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Environmental Justice Emerging Trends and Best Practices Guidebook

1. Transit and Affordability


Transportation is second only to housing as the largest expenditure for most American households.[8] High transportation costs can cause significant problems, particularly for low-income people. High costs can affect a person's discretionary budget, reduce economic opportunity, and increase stress, which in turn can lead to health and social problems. As transportation costs have risen and consciousness of environmental issues has increased, many Americans have rediscovered our urban centers and the more affordable public transportation options they offer. As a result, demand for housing near transit is expected to grow significantly over the next 20 years.[9] This demand has implications for transportation practitioners, as minority and low-income people-who historically may have been disproportionately burdened by transportation projects-may again be at risk. Now more than ever, practitioners must coordinate investments in transit and housing to maximize project benefits and minimize adverse effects on vulnerable populations.

Coordinating transit and housing investments leverage numerous advantages. Transit becomes a more attractive option for commuters if they live nearby; in-city living becomes more desirable if homeowners know they have transportation choices other than driving to meet their daily needs. Coordinated investments help realize Federal and State policies that are increasingly encouraging compact community development, less driving, and more livable communities. Most importantly, coordinated transit, mixed-income housing, and mixed-use development protect those most in need: minority and low-income populations who have suffered disproportionately from policies that have neglected to link high capacity transportation with affordable housing choices. Transportation practitioners can promote environmental justice principles when they coordinate transit and housing efforts.

The average working family (one earning between $20,000 and $50,000) across 28 metro areas spends more than half of its income on housing and transportation combined.[10] Since the 1950s, many Americans have moved to the suburbs in search of affordable housing. This "drive 'til you qualify" phenomenon-whereby homebuyers look farther out from their workplaces until they reach communities where they can afford to buy homes-was accepted by homebuyers as long as transportation costs were not taken into account. As these costs have risen, homebuyers have seen their budgets eaten away. Unlike monthly mortgage or rental payments, transportation expenses can be difficult to plan and track because they vary in amount and timing (e.g., monthly car payments, semi-annual insurance premiums, weekly fill-ups, and periodic automobile maintenance). As a result, people only grasp the true extent of these expenses after buying a home.[11] While the average U.S. household spends 19 percent of its income on transportation, households in location efficient neighborhoods with good transit access can spend approximately 9 percent. The pie charts show what transportation expenditures would be if housing were held constant.

The average U.S. household spends 19 percent of its income on transportation, households in location efficient neighborhoods with good transit access can spend approximately 9 percent. The pie charts show what transportation expenditures would be if housing were held constant. The table below the figure provides information on the Costs in Transit Oriented versus Auto-Oriented Neighborhoods. Click image for text version.

Figure 1. Typical Household Expenditures

Costs in Transit-Oriented vs. Auto-Oriented Neighborhoods

Expense Type Location Efficient Environment Average American Family Auto Dependent Exu
Housing 32% 32% 32%
Transportation 9% 19% 25%
Other Expenses 59% 49% 43%

These savings can be critical for low-income households. Transportation costs consume an average of 9 percent of the household budget for high-income families, whereas low-income families can spend 55 percent or more of their budgets on transportation costs.[12] When practitioners use the latest planning tools available to analyze and communicate the true costs of housing and transportation, potential homebuyers and renters are empowered with more information about combined housing and transportation costs. Lower income households especially benefit because they can reevaluate what is truly "affordable" given their budgets. Housing policies that preserve affordability and prevent gentrification and disproportionate residential displacement (i.e., when rising property values and taxes force out lower income residents), and decrease displacement of homeowners all help to address and meet the needs of vulnerable populations.

When coordinating transit and housing investments, practitioners can and should promote full and equitable participation of all potentially affected communities in the transportation decision-making process. For example, typically, when a new route or expanded service is planned, planners focus on addressing the needs of residents and businesses in the vicinity. Coordinating transit and housing efforts can make more resources available. This includes funding (see Austin example),[13] additional staffing and partners, additional outreach contacts, and public-private partnerships. These additional resources can help address project design and potential displacement while planning for future transit-oriented development (TOD), continued accessibility, and preservation of affordable housing options. While infusions of dollars and staff do not ensure that broader engagement of vulnerable populations will always take place, these additional resources and partner agency contacts can increase the likelihood of it being successful.

