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Open Access Publications from the University of California

How the Built Environment Affects Car Ownership and Travel: Evidence from San Francisco Housing Lotteries

  • Author(s): Millard-Ball, Adam
  • West, Jeremy
  • Rezaei, Nazanin
  • Desai, Garima
  • et al.

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Credibly identifying how the built environment shapes behavior is empirically challenging, because people select residential locations based on differing constraints and preferences for site amenities. Our study overcomes these research barriers by leveraging San Francisco's affordable housing lotteries, which randomly allow specific households to move to specific residences. Using administrative data, we demonstrate that lottery-winning households' baseline preferences are uncorrelated with their allotted residential features such as public transportation accessibility, parking availability, and bicycle infrastructure---meaning that neighborhood attributes and a building's parking supply are effectively assigned at random. Surveying the households, we find that these attributes significantly affect transportation mode choices. Most notably, we show that essentially random variation in on-site parking availability greatly changes households' car ownership decisions and driving frequency, with substitution away from public transit. In contrast, we find that parking availability does not affect employment or job mobility. Overall, the evidence from our study robustly supports that local features of the built environment are important determinants of transportation behavior.

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