Mobility versus Accessibility: Applications for Shrinking Cities

Joanna Ganning, University of Utah


For 15 years, scholars have written that the dawn of accessibility-based transportation planning has arrived (e.g., Cervero, Rood, and Appleyard, 1999; Litman, 2013). The motivations for accessibility-based transportation planning are many, spanning all three branches of sustainability planning—environmental, social, and economic—and extending beyond sustainability-focused planning into other fields and more traditional sub-fields within planning. Yet mobility continues to dominate transportation planning in practice and in the literature (e.g., Bartholomew, 2009; Levine et al., 2012; Martens, 2006). The reasons for this are twofold. First, those benefitting from accessibility-based planning lack political clout. Secondly, accessibility 1 “is a theoretical construct based on the somewhat obtuse notion of ‘opportunities’” (Cervero, Rood, and Appleyard, 1999, p. 1277), while mobility is a more straightforward concept. Further limiting the potential implementation of accessibility planning is the fact that linkages between theory and application have not been considered beyond the urban versus rural distinction (e.g., Farrington and Farrington, 2005) and the needs of a growing senior population (e.g., Alsnih and Hensher, 2003). This issue is particularly vital to transportation planners in “shrinking” or “legacy” cities such as Detroit, Buffalo, and Cleveland. In such cities, increased competition for limited resources constrains planners’ ability to pursue accessible transportation options. Compounding this is the fact that decreasing population density limits the efficiency of public transportation as a whole (Schwanen and Mokhtarian, 2005). Finally, issues of social inequality challenge planning efforts in general in some shrinking cities, particularly in the Rust Belt (i.e., Galster, 2012), but elsewhere as well (i.e., Silver, 1984). The goal of this paper is to synthesize applications and knowledge gaps in the accessibility-based transportation planning literature in order to apply them specifically to a shrinking city context. Issues of accessibility apply to shrinking cities across economic, social, and environmental spheres.


This project has given me a solid understanding of the issues facing shrinking cities as they make planning decisions for transit systems. This understanding will inform my ongoing research looking at spatially disaggregated issues of decline. The primary take-away from this project that will inform that work is the realization that improving accessibility-based transportation requires a holistic consideration of place-based quality of life, and that in declining places, quality of life concerns adequately replace traditional definitions of sustainability. Specific to transportation systems, planning for accessibility in declining places will be challenged by social, environmental, and economic issues. From a social equity perspective, research is mixed in its conclusions regarding the role of accessibility in securing a job, and race-based planning issues will challenge efforts to level the playing field with regard to accessibility across racial groups. From an environmental perspective, efforts to reduce car dependency will meet public resistance and grossly overlook the more pressing economic needs of low-income neighborhoods. Declining neighborhoods often face issues of environmental justice, which should be prioritized during updates and changes to the transportation system. Finally, supplying an accessibility-based transportation system per the definitions found in literature would unduly strain the budgets of most if not all shrinking cities. Yet, overcoming these hurdles is critical for social equity, environmental conditions, and economic development in shrinking cities. My future quantitative work will explore the viability of various solutions to land vacancy and accessibility based on working around these challenges. Additionally, this project sought to outline applications of accessibility-based planning for shrinking cities, to assist transit agencies in successfully navigating potential issues as they approach accessibility-based projects. I hope the products of this work are helpful in that endeavor. 

Project Details

Project Type:
Small Starts
Project Status:
End Date:
June 30,2014
UTC Grant Cycle:
Tier 1 Small Starts Round 1
UTC Funding: