Highways and Population Change*


  • *

    An earlier version of this paper was presented at the 2004 meeting of the Population Association of America, Boston, MA, April 1–3, 2004. The authors are indebted to Balkrishna D. Kale for his guidance with this research and for providing us with the highway database. Further assistance was provided by Vernon Andren of the Wisconsin Department of Transportation. Appreciation also is extended to Dr. Steven C. Deller and to the anonymous reviewers for their many helpful comments. This research was supported by the Wisconsin Agricultural Experiment Station (Hatch project no. WIS04536). Direct correspondence to: Paul R. Voss, Department of Rural Sociology, 350 Agricultural Hall, 1450 Linden Drive, Madison, WI 53706-1562. E-mail: voss@ssc.wisc.edu. Phone: 608-262-9526. Fax: 608-262-6022.


Abstract  In this paper we return to an issue often discussed in the literature regarding the relationship between highway expansion and population change. Typically it simply is assumed that this relationship is well established and understood. We argue, following a thorough review of the relevant literature, that the notion that highway expansion leads to increased population growth in the vicinity of the improved infrastructure finds only weak and often conflicting support. Using data on all major highway expansions in Wisconsin covering the period from the late-1960s through the 1990s from the Wisconsin Department of Transportation (WisDOT), and census data at the minor civil division (MCD) level covering the period 1970 to 2000, we deploy the analytical tools of geographic information system (GIS) software, and theory from the expanding literature in spatial analysis and modeling, to take a fresh look at this relationship. Our analysis reveals that there is a modest relationship between highway expansion and population growth among MCDs within 10–20 miles of the expanded major highway. The causal structure, however, is complex. Our starting hypothesis argues that population growth precedes highway expansion as frequently as population growth results from highway expansion, but the data show otherwise. The dominant causal influence appears to flow from highway expansion to population growth.