"Beltway Burden": The Combined Cost of Housing and Transportation
In Washington, D.C., about 41% of people drive to work; 38.5% take public transportation. Flickr photo by ehpien.

In Washington, D.C., about 41% of people drive to work; 38.5% take public transportation. Flickr photo by ehpien.

The Urban Land Institute recently published a report about the “cost of place” in the Washington, D.C. metropolitan region, looking at the combined costs of housing and transportation. Turns out, any housing savings that a family enjoys by living 15 miles or more away from work (i.e. in the cheaper suburbs) are offset by higher transportation costs. (Download the full report.)

Here is a summary of the main findings:

The Facts
Region-wide, households spend an average of nearly $23,000 per year on housing (i.e. mortgage payments, taxes, rent, etc.) and $13,000 on transportation (i.e. commuting to work, running errands, getting to school, etc.). Combined, these costs represent almost 47 percent of the median household income. “For many working families, the combined burdens of housing and transportation costs may be too great to bear.”

There’s also a chart in the report that shows how people get around. In the entire metro area, 77.5% of people commute by personal vehicle; 13.9% take public transport; 3.5% bike or walk; and 4.0% work from home (or “other.)

The Story
Living in the D.C. area is expensive. So, in order to find affordable homes, many median-income families move out to more remote suburbs. But these areas are often under-served by mass transit and far-removed from work centers. Therefore, “efforts to save on housing expenses often lead to higher transportation costs, with the result that an even larger portion of household budgets are consumed by the combined burden of housing and transportation costs.”

The Policy Recommendations

Create more housing and transportation choices
Make sure that developments near public transit stops include options for all income classes, not just the high-end bracket. This can be done through “inclusionary housing requirements or incentives, density bonuses for mixed-income developments, and covenants to ensure ongoing affordability.”

Focus on compact development
Preserve existing affordable housing options in the city and older suburbs, where public transit already exists. Also, encourage compact development, where public transportation is more affordable and allows people to meet their daily needs by taking shorter drives, walking or riding a bike. “By reducing the number of vehicle miles that individuals travel each day, more compact development would reduce traffic congestion, greenhouse gas emissions, and the transportation cost burdens of households.”

Get employers to play their part
Bosses can encourage more workers to telecommute to reduce commute times and travel expenses. Also, employers can offer housing assistance to employees to rent or buy homes closer to their jobs or public transportation, which could reduce their reliance on driving.

Maintain and improve the public transit systems in the region
Improving existing bus and rail service, or expanding service in under-served or low accessibility areas, will help reduce traffic congestion and increase transportation affordability.

The Future
Increasing sprawl and congestion pose problems for area residents’ quality of life. “The largest population growth in the metro region is expected in the outer suburbs, where the combined costs for housing and transportation are highest, posing further challenges to regional affordability.”

The ULI Terwilliger Center for Workforce Housing created a housing and transportation “cost calculator,” which provides D.C.-area consumers with real-time data to make informed housing decisions. See how your neighborhood compares: www.uli.org/costcalculator.

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