by Quinn Mulholland, NHC
Americans spend a large and growing portion of their incomes on transportation costs. In 2018, transportation costs comprised the second-largest expense category for the average household, after housing costs, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. These costs are increasing quickly, especially for lower-income households, who spend more as a proportion of their income on transportation. One could be forgiven for concluding based on these statistics that America is experiencing a transportation affordability crisis. It would be a mistake, however, to separate these increasing transportation costs from America’s housing affordability crisis, because transportation costs and housing costs are inextricably linked.
Where you live determines how easy or difficult it is to get to important places, like your job, your children’s school, or the grocery store, which in turn determines how much money you must spend on transportation. This concept is known as “location affordability.” For households in car-dependent neighborhoods, transportation costs can comprise as much as 25 percent of income, compared to just 9 percent for households in more walkable, transit-rich neighborhoods.
A recent report from the Citizens Budget Commission illustrated this phenomenon. According to the report, which examined the 20 cities with the largest economies in America, New York was the most expensive of the 20 cities when looking solely at housing costs as a percentage of income. However, when taking transportation costs into consideration, New York was the eighth most affordable city, since transportation costs in New York were the fourth lowest of any city. The cities that were ranked as the most expensive when taking transportation into account are not ones that come to mind when thinking about the affordability crisis: Houston, Atlanta, Miami, Detroit, and Phoenix. Households in sprawling, Sun Belt cities face relatively low housing costs, but much higher transportation costs than their peers in other cities.
There is now a broad understanding among those in the housing sphere that, with housing costs rising in central cities across the country, many low-income people are moving to suburban and exurban neighborhoods where housing is less expensive. Once transportation costs are factored in, however, it’s not clear that these neighborhoods, many of which are underserved or unserved by public transportation, are actually that much cheaper. Many high-cost cities are seeing increases in “super-commuters”—people who spend 90 minutes or more getting to work. Not only are these “super-commuters” spending more money on transportation, they are also spending hours of their day simply getting to and from work. The old adage, “drive until you qualify,” doesn’t account for the fact that while housing may get cheaper the farther away from the central city you get, transportation gets more expensive and burdensome.
An obvious solution to this conundrum is to address the affordability crisis by not only building more affordable housing in transit-rich neighborhoods, but also retrofitting affordable suburban neighborhoods to allow for greater mobility through better transit and increased walkability. This would have enormous environmental benefits in addition to the economic ones, since people driving alone in cars is a big contributor to climate change.
Yet, efforts to expand public transportation or walkability are coming up against resistance from the communities that they would hypothetically help. From DC to Atlanta to Chicago to Portland to Philadelphia to New Orleans to Syracuse, projects around improving mobility are provoking fears of gentrification. These fears are valid—a large body of research shows that home prices are higher in walkable, transit-rich neighborhoods, and new transit stations can lead to increases in home prices.
The answer, however, can’t be to give up on efforts to improve walkability and transit accessibility in neighborhoods where housing is relatively affordable. The problem with car-dependent, low-density neighborhoods is not just the transportation costs they pose, but that they are causing an urgent public health crisis. According to Smart Growth America’s annual Dangerous by Design report, 2018 was the deadliest year for pedestrians and bicyclists in almost three decades. Between 2008 and 2017, drivers struck and killed almost 50,000 people across the country—and these fatalities are concentrated in areas characterized by large, busy streets designed for cars and not pedestrians or transit users, like Houston’s predominantly immigrant southwest side.
Beyond fatalities, car-centric neighborhood design also poses longer-term health issues. Researchers have demonstrated that living near major roadways is associated with slower neurological development and higher rates of asthma. And it is no coincidence that the neighborhoods experiencing the worst effects of car-related air pollution tend to be lower income communities of color. In the 20th century, the construction of the federal highway system specifically targeted these communities, wreaking havoc on many thriving black neighborhoods like Atlanta’s Sweet Auburn neighborhood. Historically redlined neighborhoods continue to face higher levels of diesel particulate matter in the air, hotter temperatures and fewer green spaces.
There have recently been several high-profile legislative efforts, both at the state and federal level, to encourage more housing to be built near transit. The other piece of this puzzle is ensuring access to a range of mobility options in places where there already is affordable housing. Luckily, there are also several opportunities on the horizon for Congress to take action on this aspect of the issue. Perhaps the biggest one is the reauthorization of the FAST Act Surface Transportation Bill, which expires this year. This reauthorization could result in billions of new federal dollars for transportation projects like expanded public transit, bike paths, and other mobility initiatives to connect currently car-dependent neighborhoods. In another encouraging sign, House Democrats recently unveiled a $760 billion infrastructure plan that would make similar investments in sustainable, efficient transportation projects.
We can and should do better. We must not only build housing near transit, but also ensure the places where housing is affordable are also characterized by a wealth of clean, green mobility options. We also must do this in a way that doesn’t displace current residents, and there is some evidence to show that this is possible, if affordable housing is included in mobility projects from the outset. Housing and transportation are inextricably linked from an economic, environmental, and public health standpoint, and housing advocates should treat them as such.
Quinn Mulholland is a policy and research associate at the National Housing Conference.