A Recipe for Cutting Traffic: Build More Apartments, Fewer Single-Family Homes

Multi-family housing in the Twin Cities generates far fewer car trips per household than single-family homes. Photo:  AlexiusHoratius/Wikimedia Commons
Multi-family housing in the Twin Cities generates far fewer car trips per household than single-family homes. Photo: AlexiusHoratius/Wikimedia Commons

It’s not just where you live, but what kind of building you live in that has a profound impact on travel behavior.

In the Twin Cities, for instance, people living in multi-family housing — apartments, condos, or any kind of dwelling that shares walls with its neighbors — travel by car 25 percent less than people who live in single-family homes. And they get around by walking, biking, and transit much, much more.

Heidi Schallberg at Streets.mn shares this chart of 2010 survey data from the regional Metropolitan Council, which accounts for all trips — not just commuting — made by residents of St. Paul and Minneapolis proper.

If you live in a single-family home, you're much more likely to drive for nearly all your trips, according to a 2010 travel survey in the Twin Cities. Chart: Metropolitan Council via Streets.mn
Twin Cities residents who live in multi-family housing are much more likely to , according to a 2010 travel survey. Chart: Metropolitan Council via Streets.mn

Housing type is likely a proxy for several other factors too — like parking availability, distance from downtown, and access to good transit. But the chart communicates an important point: Building denser housing isn’t the traffic nightmare people often make it out to be. In fact, you need it in order to have a low-traffic city.

Schallberg says this type of data should help calm common NIMBY fears that multi-family housing developments will lead to gridlock:

The proposed zoning for housing on the Ford site in St. Paul only includes multifamily buildings. Current residents of nearby single family houses worried about how traffic related to the site will impact them should be relieved their new neighbors are much less likely to drive than they are.

More recommended reading today: Bike PGH reports that 23,000 people turned out for Pittsburgh’s open streets event last weekend. And the Better Bike Share Blog shares new research about what low-income people of color want from bike-share service.

5 thoughts on A Recipe for Cutting Traffic: Build More Apartments, Fewer Single-Family Homes

  1. Good points – but is this article praising half of the solution for the right result? It doesn’t seem as if this is exclusively a result of the housing design alone – high-density apartments and zoning that supports it seems to go hand in hand with areas that already have transit (or are being built around a city’s new transit developments) and little area to build single-family homes in (and thus are more likely to have smaller, walkable neighborhood stores built in nearby). One can’t work without a few of the others supporting it.

    Seems as if one were to try this theory in suburbia (e.g., drop a whole lot of apartments out away from transit connections or anything short of a huge Walgreens a mile away at the corner of a stroad), it wouldn’t work. The housing needs the transit support and vise-versa.

  2. Define cutting traffic. Density and appropriate nearby land use (services, retail, etc) along with good mixed mode transportation options (transit, bike, walk) will typically reduce per capita VMT, but dense development increases traffic. NYC has low per-capita VMT, but certainly isn’t lacking traffic. Likewise with any dense city.

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