The University of Utah
College of Architecture + Planning


Research Team

Joanna Ganning, Primary Investigator

Simon C. Brewer, Faculty Researcher

Danny Wall, Faculty Researcher

Mercedes Beaudoin, Researcher

Keuntae Kim, Student Researcher

Keunhyun Park, Student Researcher

This research is funded in part by the National Institute for Transportation and Cities (NITC) and is a collaboration with the Ivory Boyer Real Estate Center at the University of Utah. Project personnel include PI Joanna Ganning, graduate assistants Keuntae Kim and Keunhyun Park, research analyst Mercedes Beaudoin, and faculty Simon Brewer and Danny Wall.

The Wasatch Front is a rapidly growing metropolitan area situated in a region with natural features that extraordinarily limit growth. The Wasatch Front Mountains constrain growth on one side while the Great Salt Lake and the Oquirrh mountains constrain the other. Among the nation’s worst winter inversions occur along the Wasatch Front, whereby high-pressure weather systems trap the air, and all the pollution added by humans, in the valley. The inversions produce red air quality days and significant health consequences for sensitive populations. Furthermore, the water supply issues facing the arid American Southwest encourage conservation and suggest wisdom in promoting density. Part of the region’s efforts to manage growth and natural resources has included a focus on developing a transit system comprised of local and regional bus systems, TRAX (light rail Salt Lake County), the Sugar House Streetcar, and FrontRunner, a commuter rail system connecting urban centers along the Wasatch Front. While research has long suggested that highway infrastructure supply increases infrastructure demand, the effects of a regional commuter rail system like FrontRunner on commuting patterns and urbanization remain under-studied. Accordingly, our central research question is: Does regional commuter rail replace long commutes by car, thus creating a sustainable, integrated urbanized region, or does it facilitate further suburbanization and increase vehicle miles traveled along the route?

Our study uses census Longitudinal Employment-Household Dynamics (LEHD) data on worker origin and destination from 2002 through 2012, as well as FrontRunner on-board surveys provided from the Utah Transit Authority (UTA). Analysis will combine the descriptive and econometric methods from related literature (Eichler 2011) and previous work done by the PI (e.g., Ganning, Baylis and Lee, 2013; Ganning and McCall 2012). These methods rest on commuting, business, and demographic data sets such as those available from LEHD and the UTA. By addressing the research questions posed below in this proposal, this project addresses two of NITC’s current themes: making the best use of data and analytical tools, and taking long-term action to reduce emissions. While we are hard-pressed to think of a metropolitan area in the U.S. where these objectives are more pressing than the Wasatch Front, we also seek to create generalizable research findings that will enable researchers and practitioners to make sound decisions regarding transit in other regions.

Working Papers, Presentations, and Technology Transfer

The Effects of Commuter Rail Establishment on the Relationships between the Built Environment, Travel Behavior, and Residential Self-Selection


Joanna Ganning and Mercedes Beaudoin, under review.

Abstract: While dozens of studies investigate the relationship between the built environment and travel behavior, none quantify the relationship between these two elements and residential self-selection (RSS) after the intervention of a commuter rail. To help regional and transportation planners better understand the role that commuter rail plays in directing intra-regional development, this manuscript provides a longitudinal investigation of the influence of commuter rail on surrounding neighborhoods’ RSS, travel behavior, and the built environment. Methodologically, we do this first by analyzing the role of commuter rail establishment in influencing change in neighborhood-level demographics, housing and economics (signs of RSS), and travel behavior. Second, we compare surveyed commuter rail riders to residents of the commuter rail stations’ host and neighboring areas. The results of these analyses indicate that the development of commuter rail does not alter the host tracts in any of the characteristics observed, but rather suppresses population growth in neighboring tracts. Paired with direct evidence from a commuter rail user survey, we conclude that the use of commuter rail is more likely influenced by the built environment than by RSS. Thus, as planners influence the built environment directly, they can use these findings to take more concrete steps toward increasing ridership and system efficacy.

The Effects of Commuter Rail Establishment on Migration and Commuting


Joanna Ganning, Mercedes Beaudoin and Keunhyun Park; Anticipated journal submission.

Abstract: American suburbanization and highway infrastructure have developed simultaneously, with research showing that highway construction induces demand (American Public Transportation Association, 1997; Brock and Souleyrette, 2013). An alternative to highway development, commuter rail systems are primarily used to support journeys to work. Yet research on the effect of commuter rail on regional population dynamics is scarce. Through the application of a modified population deconcentration model, this manuscript finds that the provision of a commuter rail station in our case study area (part of the Salt Lake City, Utah CSA) significantly increases both out-commuting and in-migration, signaling success in attracting migrants requiring commuting infrastructure and potential linkages to regional deconcentration. However, evidence, while inconclusive, suggests that commuter rail does not hasten regional population deconcentration.

Estimating Land Use Changes around Commuter Rail Stations Over Time


Simon Brewer, Keuntae Kim and Joanna Ganning; Anticipated Journal Submission.


Joanna Ganning
October 8, 2015
Global Change and Sustainability Center
The Effects of Commuter Rail Establishment on Migration and Commuting

Keunhyun Park
January 9, 2016
Transportation Research Board
The Effects of Commuter Rail Establishment on Migration and Commuting