Europe: Commuting Faster in Suburbs than Cities


There are few public policy issues more driven my myth than land use and the currently fashionable strategies of “smart growth” or “urban consolidation.” Virtually all of the arguments made in support of smart growth’s densification and land restriction policies melt away when subjected to the light of scrutiny.

Further evidence of this is provided by an analysis of Western European work trip travel times. The anti-suburban smart growth theorists often suggest that cities should artificially constrained in their expansion because suburban areas put people farther away from their jobs and thus force people to spend more time traveling to work.

Estimates based upon data from the European Union Urban Audit indicates that commutes by suburban residents are faster than commutes by city (core) residents. that the average work trip travel time for suburban residents is 23 minutes, one-way. This is five minutes less each way that the central city estimate of 28 minutes. Of course, the reasons that suburbanites can get to their jobs more quickly are that lower densities mean less traffic congestion (contrary to smart growth claims) and that jobs have followed people to the suburbs. Doubtless, urban planners who are more inclined to believe their conceptions than the data will be surprised that this improved jobs-housing balance has occurred with little or no direction from the planning profession.

Land use policy needs to be based upon fact, rather than the myopic perceptions of a small urban elite. The data could not be more clear. Smart growth --- the compact city --- means more traffic congestion, more intense air pollution and longer travel times. This, of course, is just the beginning. Smart growth also means significantly reduced housing affordability, a redistribution of wealth from lower and middle income households to the more affluent and, as a result, the likelihood of future greater poverty and less economic growth.

Note on the methodology: The Urban Audit provides commute time estimates for central cities and metropolitan areas (Larger Urban Zones). The suburban estimate has been developed using a population based ratio supplied by the Urban Audit. This must be considered an estimate. A more precise figure could have been calculated with employment data, which is not available.

If central city labor participation rates are higher proportionally in the central cities than in the suburbs, then the extend to which suburban commute times are shorter than central city commute times has been somewhat underestimated.. If central city labor participation rates are lower proportionately, then the reverse would be true.

Nonetheless, the data shows that, generally, metropolitan area travel times are less than central city travel times, which means that suburban travel times are lower yet, which is indicated by the estimates above.

Originally posted at On the Heartland 2006.10.04