Flickr/dan maurer

A new study tracks the link between living in "neighborhoods of affinity" and urban mobility.

A huge number of factors determine how, why, and where city dwellers travel each day. It matters how far away we work, and how close the nearest mass transit stops, grocery stores, libraries, and restaurants are. It also matters how well the sidewalks, bike lanes, and streets can connect us to these places.

But the physical geography of our cities and neighborhoods is far from the only thing that affects urban mobility. Who our neighbors are, and how similar or different they are from us, matters too.

A recent study published in the Journal of the American Planning Association sheds light on the connection between our patterns of movement and what we have in common with our neighbors. Urban planning researchers Michael Smart, of Rutgers, and Nicholas Klein, of the Pratt Institute, examined how people who live in neighborhoods bound by social ties and a common identity travel differently from most city residents.

To get at this, the researchers looked at the example of "gayborhoods," examining how gay men who live in neighborhoods with lots of other gay men travel, and what the effects of these patterns are on the neighborhood as a whole and all of its residents, straight as well as gay.

They used data on the number of same-sex couples living in each neighborhood from the 2005-9 American Community Survey and compared that to responses from the nationwide 2009 National Household Travel Survey. They then compared the daily travel patterns and distances of residents – focusing on members of straight and gay couples – to the proportion of same-sex couples living in their census tract. They hypothesized that gay men living in more densely clustered gay neighborhoods would have stronger social ties and networks, and thus far more geographically bounded social worlds

The bottom line? They found that gay men who lived in neighborhoods with more same-sex couples – the closest proxy for what counts as a gayborhood – traveled significantly less than both their straight neighbors and gay men living in other city neighborhoods.

In their simplest model, comparing the travel patterns of members of gay, lesbian, and straight couples, the authors found that travel for non-work purposes were shorter in neighborhoods with more gay and lesbian couples. But this was especially true for gay men. Travel distances of trips made by straight men and women and lesbian women decreased by 6.2 percent for each percentage-point increase in the share of same-sex couples in the census tract. For gay men, trips decreased in length at nearly twice that rate, at an incredible 12.2 percent. The graph below, from the study, highlights this stark finding.

And even when the authors controlled for other characteristics about gayborhoods—which tend to be in denser, older, and more central locations—and family makeup such as household size and income, they still found a significant relationship between living in a gayborhood and a gay man’s bounded radius of travel. Partnered gay men who lived in neighborhoods where 10 percent of their neighbors were same-sex households made work trips that were, on average, half the length of their counterparts who lived in areas with no other same-sex couple neighbors.

So what’s behind this connection between shorter travel distances and gay neighborhoods?

The authors suggest that it reflects a broader concept of “neighborhoods of affinity,” where people live in neighborhoods because they share common interests and are drawn to similar features and amenities, as well as, potentially, the kinds of jobs that are available.

In other words, in addition to our search for jobs, services and amenities, and transportation access, it is the very fact that we sort and cluster together that defines the way we move around a neighborhood. And these travel patterns can inadvertently reinforce the forces of sorting and segregating, as shorter travel patterns create even more self-contained worlds for some city residents. This is similar to the locational process that Bill Bishop has dubbed the “Big Sort,” where people self-select into neighborhoods of similar people.Traditional examples of these “neighborhoods of affinity” include Chinatown or Little Italy, as well as the gay neighborhoods that Smart and Klein have studied. In effect, Smart and Klein have put real numbers behind the common-sense intuition that those who live in neighborhoods with similar people and interests, where they can more easily find and join social and business networks, don’t need to travel as much on a day-to-day basis. 

Most of all, the study demonstrates quite effectively why planners, city-builders and place-makers need to take the fabric of the community into account when they consider how people choose where to live, work, and spend their free time. “Neighborhoods are not just containers for physical interventions like transport investments, mixed-use developments or parks, and the like,” the authors write. “Thus, planners should consider neighborhoods as social phenomena as well as physical spaces.”

Top Image: A flag at Chicago's Pride Parade (Courtesy Flickr user dan maurer).

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