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MTI Report: ‘Vibrant’ Downtowns Mean More Public Transit Use

Cities with vibrant downtown areas tend to show lower greenhouse gas (GHG) emission levels from driving and higher public transportation use than areas with more suburban sprawl, according to a new report from the Mineta Transportation Institute.

“Many studies have shown that urban sprawl is associated with more driving and less public transit use,” said Matthew J. Holian, Ph.D., one of several authors of The Impact of Center City Economic and Cultural Vibrancy on Greenhouse Gas Emissions from Transportation. “However, the existing literature provides little guidance for policy makers on how to reverse sprawl and reduce vehicle emissions. Our report suggests that a vibrant urban core may plausibly affect land use and transportation patterns. So, that leaves us with a key question: Can policy makers promote green cities by fostering a vibrant center core?”

The report suggests that this change may occur if policy makers rethink current land-use regulations; continue investments to reduce center city crime; and increase the quality of local public schools.

The MTI report incorporates new econometric results, using several new micro and macro data sets, to quantify how proximity to a city center affects a household’s GHG production from driving and its likelihood of using public transit. It also examines the effect of downtown vibrancy on transportation and land use—defining “vibrancy” based on the downtown’s share of residents who are college graduates, the crime rate, the number of cultural and consumer-oriented establishments, and the downtown share of a metropolitan area’s jobs and population growth.

For example:

* Between 2000-2010, metropolitan areas with more vibrant downtowns reported less sprawl. San Francisco, Miami, and New York experienced sprawl rates of less than 1 percent, while Memphis, Tucson, and Phoenix had sprawl rates greater than 10 percent.

* If downtown is a place where people want to be, then they will live closer to it. Therefore, one effect of vibrancy is to influence land-use patterns. In turn, land-use patterns influence driving and public transit use.

* By encouraging sprawl, federal home ownership policies have unintentionally increased greenhouse gas emissions.

* When established cities block new construction, it forces people to seek housing in far-flung suburbs, where their carbon footprint will be greater.

The 90-page report is available for free PDF download.
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