Wally Gobetz / Flickr

In metro Denver, office proximity leads to higher transit commute shares.

In an ideal transit city, where commuting by bus or rail is as convenient as taking a car, the trip between station and home or office is a quick one. But in the typical city, where transit-oriented development remains a work in progress, one end of the commute might be much more accessible than the other. So which is more likely to get commuters out of their cars: living near a stop, or working near one?

A trio of researchers at the University of Denver recently tried to answer that question for the Mile High metro—an area that’s made a big push in recent years to expand both transit service and transit-oriented development. They analyzed the 2009-2010 commute patterns of 3,400 employed locals who either lived, worked, or lived and worked near three of the region’s light rail lines. “Near” in this case meant being within a mile, half-mile, or 15-minute walk of a station.

The researchers analyzed commute patterns of 3,400 employed locals in metro Denver who either lived (green dots), worked (red dots), or lived and worked near three of the region’s light rail lines. The thresholds for being “near” transit included a 15-minute walk (white), a half-mile proximity (blue) and a one-mile buffer (green). (Transportation Research Part A)

As expected, people who both lived and worked near a light rail station had the highest transit commute shares. At one mile away, 35 percent made a non-car commute; at a half mile that figure hit 50 percent, and at a 15-minute walk it reached 62 percent. All three figures easily topped the regional transit commute share of 16 percent (which included employed locals who did not live or work, or live and work, near transit).

More surprisingly, commuters who worked near light rail had much stronger transit commute habits than those who lived near it. Those with offices within a mile of transit had a 26 percent transit commute share; those with homes, meanwhile, had a mere 11 percent—lower than the overall regional average. At the half-mile mark, those shares rose to 31 percent for office proximity and 18 percent for home proximity. At the 15-minute threshold they hit 37 and 26 percent, respectively.

CityLab

In other words, far more commuters made the trip to work without a car when their office was near transit than when their home was near it—regardless how the researchers defined “near.” They conclude:

Living near a transit station area by itself does not increase the likelihood of using non-car modes for work commutes. But as would be expected, if the destination (work) is near a transit station, persons are less likely to drive a car to work.

To be clear, the researchers insist they’re “not implying that the clustering of households near transit is unimportant.” On the contrary, when both home and office were within a short, 15-minute walk of a station, transit was chosen by a strong majority of commuters—62 percent among this population. Again, in the ideal situation, both ends of a trip will have good access to a transit option.

Still, the findings do suggest that prioritizing transit-oriented development in job centers might lead to greater immediate gains than doing so in residential areas—at least with it comes to reducing car commutes.

That’s a guideline worth considering for urban planners and city officials. But it shouldn’t come at the expense of all the other variables that go into the decision of whether or not to commute by car: the cost of parking perhaps chief among them, and the frequency of transit service not far behind. If the train never shows up and the garage at work is free, smart growth will only get you so far.

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