are planned).” (pg 106)

Why is Europe so walkable and compact, and the U.S. is not? Is it that they are just more educated and appreciative of the merits of walkable communities? Or is it that they mostly developed before the auto age, whereas we developed after the emergence of the auto age? And why is it that Europe is now, after entering the auto age, starting to see the sprawl we are experiencing?

The Florida growth management law requires that “level-of-service” standards be created, and that new developments only be allowed if they are built “concurrently” with the infrastructure and services they would need. But the only concurrency measure from the Florida law that matters is the road level-of-service. Every other concurrency measure – recreation, utilities, solid waste, etc. – is, for all intents and purposes, ignored in comparison.

We are fooling ourselves and doomed to a life of permanent, never-ending battles with people who want to rezone singe-family land that they own and cannot use as single-family due to a wide road (granting that there are a few who could live in a single-family home and put up with the noise and reduced property value – sometimes, this is called “affordable housing”). Forty years from now, if we do not fix our major streets to make them more livable, we will, though incremental zoning changes, have those streets lined with offices and multi-family buildings and retail. And over those 40 years, we will have a bunch of planners, citizens, and officials burned out on fighting those never-ending battles. In the long term, as Walter Kulash points out, no force, not even five “no growth” commissioners, can stop that incremental change after we have designed a street for high-speed, high-volume traffic.

Yes, we can succeed, in the short term, in keeping property zoned single-family. But that will only mean that we’ll have a bunch of vacant homes, and depressed property values.

Once the transport system is in place, the market/political pressure to take advantage of that system is overpoweringly strong, and will overwhelm any countervailing efforts. It hardly matters how courageous, visionary, or progressive a planner or elected official is. If the roads are designed to encourage sprawl, we will get sprawl. No zoning or land use designations (such as “large-lot” zoning) can stop it, and there is no community in the US that has succeeded by trying to control sprawl with designations. When we create and construct our transportation plans, we have, essentially and indirectly (and often unintentionally), established our future land use plans, not vice versa. It is as simple as that, and it is time for us to realize it.

All that said, I’m willing to concede that we should have our road and land use plans work concurrently. So yes, we should designate outlying areas for conservation and farms. But unless we concurrently get the transportation right, we are wasting our time.

In sum, keeping a road at a modest width with a modest number of travel lanes in the face of projected car traffic growth will, over the long term, result in less per capita car trips on that road, less new sprawl into outlying areas, less big box retail, more viable neighborhoods, a higher quality of life, and more residential density near walkable, livable, neighborhood-scaled town centers. Widening the road by adding travel lanes, over the long term, would give us the reverse. The excessive capacities that we typically build for our cities gives us too much sprawl, densities that are too low, and auto dependence. I believe that we should put a moratorium on adding street capacity to streets in our cities, before we wake up one day and wonder how we let ourselves become another auto-dependent south Florida, instead of a sustainable, sociable community featuring transportation choice, safety and independence for our children and seniors, and a unique community we can take pride in.

In the long run, the street shapes the land uses that will form along it much more profoundly than how the land uses would shape the street that forms through them. Let’s not let the traffic engineer fool us. Let’s not put in big roads and then valiantly try (and fail) to stop the sprawl and strip, and then flog ourselves when we are unable to stop the land use degradation. Transportation comes before – and determines — land use. A high quality of life, and sustainable future, depends on our realizing that.

Leave a comment

Filed under Sprawl, Suburbia, Transportation, Urban Design

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s