Auto ownership not a major cause of urban sprawl

A study by Rob Wassmer, a Sacramento State University professor of public policy concludes that reduced auto use has very little effect on suburbanization or urban sprawl.

Wassmer conducted a statistical analysis and concluded that a 10 percent reduction in households owning one or more cars would reduce the geographical size of an urban area by only 0.5 percent, and increase population density by only 0.7 percent. Those impacts are far smaller than those produced by other factors that create sprawl.

According to Professor Wassmer, “Natural Evolution” and “Flight from Blight” play much greater roles in generating sprawl. The concept of natural evolution is based on the idea that the older the housing stock is, the less likely households are to choose a location because households tend to prefer newer housing and most affordable new housing is built in suburban locations. Flight from blight is people dispersing to new neighborhoods on the metropolitan fringe to escape the real and/or perceived blight of the central places in urban areas.

A reduction in per capita income, an increase in the percentage of wealthy households, and a reduction in the percent of an urban area’s central places that are poor, all have demonstrably greater effects on controlling sprawl than reduced automobile use, Wasserman concluded, stating, “Land use is largely the cause of auto use, not the other way around.”


One thought on “Auto ownership not a major cause of urban sprawl

  1. Fascinatng. One wonders though at the thinness of the metric of “automobile culture”:

    “Some may question the use of the percentage of households in an urbanized
    area that do not own an automobile as the best way to measure differences in the
    “automobile culture” across U.S. urbanized areas. Because they are collected
    by the census for urbanized areas, alternative measures that could also be used
    include the percentage of households that use various means to commute to work.
    I tried the percentage of households that use public transit (like Brueckner and
    Fansler, 1983) and the percentage of households that drive alone to work. Neither
    of these was used in the final analyses because an unbiased two-stage least squares
    estimation could not be accomplished with them. For a household in an urbanized
    area to abandon the use of automobiles entirely, viable non-auto transportation
    options must exist in the area. Continuing this line of reasoning, differences in the
    percentage of households owning one or more autos offers a reasonable metric of
    differences in the degree that an automobile-centric transportation culture exists
    across U.S. urbanized areas.”

    I’m unsure if the automobile culture hypothesis is: “the more automobiles a family owns, the more likely they will contribute to sprawl”. It is deeper than this. When issues of culture, belief and identity are under question, sometimes its hard to tell the chicken from the egg.

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