Experts discuss links between housing, transportation costs

(This story initially appeared in the June 2, 2021 edition of Charlottesville Community Engagement)

At some point this year, we’ll know exactly how many people are believed to live in our communities when the U.S. Census is released. But, projections from the Weldon Cooper Center at the University of Virginia as well as their yearly estimates depict a growing region. As the cost of housing in Charlottesville and Albemarle’s urban ring continues to increase, many will choose or have already chosen to live in communities half an hour away or more. Data from the Census Bureau’s American Community Survey shows the vast majority of people commute to work in a single occupant vehicle? But does that have to be the case? 

Data from the U.S. Census Bureau’s American Community Survey for commuting data, five-year average (look at the tables yourself!

In May, the Central Virginia Regional Housing Partnership held a panel discussion on the topic. For background, housing is to be considered affordable if rent or a mortgage payment makes up thirty percent or less of household expenditures. Households that pay more than that are considered stressed. 

Todd Litman is a founder and the executive director of the Victoria Transport Policy Institute. He said transportation costs also have to be factored in.

“It works out that a cheap house is not truly affordable if it has particularly high transportation costs [and] if it’s located in an area where people have to spend a lot of time and money traveling,” Litman said. “A lot of experts now recommend that instead of defining affordability as 30 percent of household budgets to housing, it’s defined as 45 percent of household budgets dedicated to housing and transportation combined.” 

Litman said transportation costs are more volatile for low-income households because of the unpredictability of fuel prices and maintenance costs. 

Stephen Johnson, a planning manager with Jaunt, said the cost of time must also be factored in.

“If I can only afford to take public transit, but that means my commute to work is going to take five to ten times longer, then that’s time that I’m losing to spend on other things,” Johnson said.

Johnson said people also can lose jobs if a transit connection doesn’t work out. He said this community has public transit options, but they are not compelling for many.

“When we put ourselves in the shoes of somebody’s who is deciding to take transit or drive, there are four factors that one would consider,” Johnson said. “The first would be the financial cost. The second would be the time cost. The third would be reliability. Can I rely on getting there on time? The fourth I think would be flexibility. Will my transportation allow me to make a last-minute change to my schedule? To travel with a friend, or to bring home a bunch of shopping.”

Johnson said public transit is cheaper to use than driving, but the other three factors are more difficult. He said transit in the area could be reformed by greater investments and better planning.

“An Albemarle planner might come to me and say ‘we’ve got this community, it’s got a lot of cul-de-sacs, a lot of houses, and we’re really struggling with congestion. Can you put a public transit band-aid on this and fix it?’” Johnson said. “In that case, the game board is already set and there’s only so much we can do as a player but I think if we can expand our idea of what transit planning is, when we think about things like density, how can we take those A’s and B’s and cluster them together so that when we put a bus out there we can cover a lot of trips?”

Litman said a goal is to not necessarily encourage people to go car-free, but to work to create areas where more trips can be taken in a walk, a bike-ride, or by getting on the bus. This was more common before the middle of the 20th century.

“So if you go back to the older neighborhoods, they’re all very walkable,” Litman said. “They have sidewalks on all the streets. You have local schools, and park, and stores that were designed. The neighborhood was organized around the idea that at least some people will rely on walking. We lost that for a while and now there’s a number of planning movements and approaches that are trying to establish that.”

Litman said developers and local governments should be working together to encourage more than just single-family housing. 

“If you’re building new neighborhoods, those that allow what we call ‘the missing middle’, compact housing types like townhouses and low-rise apartments are going to be far more affordable and therefore far more inclusive,” Litman said. 

Todd Litman of the Victoria Transport Policy Institute

But back to transit. Jaunt mostly provides on-demand service, but does have some fixed-route service. Johnson explained what works best in what situation. 

“Fixed route options are much more appropriate public transit option for dense urban cores and we see that in downtown Charlottesville and urban Albemarle County,” Johnson said. “Demand response is a much more appropriate technology for more rural areas and that’s the majority of Jaunt’s service area are the counties around Charlottesville and Albemarle.” 

However, Johnson said transit in urban areas could be transformed if systems adopt on-demand tech. Jaunt has been working on a pilot project to provide service to Loaves and Fishes on Lambs Road, a site not accessible via Charlottesville Area Transit. 

In this community, there are three transit systems. They are the Charlottesville Area Transit (CAT), the University of Virginia Transit Service (UTS)  and Jaunt. In September, BRITE will begin the Afton Express service between Staunton and Charlottesville. How do all of these many pieces come together? Here’s Stephen Johnson again.

“Charlottesville and Albemarle are working together through the Regional Transit Partnership to try to help build a cohesive vision there of how Jaunt and Charlottesville Area Transit and UTS can all work together to provide a cohesive transit system for the residents of Charlottesville and Albemarle,” Johnson said.

You can view the entire video on the Thomas Jefferson Planning District Commission’s YouTube page

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