For those neighborhoods that are home to transit-dependent populations (i.e., where residents depend on public transit to get to work, school, and other daily destinations) access to transit is critical. Increasing transit options in tandem with adjacent housing options and improvements to the surrounding walking and wheeling[14] network can increase transit equity. However, proximity to transit is not enough in itself. Funding is needed to maintain transit facilities, increase access for bicyclists and pedestrians, introduce new service, and improve service levels. Coordinated investments in transit and housing may provide additional resources to meet these continued needs.

Austin's First Affordable Housing TOD

M Station is the first affordable housing transit-oriented development (TOD) in Austin, TX. The $24 million multifamily residential project sits next to a transit stop on Martin Luther King, Jr. Boulevard in East Austin, an area undergoing gentrification. The project reserves 60 percent of its units for families making less than $36,650. Roughly 90 percent of units are designated for those at or below the median family income. M Station received a Texas Department of Housing and Community Affairs award of $13 million in Federal tax credits, which makes the project possible.

Trends in Transit and Affordability

Interagency Partnership for Sustainable Communities: Six Livability Principles

  1. Provide more transportation choices.
  2. Promote equitable, affordable housing.
  3. Enhance economic competitiveness.
  4. Support existing communities.
  5. Coordinate policies and leverage investment.
  6. Value communities and neighborhoods.

Transit ridership is growing. People are becoming increasingly concerned about the economy and traffic congestion, and aware of options that increase health and active living and protect the environment. Transit is emerging as an attractive solution to today's challenges and a smart alternative to building additional highway capacity. From 1995 to 2008, transit ridership increased by 38 percent-a growth rate higher than the 14 percent increase in U.S. population and higher than the 21 percent growth in use of the Nation's highways over the same period.[15] Transit is likely to become an even more popular choice in the future, as demographic trends and economic realities drive consumers to consider options other than driving.

The importance of integrating affordability considerations into transportation planning is gaining traction with policymakers. Affordability is increasingly being viewed as a measure of a community's livability. Livability refers to the environmental, economic and social quality of an area as perceived by residents, employees, customers, and visitors. According to the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA), "Livability is about tying the quality and location of transportation facilities to broader opportunities such as access to good jobs, affordable housing, quality schools, and safe streets."[16] The trend today is to promote projects that address housing, transportation, and the environment; and that encourage compact, sustainable, and livable communities.[17]

The new Sustainable Communities Partnership was created between the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT), and U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). This DOT-HUD-EPA partnership prioritizes affordability in its six livability principles and will develop Federal affordability measures, which include housing, transportation, and other expenses that are affected by location choices. Although transportation costs now approach or exceed housing costs for many working families, Federal definitions of housing affordability do not recognize the strain of soaring transportation costs on homeowners and renters who live in areas isolated from work, school, shopping, and recreation opportunities and transportation choices-particularly transit. The Sustainable Communities Partnership will redefine affordability to reflect these costs, improve consideration of the cost of utilities for renters and homeowners, and provide consumers with enhanced information to help them make housing decisions.[18]


The need for a more integrated connection between transportation and housing affordability is being identified and addressed by transportation practitioners and community organizations. Current transportation planning supports congestion management and freight transport, which, if not carefully considered during planning, could have a disproportionately adverse effect on disadvantaged communities. Historically, less policy emphasis has been placed on improving affordable modes of transport such as walking, cycling, and public transit, than on ensuring that affordable housing is available in compact, mixed-use communities with access to jobs, school, retail, and transportation choices.[19] Although transit can be expensive to build, operate, and maintain, it helps support low-cost walking and wheeling, and can help lower overall household costs. Providing access to affordable and quality public transportation continues to present a challenge. With limited rights-of-way available, large-scale transit projects can be controversial and expensive. Transportation practitioners may also be unfamiliar with strategies for preserving and expanding the supply of affordable housing in inner city and older suburban neighborhoods that have access to transit. Limited dollars in a competitive funding environment can be a substantial challenge for proponents interested in increasing transit service while increasing affordable housing around it. When major transit investments have spurred new development, in the absence of adequate consideration of measures in advance to preserve the existing community, minority and low-income residents sometimes have faced loss of community and cultural facilities, as well as eviction or pressure to sell their homes, in the face of escalating property values and taxes. Practitioners often confront issues of gentrification or unanticipated displacement from the project footprint and/or ensuing development.

