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The impact of urban sprawl on journey to work times for mass transit and all other commuters in the United States: A research note

Thomas E. Lambert, PhD H. Min K. Dorrierre
Journal of Transportation Management. January 1, 2016

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As government budgets get tighter, there has been considerable public outcry about the continued investment in public mass transit systems and their financial viability. Amid this outcry, a number of studies have been conducted to determine which factors influence the use and efficiency of publiclyfunded mass transit systems. These factors include population density and less sprawl (or greater urban compactness). However, their impact on mass transit usage is somewhat contradictory in that the heavy concentration of populations in the urban area and greater compactness is believed to increase mass transit usage due to a bigger number of potential passengers. In fact, greater compactness and greater transit ridership have played a role in lengthening the journey to work for most commuters and thus discouraged the use of mass transit systems. Thus, some questioned the wisdom of mass transit subsidies and “smart growth” policies. To attempt to answer this question and avoid any further confusion, this paper examines how urban sprawl affects the journey to work commute time of mass transit riders and other commuters throughout the United States after controlling for variables such as the volume of ridership, local per capita income, the presence of a local rail transit system, and local weather. The findings for this research note defy some conventional wisdom and point to several public policy recommendations on how to improve public mass transit at the local level. For instance, we find that greater urban compactness can be turned into a mass transit advantage if mass transit riders can use a commuter rail option.