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Doctoral Dissertation

Does context shape preference? A longitudinal study of built environment reverse impacts on travel behavior and attitudes

The effectiveness of land use policies for shaping people’s travel behavior and promoting more sustainable transportation remains a debated topic in planning discourse. An important part of this debate centers around individual’s travel attitudes and residential preferences. Some scholars argue that built environment interventions may not reflect people’s attitudes and preferences and therefore may be less effective to alter people’s auto-oriented travel behavior. Yet, one important issue that remains largely unexplored is the possibility of the built environment to influence individual travel attitudes and residential preference that reflect the long-term impacts of the built environment on travel behavior. My dissertation proposes an alternative conceptualization to the typical characterization of the built environment and travel behavior relationship. Contrary to the common assumption, I hypothesize that the built environment characteristics can impact travel behavior indirectly, by triggering attitudinal changes. An individual’s very preferences for certain kinds of residential settings and her underlying attitudes about travel choices in those settings result in part from their prior experiences living and traveling in specific built environment contexts.  Individual preferences also result from earlier lifestyle choices made in those specific contexts. For example, a person who has moved into a transit-oriented neighborhood might gain new experience by using transit or simply get an exposure even by not using it (e.g., new information, observing others using it). These cognitive and behavioral processes could trigger a change of transit attitudes for that person. A more favorable attitudes might also influence them to choose similar residential environment in later stage. Conversely, lack of transit-oriented neighborhoods in the city or region where they live might restrict her ability to self-select into their preferred neighborhood.  Each of these hypothesized relationships suggests plausible long term and reverse impacts of built environment on travel. A more systematic and empirical research is required to disentangle this causal mechanism which could guide evidence-based policy design and direct planners’ and policymakers’ attention to supply side questions about the built environment. The focus of my dissertation is to investigate these broader impacts of built environment which typically remains unaddressed in existing literature. Overall, this research addresses the overarching question: does the neighborhood characteristics where people live, have reverse impact on travel attitudes and residential preference?

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