Community outreach to traditionally underserved communities continues to challenge planners. While some transportation agencies have specialized community outreach staff, not all are multilingual or have translation services available for planned events and conversations in the field. Moreover, some community members may be wary of project impacts and distrustful of agency staff. To ensure effective communication and community engagement, transportation planners are required to develop and use a documented participation plan that defines a process for providing citizens with an opportunity to engage in transportation plan and program development.

Finally, there has been criticism of smart growth in relation to affordability. Some opponents have suggested that concentrating growth in cities and towns to avoid sprawl can lead to higher household costs, an effect completely opposite of what was intended.[20] In some cases where transit service has spurred significant new TOD, the result can be that people with average incomes are unable to afford to buy homes in or near the new developments. This highlights the need for strategies that, at a minimum, set aside some portion of new development and surrounding households as affordable housing adjacent to transit and in surrounding households. Many homebuyers also prefer low-density development and are less inclined to relocate to areas with higher density housing, especially first-time parents of modest means. Recent studies find the presence of children in a household is linked to lower interest in transit-oriented neighborhoods.[21] However, households with children are expected to be only 12 percent of the change in population for 2000-2025, and there is a significantly growing preference for higher density housing and smaller lots-as long as the development includes sidewalks, narrower connected streets, shops and services, parks, and a sense of community.[22] High-density projects are also sometimes difficult to site, as residents of older neighborhoods sometimes oppose these projects for fear of changing the community culture. Coordinated investments in transit and housing need to foresee and consider all these challenges.

Case Studies

Case Study 1: Bay Area Housing and Transportation Affordability (San Francisco Bay Area, CA)

One tool practitioners and the public can use to analyze and communicate the integration of housing and transportation is the Housing + Transportation Affordability Index (H+TSM Index) created by the Center for Neighborhood Technology (CNT), with the support of its research partners in the Center for Transit Oriented Development (CTOD). The index measures the true affordability of housing by taking into account not just the annual cost of the mortgage or the rent, but also the estimated annual cost of transportation that will be required for typical daily needs based on that location.[23] While traditional measures of affordability focus only on housing costs, the H+T Index quantifies the balance that buyers and renters strike between housing and transportation expenses when choosing where to live, and makes the true cost of housing choices more transparent.[24] CNT suggests that the combined housing and transportation burden should be no more than 45 percent of household income.[25]

One tool practitioners and the public can use to analyze and communicate the integration of housing and transportation is the Housing + Transportation Affordability Index (H+TSM Index) created by the Center for Neighborhood Technology (CNT), with the support of its research partners in the Center for Transit Oriented Development (CTOD).

Figure 2. A New View of Housing Affordability

The Metropolitan Transportation Commission (MTC), the metropolitan planning organization (MPO) for the San Francisco Bay Area, asked CNT to apply the H+T Index to the Bay Area. MTC set a goal in its Transportation 2035 Plan to reduce the combined cost of housing and transportation as a share of household income by 10 percent from today's level for low- and moderately low-income households (households making less than $60,000 per year in 1999 dollars, or the region's approximate median income). CNT looked at three communities: urban downtown Oakland, suburban San Mateo, and exurban Antioch.

