Last week, Rachel Quednau shared a piece about the Cost of Commuting vs. Living Close, written using a new comprehensive mapping tool called mySidewalk. This week, we're pleased to publish a guest article by Stephen Hardy, CPO of mySidewalk, which builds on last week's piece.


As the election of 2016 looms closer, the dominant political narrative is one of haves and have nots, of income inequality and the growing fissure between the wealthy and the disappearing middle class. Today in the US, of the 121 million full-time employees, 33 million of those full-time workers live below the poverty line–a shocking 27 percent. While the research and attention on sheer wage earnings has gotten most of the spotlight, there is another part of the equation being largely ignored: the way we build our cities directly contributes to the fissure.

As Strong Towns contributor Rachel Quednau points out in her recent article (The Cost of Commuting vs. Living Close), the cost of commuting is overlooked and is a hugely important part of the story. On average, 10-15 percent of a person’s income is used for transportation costs. This means we are paying up to 15 percent of our take home pay, just to get back to work. Rachel also hints at where this is an even bigger problem: the working poor are the hardest hit.

A new study from the University of Texas revealed that those most in need of affordable housing are often subjected to location burdens (the inability to get from one place to another affordably) that overcome the benefits of affordable or subsidized housing.

Last week a new study from the University of Texas revealed that those most in need of affordable housing are often subjected to location burdens (the inability to get from one place to another affordably) that overcome the benefits of affordable or subsidized housing:

"What we discovered is that many locations around the U.S. that don't have public transportation don't really offer affordable housing because residents have to purchase a car, insurance and spend time commuting. It becomes a social equity issue. The ability to get to quality jobs or schools is limited because some of the people can't afford it because of the transportation costs." (Shima Hamidi, University of Texas at Arlington assistant professor and author of Housing Policy Debate)

The gap between “making it” and “falling behind” is literally being exacerbated by the mistakes of transportation and land use planning past. This is not necessarily a new idea, but new data makes the hard truth harder to ignore.

Let’s look at the 3 cities Rachel dug in to: Washington DC, Milwaukee, and Walla Walla.

In the DC metro area there are 352,000 people who work full time and live below the poverty level. By using the HUD and Department of Transportation Location Affordability Index we get a glimpse at the percent of income required to travel for people earning less than the poverty level.

Percent of income spent on transportation for a very low income individual in Washington, D.C.

Percent of income spent on transportation for a very low income individual in Washington, D.C. metro. Source: Visualized in the mySidewalk platform, information from U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) and the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT): Location Affordability Portal, Version 2: Location Affordability Index.

Percent of income spent on transportation for a very low income individual in Washington, D.C. metro. Source: Visualized in the mySidewalk platform, information from U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) and the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT): Location Affordability Portal, Version 2: Location Affordability Index.

The density and transit system in DC really shine. You can see that in the lighter colored census tracts a smaller portion of an income is required and that the darker portions further from the city quickly become very “transportation” expensive. Therefore, the percent of income needed to travel like the people around you in the DC metro is between 25 and 35 percent.

Let’s take look at Milwaukee and Walla Walla:

Percent of income spent on transportation for a very low income individual in Milwaukee:

Percent of income spent on transportation for a very low income individual in Milwaukee, WI. Source: Visualized in the mySidewalk platform, information from U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) and the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT): Location Affordability Portal, Version 2: Location Affordability Index.

Percent of income spent on transportation for a very low income individual in Milwaukee, WI. Source: Visualized in the mySidewalk platform, information from U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) and the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT): Location Affordability Portal, Version 2: Location Affordability Index.

Milwaukee’s income spent on transportation for those below the poverty line varies from about 25 percent in the center of the city to almost 50 percent on the periphery (159,000 people work full-time in Milwaukee and live below the poverty line). That means any “affordable” or subsidized housing not directly adjacent to good transit is likely to quickly become unaffordable.

Percent of income spent on transportation for a very low income individual in Walla Walla:

Percent of income spent on transportation for a very low income individual in Walla Walla, WA. Source: Visualized in the mySidewalk platform, information from U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) and the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT): Location Affordability Portal, Version 2: Location Affordability Index.

Percent of income spent on transportation for a very low income individual in Walla Walla, WA. Source: Visualized in the mySidewalk platform, information from U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) and the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT): Location Affordability Portal, Version 2: Location Affordability Index.

In Walla Walla, transportation costs are a staggering 46-75 percent for an individual living below the poverty line (6,800 people work full-time and live below the poverty line). This is emblematic of many smaller communities and in less dense areas. In less dense communities without transit, transportation costs are prohibitively expensive–either burning precious income or stranding people.

Looking carefully at the data–it is clear that the costs of dispersed housing and employment centers, and the transportation they require (not to mention the costs for cities to maintain sprawling infrastructure) is strangling the working poor.

While the fix to an automobile-oriented city is a long one, the good news is that there are some interesting models that can help in the short-term. Bridj is an on-demand rideshare concept that fills in the gaps of a transit system. Additionally, some cities like Altamonte Springs outside of Orlando are experimenting with subsidizing private rideshare companies like Uber and Lyft. Finally, changing the model for subsidized housing to include data about transportation costs should provide a boost. By looking closely at community data, it should be possible to not only make invisible costs more clear, but also prescribe policy that is based on sound insight.

Want to learn more about the transportation burden on the working poor in your community? Request a free local analysis here from mySidewalk

(Top photo by Manki Kim)


About the Author

Stephen Hardy is the Chief Product Officer of mySidewalk. Stephen is responsible for providing the strategic vision for mySidewalk’s team of designers and developers working on their data insights platform for cities. Before joining mySidewalk, he used the platform as the Director of Planning with BNIM Architects. Stephen is certified by the American Institute of Certified Planners and holds a LEED AP credential.