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December 30, 2022

Does Accessibility Require Density or Speed?

Levine, J., Grengs, J., Shen, Q., & Shen, Q. (2012). Does Accessibility Require Density or Speed?. Journal of the American Planning Association, 78(2), 157–172.

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Problem, research strategy, and findings: Advocates of accessibility as a transportation performance metric often assert that it requires higher density. Conversely, traditional transportation planning methods have valued speed per se as an indicator of success in transportation. In examining these claims, we make two methodological innovations. The first is a new intermetropolitan gravity-based accessibility metric. Second, we decompose the impact of density on accessibility to highlight the distinct opposing influences of speed and proximity in a manner that illustrates different families of relationships between these two factors. This reveals that denser metropolitan regions have slower travel speeds but greater origin-destination proximity. The former effect tends to degrade accessibility while the latter tends to enhance it. Despite theoretical reasons to expect that the speed effect dominates, results suggest that the proximity effect dominates, rendering the denser metropolitan areas more accessible.

Takeaway for practice: Having destinations nearby, as when densities are high, offers benefits even when the associated congestion slows traffic. Where land use policy frequently seeks to support low-development densities in part in an attempt to maintain travel speeds and forestall traffic congestion, our findings suggest that compact development can often improve transportation outcomes.

Research support: Environmental Protection Agency project RD-83334901-0, FHWA Cooperative Agreement Number: DTFH61-07-H-00037, and the Graham Environmental Sustainability Institute at the University of Michigan.


accessibility; mobility; speed; proximity; transportation planning