CNT's data revealed that there are very few opportunities in the Bay Area for low-income households when housing and transportation costs are considered together. For low-income households earning less than $35,000 per year in 1999, the combined cost of housing and transportation place the vast majority of the Bay Area out of reach. Less than 4 percent of the region's housing units are deemed affordable for low-income households; most of these are concentrated in eastern San Francisco and Oakland.[26] Low-income households were shown to dedicate 58 percent of their income to combined housing and transportation costs in Oakland, 56 percent in San Mateo, and 57 percent in Antioch. These are all above the report's recommended ceiling of 48 percent as well as CNT's own recommended ceiling of 45 percent. While housing costs were lower farther from the urban centers, transportation costs were higher.

Figure 3 shows the location of neighborhoods with combined housing and transportation costs affordable to low-income households.

Figure 3. Location of Neighborhoods with Combined Housing and Transportation Costs Affordable to Low-Income Households

Source: Center for Neighborhood Technology for the Metropolitan Transportation Commission, 2009.3

CNT's analysis also shows that true affordability comes from living in compact, mixed-use, transit-rich communities where homes are located near shopping, schools, and work. Residents of these communities typically pay more for housing but own fewer cars, pay less for transportation, and thus dedicate less of their budgets to combined housing and transportation costs because of their proximity to transit and jobs. CNT estimates that better coordinated transit and housing investments could produce huge savings. For example, if just one-quarter of the homes permitted in the Bay Area between 1999 and 2006 provided transit access adequate to enable their occupants to reduce their car ownership by one car, $132.5 million in disposable income would have been created in reduced car ownership costs alone.[27]

MTC's use of the H+T Index makes the argument that housing policies should be based on the combined cost of housing and transportation. Neighborhood transportation costs should be disclosed to potential homebuyers. Comprehensive planning efforts by municipalities and regions should be improved. Finally, diversified public investments in transit and other infrastructure should be increased.[28]

Case Study 2: Fairmount/Indigo Line (Boston, MA)

The Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority's Fairmount Branch, the only commuter rail line running entirely within the City of Boston, is ill-suited to the needs of the neighborhoods it runs through. Headways are 30 minutes during the peak, and 60 minutes or longer at all other times. Evening service is limited and there is no weekend service. The line stops at only three intermediate stations between South Station and its Readville terminal. In the most thickly settled section of the route-the Four Corners neighborhood-there is an almost three-mile gap between stations. This has raised environmental justice issues for the primarily low income and minority residents of the area, who are forced to host a diesel rail line they cannot use. The route passes without stopping at a key employment and shopping center (South Bay Center) and busy medical complex (Boston Medical Center). The line's poor level of service is particularly out of place given its location in the midst of the densely-populated, highly transit-dependent gap between the Red and Orange rapid transit lines-the largest section of the City not served by a subway. The corridor has a 63 percent minority population-a figure that rises to 91 percent in the section between Uphams Corner and Morton Street. Twenty-nine percent of households in the corridor do not own an automobile-a figure that rises to 40 percent between Uphams and Morton. Bus routes in the corridor are the most crowded in the system and corridor residents endure the longest commute times in the City.

The 9.2 mile line follows an historic railroad right of way that first supported train service as far back as 1855 and provided local service to as many as eleven stations until 1944. After a 35-year absence, passenger service was restored in 1979, when construction along the Southwest Corridor necessitated rerouting trains from the south through Dorchester. At this time there were no stations between Fairmount in Hyde Park and South Station. When construction was completed in 1987, most rail service was again reassigned to the mainline. Local neighborhood groups, led by the Dudley Street Neighborhood Initiative, pushed for and won continued service on the upgraded Dorchester track, with restored stations at Uphams Corner and Morton Street. However the full benefit of these stations has yet to be realized because of the line's poor level of service. A watershed moment came in 1999 when local community groups, led by the Greater Four Corners Action Coalition, put forth a new vision for the corridor. The plan recognized that additional stations alone would not meet the needs of the neighborhoods along the track and that an entirely new way of conceptualizing and operating the line was required. The coalition proposed that service would be repackaged as the "Indigo Line" in the model of the MBTA's rapid transit lines.

This new service would continue to utilize commuter rail technology; it would be run as if it were a regular subway line. The result would be a rapid transit-commuter rail hybrid under the Indigo Line.

