Overlooked Density: Re-Thinking Transportation Options in Suburbia, Phase III

Nico Larco, University of Oregon


Suburban Multifamily Housing has been the largest growing housing market in this country since 1970 and currently accounts for almost one in four units of housing in suburbia (U.S. Census Bureau 1973 through 2007). These housing developments are typically two to three stories in height, can reach densities of more than 30 units/acre, and are ubiquitous throughout the country.  For primarily transportation-related reasons, this dense housing type is usually located along arterials and adjacent to commercial and retail development, creating a potential model of smart growth in suburbia (Moudon and Hess 2000). While this potential exists, the actual site design and development of these areas are often disconnected and uninviting with barriers between uses that minimize linkages and create auto-dominated development (Larco 2009-forthcoming). 

While suburbia is typically considered to have limited potential for non-auto transport, suburban multifamily residents defy this thinking.  As compared to suburban single family residents, suburban multifamily residents walk and/or bike more to work, use public transportation more often, and own significantly fewer cars per household (U.S. Census Bureau 2005).  Research over the last two years, funded in part by OTREC, has shown that greater connectivity between suburban multifamily developments and adjacent commercial development is correlated with a significant increase in biking and walking by residents.  This research goes beyond the question of integrating land use and transportation and focuses on the role of site design as a critical aspect in the creation of livable, less congested and multi-modal suburban communities.

In order to capitalize on this link between the site design of suburban multifamily housing and mode choice, promote walking and biking, and reduce vehicle miles traveled, it is necessary to provide tools to planners, developers, and architects to assist them in the creation of more connected multifamily developments.  Current barriers to this development goal include zoning codes that specifically limit connectivity between dissimilar uses, zoning codes that do not promote or prescribe connectivity, a culture of planning and development that does not acknowledge the potential for pedestrian and bicycle transport in this type of suburban development, lack of tools and training for planners to evaluate the connectivity of the multifamily typology, and a lack of design guidelines and best practices that can assist architects and developers in envisioning highly connected multifamily housing projects.  

This technology transfer proposal is the third phase of a research project that has studied the connection between site design and mode choice in the overlooked suburban multifamily housing typology.  This phase focuses on the creation of a ‘Best Practices’ Suburban Multifamily Housing Planning and Design Handbook that can guide and promote the development of well connected suburban multifamily housing.  This handbook will bring attention to the smart growth potential of this housing type and will provide regulatory and design guidance to planners, developers, and architects.  It will include a regulatory ‘best practices’ literature review, examples of well connected suburban multifamily developments, design guidelines, model code, visualizations of typical retrofit opportunities, and a planner connectivity checklist.  We will also develop and run a series of workshops in Oregon that will help introduce and disseminate the content of this handbook.  The handbook and workshops will be developed in coordination with the Oregon Department of Transportation (ODOT) and the Transportation and Growth Management Program (TGM).

Project Details

Project Type:
Technology Transfer
Project Status:
In Progress
End Date:
December 31,2010
UTC Grant Cycle:
OTREC 2010
UTC Funding: