7 Charts That Show How Good Mass Transit Can Make a City More Affordable

joyfuldesigns / Shutterstock.com

Housing costs are often the first to come to mind when we think about whether or not a city is affordable. If the rent is too damn high, the city is too damn expensive. That's largely true, but transportation costs also have a lot to do with it. HUD actually combines the two numbers into a single "location affordability" index: if those two expenses make up more than 45 percent of your income, the city isn't affordable to you.

The importance of transportation costs in this equation—and, more specifically, the role of transit in reducing these costs—comes into clear focus in a series of new reports on city affordability from the Citizens Budget Commission. Take a look at this CBC chart on average annual rent paid by residents of 22 large U.S. metro areas (New York is highlighted because it was the CBC's primary focus):

By these housing figures alone, you'd expect the cities at the top to be the least affordable, and those at the bottom to be the most. But now here's the chart of the same 22 cities ranked by location affordability:

Now we see that many of the cities with high housing costs also have the best location affordability—particularly Washington, D.C., San Francisco, New York, Seattle, Boston, and San Jose. Each of these cities is in the top ten for affordability despite also being in the top ten for highest rent. In the case of San Jose, high Silicon Valley incomes offset high local expenses. But the key for the five other cities is being among the least expensive in terms of transportation costs:

These five metros—Washington, San Francisco, New York, Seattle, and Boston—share an obvious trait: good public transportation systems. Strong transit makes it possible to reduce car ownership and all the expenses that go along with it, from purchase cost to maintenance to gas to insurance. And so we find that these same cities also rank near the top in terms of both commuter transit share and households without vehicles:

Things get more interesting when we separate location affordability by household types. For a moderate-income household (making 80 percent of the regional median), the five most affordable cities in terms of combined transportation and housing costs are Washington (34 percent of income), San Francisco (37), New York (37), Philadelphia (37), and Los Angeles (38). All five are in the top ten in terms of transportation costs, and three are in the top five:

Now let's take a look at location affordability for low-income families (defined as making half of the HUD area median). Now the top five includes San Francisco (42 percent), Washington (43), Philadelphia (46), Seattle (47), and New York (47). The pattern is clear; major cities with low transportation costs can remain relatively more affordable than others, even if they have higher housing costs:

Flipping the list, we see a reverse effect. The five worst cities in terms of location affordability for low-income families are San Antonio (71 percent), Riverside (71), Jacksonville (64), San Diego (62), and Phoenix (61)—all car-reliant places that rank poorly on annual transportation costs, transit share, and zero-vehicle households. In the case of San Antonio, the high cost of transportation is enough to make the metro area unaffordable to low-income families even though it's the cheapest in terms of annual rent.

None of this is to say that cities don't have lots of work to do when it comes to affordable housing. For low-income families, only two of the 22 cities fall below the HUD location affordability threshold of 45 percent—San Francisco and Washington—and those are right near the line. But if affordability is the ultimate goal, then reducing transportation costs is a key part of the conversation. Strong transit may not be sufficient to make a city affordable, but it's definitely necessary.

(Top image via joyfuldesigns / Shutterstock.com)


Get daily news from Route Fifty

Top stories on how innovation is driving smarter government across the country.

Close [ x ] More from GovExec

Thank you for subscribing to newsletters from GovExec.com.
We think these reports might interest you:

  • Sponsored by Brocade

    Best of 2016 Federal Forum eBook

    Earlier this summer, Federal and tech industry leaders convened to talk security, machine learning, network modernization, DevOps, and much more at the 2016 Federal Forum. This eBook includes a useful summary highlighting the best content shared at the 2016 Federal Forum to help agencies modernize their network infrastructure.

  • Sponsored by CDW-G

    GBC Flash Poll Series: Merger & Acquisitions

    Download this GBC Flash Poll to learn more about federal perspectives on the impact of industry consolidation.

  • Sponsored by One Identity

    One Nation Under Guard: Securing User Identities Across State and Local Government

    In 2016, the government can expect even more sophisticated threats on the horizon, making it all the more imperative that agencies enforce proper identity and access management (IAM) practices. In order to better measure the current state of IAM at the state and local level, Government Business Council (GBC) conducted an in-depth research study of state and local employees.

  • Sponsored by Aquilent

    The Next Federal Evolution of Cloud

    This GBC report explains the evolution of cloud computing in federal government, and provides an outlook for the future of the cloud in government IT.

  • Sponsored by Aquilent

    A DevOps Roadmap for the Federal Government

    This GBC Report discusses how DevOps is steadily gaining traction among some of government's leading IT developers and agencies.

  • Sponsored by LTC Partners, administrators of the Federal Long Term Care Insurance Program

    Approaching the Brink of Federal Retirement

    Approximately 10,000 baby boomers are reaching retirement age per day, and a growing number of federal employees are preparing themselves for the next chapter of their lives. Learn how to tackle the challenges that today's workforce faces in laying the groundwork for a smooth and secure retirement.

  • Sponsored by Hewlett Packard Enterprise

    Cyber Defense 101: Arming the Next Generation of Government Employees

    Read this issue brief to learn about the sector's most potent challenges in the new cyber landscape and how government organizations are building a robust, threat-aware infrastructure

  • Sponsored by Aquilent

    GBC Issue Brief: Cultivating Digital Services in the Federal Landscape

    Read this GBC issue brief to learn more about the current state of digital services in the government, and how key players are pushing enhancements towards a user-centric approach.

  • Sponsored by CDW-G

    Joint Enterprise Licensing Agreements

    Read this eBook to learn how defense agencies can achieve savings and efficiencies with an Enterprise Software Agreement.

  • Sponsored by Cloudera

    Government Forum Content Library

    Get all the essential resources needed for effective technology strategies in the federal landscape.


When you download a report, your information may be shared with the underwriters of that document.