Figure 4. Fairmount Commuter Rail Line, Dorchester, MA

Source: Dorchester Bay Economic Development Corporation, 2010.4

While the service would continue to utilize commuter rail technology, it would be run as if it were a regular subway line. The result would be a rapid transit-commuter rail hybrid under the "Indigo Line" brand. Proposed improvements (spanning capital, operational, marketing and policy elements) included:

Improvements to the Fairmount Line Stations-Before and After. Photograph of existing conditions near station, followed by a drawing of proposed improvements.

Figure 5. Improvements to the Fairmount Line Stations-Before and After

Source: Goody Clancy, 2006.5

In 2002, the MBTA committed $37.3 million in the FTA formula funding for an upgrade of the Fairmount Line. The investment in the line's infrastructure consisted of the complete rehabilitation of the Uphams Corner and Morton Street stations, which opened in 2007, providing high level platforms, shelter from the elements, lighting and furniture, as well as the rehabilitation and replacement of six functionally obsolete bridges, and the construction of a new interlocking and signal system.

The initial investment by the FTA and the MBTA will leverage an additional $135 million in local funding for the construction of four new stations at Newmarket/South Bay, Four Corners, Talbot Avenue, and Blue Hill Avenue. Once the project is complete, ridership is expected to jump from 2,800 per day to nearly 13,800 per day. A new Four Corners station is projected to be the highest ridership station in the entire commuter rail system, outside of North Station, South Station and Back Bay. At 1,090 boardings, a new Talbot Ave. station would be tied with Providence as the 12th highest ridership station.[29]

In addition to stations and service upgrades, project proponents see a revitalization of corridor communities on the horizon. Developers, mostly community organizations, have bought or are planning to buy and rebuild as many as a dozen properties along the corridor. Four community development corporations (CDCs) are leading the effort: Dorchester Bay Economic Development Corporation, Codman Square Neighborhood Development Corporation, Mattapan Community Development Corporation, and Southwest Boston Community Development Corporation.

Drawing of proposed mixed-use development at the Talbot Station, incuding the Indigo Cafe on the ground floor.

Figure 6. Proposed development of the "Indigo Café" at the Talbot Station.

Source: Goody Clancy, 2006.5

The CDCs are acquiring and redeveloping small sites along the corridor, and addressing gentrification concerns by focusing on projects that will maintain affordability. Projects typically involve apartments or condominiums, some with a retail component, and are designed to take advantage of their proximity to transportation into downtown Boston. For example, the new Dudley Village project offers 50 units of affordable rental housing and approximately 6,500 square feet of retail space. The CDCs are looking to spearhead smart growth and transit-oriented development, create or preserve 1,500 housing units, and develop 780,000 square feet of commercial space, adding roughly 1,300 jobs.

Dudley Village Project: A Model Urban Village in Dorchester, MA. This is a picture of the affordable housing project nearing completion.

Figure 7. Dudley Village Project: A Model "Urban Village" in Dorchester, MA

Source: Dorchester Bay Economic Development Corporation, 2010

More importantly, because the community has been involved in the project since early on in its development, avoiding or mitigating displacement has been an integral component of the project's planning. Often, an unintended consequence of transit oriented development is that, if successful, it prices the current residents out of their own neighborhoods. Here, the community groups have been acting proactively at the outset to make sure this does not happen by buying up underutilized parcels along the corridor now and developing the affordable and mixed income housing now so the people who grew up in the community can benefit from the investment in their community. In this vein, the Indigo Line can serve as a model for other communities across the country concerned about gentrification as a result of investments in public transportation. The plans for the Fairmount/Indigo Line also include creation of a 9-mile "Fairmount/Indigo Greenway." The greenway would use the transit line as a vehicle to connect small neighborhood parks, open space, and the Neponset River with a linear multiuse path. In February 2010, U.S. EPA designated the Fairmount Corridor as one of five sustainable communities pilots in the country. This recognition will bring assistance with planning, and capital for housing, jobs, transportation, and the environment that would not have been possible without the initial transit investment and, in turn, will support that investment in the future.



Updated: 12/6/2016
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