Reconnecting America People * Places * Possibility

Resource Center

Why people use their cars while the built environment imposes cycling

Residing in a high-density, diverse, and accessible neighborhood tends to be associated with less car use, more public transport, and more cycling and walking. However, this does not hold for all people because of differences in personal perceptions and preferences. This paper, therefore, analyzes spatial (mis)match, or the correspondence between perceptions of someone’s residence and the objectively measured spatial characteristics of that residence. Based on a sample for Flanders, Belgium, we found that people tend to overrate the urbanized character of their residence. Among urbanites, (mis)matched spatial perceptions do not influence mode choice. Mode choices remain mainly influenced by urban characteristics and not by personal perceptions as such. However, the influence of spatial (mis)match becomes more important among rural dwellers and, especially, suburbanites. The travel consequences of (mis)matched spatial perceptions thus clearly depend on the residential neighborhood type.


Many studies have analyzed the relationship between the built environment and mode choice, but the underlying behavioral mechanisms remain somewhat less well understood. Higher densities, more diversity, and better local accessibility are often believed to result in less car use, more public transport, and more cycling and walking (for a more comprehensive review, see, e.g., Badoe and Miller 2000; Bartholomew and Ewing 2009; Crane 2000; Ewing and Cervero 2001; Handy 2002; Handy 2005; Stead et al. 2000; Stead and Marshall 2001; van Wee 2002; Van Acker and Witlox 2005). However, not all peo­ple that reside in high-density, diverse, and accessible neighbor­hoods travel by definition by public transport or walk and bike instead of using their cars. This is (partly) due to differences in more subjective and behavioral influences such as perceptions (Van Acker et al. 2010). It might be possible that one person perceives the built environment as unsafe, preventing him or her from walking, whereas another person feels it is relatively safe to walk around. Only recently, attempts are being made to incorporate such subjective influences into land-use travel be­havior interaction models (e.g., Bagley and Mokhtarian 2002; Kitamura et al. 1997; Scheiner and Holz-Rau 2007; van Wee et al. 2002). However, almost none of these studies question whether these subjective influences correspond to the objec­tive reality. For example, a neighborhood is objectively evalu­ated as pedestrian friendly (e.g., low motorized-traffic levels, availability of sidewalks), but an individual with a specific life­style might still consider this neighborhood unsafe. Therefore, it would be interesting to balance objective variables against more subjective variables. One exception is the series of stud­ies by Schwanen and Moktharian (2005a, 2005b) that focuses on the concept of residential neighborhood-type dissonance, or mismatch between preferred and actual-type residential location. These reports found that travel behavior of the mis­matched individuals corresponds to the matched residents of the actual neighborhoods, suggesting that the influence of the built environment remains important despite mismatched spa­tial preferences. However, it also might be interesting to know how people perceive their current residence and how this cor­responds with the objectively measured spatial characteristics of that residential neighborhood. This would offer insights into the accuracy of someone’s spatial knowledge about their actual residential neighborhood. For example, the distance between the residence and the nearest bus stop can objectively be mea­sured, but there are no guarantees that a short distance might also be perceived as such. Especially nonpublic transport users might not be aware that a bus stop is within close distance of their residence. In this paper, we will focus on the travel con­sequences of such (mis)matched spatial perceptions. Therefore, we use data from an Internet survey on lifestyles and leisure mobility in the Flanders region of Belgium, which also ques­tioned the respondents’ perceptions of their current residential neighborhood. By adding spatial information from other land-use databases, spatial perceptions can be balanced against the objective spatial characteristics of the respondents’ current resi­dential neighborhood. The consequences of the (mis)matched spatial perceptions on mode choice for leisure trips will thus be evaluated.