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Can we change our driving habits?

Can we change our driving habits?

Do people who live in transit-oriented developments rely less on their cars? A study by School of Urban and Public Affairs Professor Jianling Li aims to find out.

Jianling Li is quick to tell anyone that transit-oriented development (TOD) has gained popularity in this country in recent years. And she'd add that a high-density, mixed-use, live-work-play environment with easy access to mass transit-particularly light rail-appeals to many.

But to Dr. Li, the proliferation of TODs begs the question: When people choose to live in such communities, how does it impact the need for public highways in proximity?

"The expectation is that if people live in a high-density, live-work-play TOD environment, they won't need to use cars as much," the UT Arlington School of Urban and Public Affairs professor says.

But is this the case for auto-oriented Texans? That's a question the Texas Department of Transportation wants answered, which is why TxDOT has awarded Li and her collaborators at UT Arlington, the University of North Texas, and the Texas Transportation Institute a contract to study the issue.

Li didn't have to go far to look at TODs, focusing on three in Dallas: Mockingbird Station, Plano Station, and Cedars Station. All have mixed-use commercial and residential components and are served by DART, the Dallas area mass transit provider. Reducing auto reliance in Texas hasn't been easy, Li says, because cars and sprawl development have gone hand in hand, spreading residential and employment locations widely.

"Sprawl does make it difficult for people to rely on transit for their travel needs and contributes to the difficulty of developing an efficient or effective transit system. However, this is not unique in the DFW area. Many other factors-culture, political ideologies, income level, market system, technologies, public policies, and geographic characteristics, to name a few-are also at play when it comes to the issue of developing an efficient and effective transit system."

Assisted by SUPA's Institute of Urban Studies, Li is conducting a series of focus groups at the three Dallas TODs; the results will be reported later this year. She's already seeing that while TODs may appeal to certain segments of the population like young professionals and empty-nesters, reliance on the auto is a hard habit to break.

"Many who buy or rent in TODs are happy with their lifestyle decision and typically think they've made a good investment," she says. "Though some use transit to some extent, they're also still using their cars."

The problem? Mostly, Li says, it's about flexibility, connectivity, and simplicity. Many TOD residents in the focus groups complain that rail doesn't get them near enough to where they want to be when they want to be there. They say heavy automation of such systems bypasses the human contact they need to understand how the system works. So they opt for car travel.

The findings will be used to develop a mail survey led by UNT. The implications will be further sorted out as the study progresses, with possible ramifications for both TxDOT and DART.

- O.K. Carter