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Do suburban- and traditional-neighborhood residents want different things? Evidence on neighborhood satisfaction and travel behavior


Many factors have contributed to the development of sprawling suburbs in the United States over the past few decades, including the fact that suburbs offer features that many households view as advantages. However, a host of problems have also been associated with suburban development, including traffic congestion, high infrastructure costs, lack of social cohesion, and environmental degradation (e.g. Ewing 1997). Citing such problems, the New Urbanism movement has rallied for a return to more traditional-style neighborhoods—those built before World War II, with an orientation to walking and transit rather than private automobiles, and with a mix of residential and commercial land uses (Fulton 1996).

While the concept of New Urbanist communities is appealing to many planners, critics argue that Americans like their conventional suburbs and are uninterested in the features that New Urbanism offers. Indeed, assessments of consumer preferences, including their apparent choices in the market place, have shown preference for conventional suburban developments (reviewed in Ewing 1997, Myers and Gearin 2001). However, it is possible that consumers value only certain features of these neighborhoods, and “could do without the rest of the suburban package” (Ewing 1997, p. 111). There is mixed evidence as to the degree of preference for specific amenities that are usually “embedded in larger residential stereotypes,” both in surveys and in the built environment (Myers and Gearin 2001, p. 639). It is unclear which aspects of these neighborhoods residents actually notice and value. In particular, which neighborhood features are important for residents’ satisfaction with their neighborhoods.

To answer this question, Chapter 2 compares how residents experience 2 conventional suburban neighborhoods versus how they experience the type of traditional neighborhood from which new urbanist ideals derive. Based on survey data from residents of suburban and “traditional” neighborhoods in Northern California, we report descriptive statistics on perceptions of neighborhoods, desired neighborhood features, and gaps between the two. In addition, we present modeling results on the determinants of neighborhood satisfaction in each neighborhood type.

A second question of interest to the planning community is to what degree residential neighborhoods causally determine travel choices. Many researchers have documented that auto dependence is associated with sprawling development patterns, and have pointed to traditional neighborhood designs as a means of facilitating more transit use and active travel (such as biking and walking), which have been at least ideologically aligned with environmental, health, and social benefits. However, it is unclear to what extent the built environment shapes travel patterns. If we build smart growth, will people give up their cars? In future designs, are there ways to extricate some of the environmentally and socially costly aspects of suburban development, such as those associated with auto dependence, from other, attractive features of the suburbs?

To contribute partial answers to these broad questions, Chapter 3 investigates to what degree suburban versus traditional neighborhoods have a homogenizing effect on travel choices, given residents’ diverse travel preferences. In particular, given two residents with the same preference for driving, if they locate in opposite neighborhood types, are there differences in their driving levels? To answer this question we draw on the same survey data used in Chapter 2, presenting comparisons of travel behavior among different combinations of travel preferences and residential neighborhood type.

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