It makes sense — more densely packed people cause more congestion, which reduces mobility, increases pollution and poses a greater challenge to safety. But sometimes that means mobility research can overlook smaller, less-affluent communities.
To try and balance that equation, Texas A&M University and the Texas Transportation Institute (TTI) studied mobility in the border colonia of El Cenizo, 10 miles outside Laredo. The study was sponsored by the Southwest Region University Transportation Center.
“We can promote a better quality of life in traditionally disadvantaged communities by improving the mobility of the people in them,” explains Dr. Cecilia Giusti, assistant professor in Texas A&M’s Department of Landscape Architecture and Urban Planning. “But we first must understand how mobility impacts residents.”
The team considered the transportation, urban design and planning, safety (traffic and crime), public health and socioeconomic dimensions as potential indicators of residents’ mobility behaviors, environmental perceptions and quality of life. Researchers developed instruments to record residents’ perceptions and habits as well as to observe and record the community environment. What they discovered surprised them.
Rather than ride a bike or drive short distances within the colonia, residents walked whenever it was practical. This was true even at night, despite the border’s reputation as a high-crime area.
Although having small businesses in the community also encouraged walking, “we found that people walked more for social/recreational purposes, to interact with their neighbors, for example,” says Dr. Chanam Lee, associate professor in Texas A&M’s Department of Landscape Architecture and Urban Planning. “Part of that is culturally representative of the Hispanic community, but it also speaks to the mobility limitations of residents and the lack of utilitarian destinations in the colonia.”
According to the study, walking encouraged community cohesion, since residents are more likely to get to know one another. And it had another effect too — walkers have a more negative impression of their environment than non-walkers. The reason for that is simple: when you walk, you have more time to evaluate the environment around you.
Still, the prevailing feeling among residents was positive toward their community, something the researchers attribute to their personal investment in building it. Sweat equity, it seems, helps determine community self-pride.
“Although we didn’t really look at ‘sustainable transportation’ in this community, we touched on a number of its basic concepts,” explains Dominique Lord, assistant professor in the Zachry Department of Civil Engineering and associate research scientist with TTI‘s Center for Transportation Safety. “The idea of building community solidarity by designing communities that encourage social activities — like walking when possible, and getting to know your neighbors — is fundamental to the idea of sustainable transportation.”
Giusti says a small investment in a community like El Cenizo can yield large returns in terms of community cohesion and safety: “Simply updating the bus stops and making sure the transit system runs on time would add significant value to the quality of life in this colonia.”