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Compact development and VMT: environmental determinism, self-selection, or some of both?

August 1, 2015

There is a long-running debate in the planning literature about the effects of the built environment on travel behavior and the degree to which apparent effects are due to the tendency of households to self-select into neighborhoods that reinforce their travel preferences. Those who want to walk will choose walkable neighborhoods, and those who want to use transit will choose transit-served neighborhoods. These households might have walked or used transit more than their neighbors wherever they lived. Most previous studies have shown that individual attitudes attenuate the relationship between the residential environment and travel choices, and so the effect of the built environment on travel may be overestimated. But there are other researchers who argue the reverse, claiming that residential preferences reinforce built environmental influences. This study assesses the relative importance of the built environment and residential preferences/travel attitudes for a sample of 962 households in the Greater Salt Lake region using structural equation modeling. For the sake of simplicity, we extracted two factors using principal component analysis, one representing the built environment and the other representing residential preferences/attitudes. Our findings are consistent with the view that the neighborhood built environment and residential preferences both influence household’s travel, that the built environment is the stronger influence, and that the built environment affects travel through two causal pathways, one direct and the other indirect, through attitudes.