Does increased transit lead to more sprawl?

Transit helps people in cities get around more quickly and efficiently, but could greater transit options outside urban cores lead to sprawl like the rise of the highway network did?

The goal of transit is to help people in cities get around more quickly and efficiently, but could greater transit options outside urban cores lead to more sprawl like the rise of the highway network did?

On Streetsblog Tanya Snyder asked that question when observing a new Metro line in Washington D.C. that will double the number of stations outside of D.C.'s unofficial urban territory.

I’m always happy to see transit flourishing, and it will be nice to be able to take the metro all the way to Dulles without switching to the bus. But does transit expansion give the official thumbs-up to people moving farther and farther outside the urban core?

Reid Ewing, a professor of urban planning at the University of Utah, tells Streetsblog that transit can create both sprawl and compact development.

“It’s the fact that you can reach lots of trip attractions within short period of time on transit that causes development around the station,” Ewing said. “It doesn’t happen inherently. And accessibility, likewise, is a driving force in highway oriented sprawl.”

But there are certainly differences between highways and transit extending beyond the city center. First, because cars have greater mobility potential, compact development is less likely. With transit, though, development tends to congregate around transit stations -- with the exception of park-and-ride stations. The other factor is that transit lines are often built where denser populations are living already.

Transit lines typically have to go through a cost-benefit analysis to acquire federal and state funding, and they need to demonstrate a certain level of projected ridership. “That is one reason why you don’t have trains to nowhere the way sometimes you have other things to nowhere,” said Sarah Kline of Reconnecting America.

“It’s not like roads or highways that were built before these places really grew up,” Kline said. “The road gets built and then the suburb grows up and then all of a sudden no one can get into downtown anymore because it’s so congested, so they build transit. And yes, transit allows people to still live there. But what would happen if there weren’t transit? People wouldn’t all be moving in closer because there’s not enough affordable housing closer in.”

Even though transit lines don't always lead to compact development, we know that, in general, development near transit saves more energy than transitional suburban development , even with a green house and automobile.

So if people are already living in sprawl outside the city center, isn't it best to give them the most sustainable options possible? Or do you think that by extending transit into suburbs it's just a convenience for people living there and not really sustainable because -- besides going work -- people will drive everywhere else?

Photo: Mark Strozier/Flickr

This post was originally published on


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