Walkable Cities Are More Affordable Than You Think – We Need More of Them

People living in walkable cities may have high housing costs, but they also tend to have low transportation costs and better access to jobs, according to a new study from Smart Growth America [PDF].

The most walkable metro areas have better job access and lower transportation costs, helping cancel out the effects of high housing costs. Graph: Smart Growth America
The most walkable metro areas have better job access and lower transportation costs, lightening the burden of high housing costs. Table: Smart Growth America

SGA ranked the 30 largest American regions according to the share of rental housing, office space, and retail located in areas with high Walk Scores. Then, using data from the Center for Neighborhood Technology, each region was also assigned a “social equity index” score based on housing and transportation costs for moderate-income households, as well as the number of jobs residents can access.

SGA found a significant link between walkability and its equity index, even though housing costs tend to be higher in walkable places.

In the areas with the highest walkable urbanism score, housing costs per square foot are indeed quite a bit higher than in car-oriented places — 93 percent higher, according to SGA. But moderate-income households in those six regions also have lower transportation costs — about 19 percent of their income, on average, compared to 28 percent in the least walkable places. Residents of compact places likely pay for less square footage than residents of spread-out places.

All told, SGA found that moderate-income households in the six most walkable regions spend about the same share of their income on housing and transportation combined as moderate-income households across all 30 metros — about 42 percent and 41 percent, respectively.

Residents of the most walkable areas also have more employment opportunities within a short distance of home, so they not only have more job choices, they’re also more likely to be able to get to work without owning a car and all the associated costs that entails. CNT’s “Employment Access Index,” a measure of how many jobs are within convenient reach of residents, is three times higher for the most walkable regions than the least walkable ones.

The SGA report doesn’t mean that walkable cities are as affordable as they should be — housing costs are certainly getting out of reach for many people in some neighborhoods. But it indicates that walkable places are where people have a better shot at finding work without incurring high transportation costs. America needs to make more places like that.

  • Kevin Love

    “But moderate-income households in those six regions also have lower transportation costs — about 19 percent of their income, on average, compared to 28 percent in the least walkable places.”

    Excluding vacation travel, the percentage of my income I spend on transportation rounds to zero. Annual maintenance costs of a bicycle? Insignificant.

    I feel sorry for the people who choose to spend 28 percent of their income on transportation. Unless they are rich, they are depriving themselves of so much to feed their car addiction.

  • Larry Littlefield

    The reason housing costs are high in walkable cities is not because they are walkable. It is because there is a shortage of them.

    There is a shortage of them because most of them pretty much collapsed during the suburbanization era, and now lack jobs, services and infrastructure except in a few locations. Then more people in generations born later decided they wanted them, creating the shortage.


  • Miles Bader

    And (presumably during that same era) many American cities have adopted crazy laws that prevent denser housing and commerce from being built, and prioritize/subsidize driving .. is it any wonder it’s hard to get more housing…? ><

  • Miles Bader

    Hmm, average commuter pass here, maybe around $50-70/month (depends on the route and various details, of course, but that’s not untypical), so if your take-home pay is say, $3000/month, that’s … 2-3%.

    Trips (on transit) outside of work to other parts of the city might, say, double that, so 6%. I do much of my shopping / dining / etc during the week along my commute route, or within walking distance of my house / office, so it’s free, but there’s always random stuff you do.

    Say somebody loves to dine out somewhere new every day, so double it again, that’s 12%…. round up just because you never know, so say 15%.

    How is somebody spending 30% of their income on transportation…?! oO;

  • Larry Littlefield

    That’s true. But I can tell you that in many places things are gradually moving in the other direction.

    The question is whether or not it is possible to really revive more older cities with high taxes, inferior public services, brownfields and social problems? This guy Dan Gilbert is buying Detroit on the basis he can do so.

    And is it possible to create new walkable cities? Austin may be heading for a trap where it is too dense for auto but not dense enough to be walkable or have affordable transit, like Staten Island.

  • Larry Littlefield

    For transit, you have to add in the public cost. Just because you pay it in taxes doesn’t mean you don’t pay it.

  • Miles Bader

    In many cities, sure. I live in Tokyo though, and the transit lines I use are private companies, and receive no subsidies (operational or capital).

    Roads, on the other hand… those are paid for from taxes, pretty much everywhere…?

  • Charles Siegel

    Look at the census bureau figures, and you will see that the average American spends about 20% of their income on transportation.

    Needless to say, spending varies among different people (and high income people generally spend a higher percentage than moderate income people), so this article’s claim is perfectly plausible:

    “moderate-income households in those six regions also have lower
    transportation costs — about 19 percent of their income, on average,
    compared to 28 percent in the least walkable places.”

    Your comment talks about transportation costs for people who have access to transit (commuter passes), so that has nothing to do with people in the least walkable places. Imagine a moderate income person living in the suburbs of Houston and you will get the idea.

  • Jason

    “Trips (on transit) outside of work to other parts of the city might, say, double that, so 6%.”

    If you’re doing a daily commute on transit you probably have an unlimited pass.

  • Miles Bader

    In many places yes, but that’s not how commuter passes work where I live. Here they’re unlimited-use, but route-specific.

    It probably evens out though, I suppose: in places where an unlimited pass gives you access to the entire city (and which has a non-trivial transit system), such passes are probably somewhat more expensive.

  • scottmercer

    LA at number 11! That might surprise some people. I will take it.

  • As long as people aren’t look at their phones while walking and drivers are not looking at their phones while driving. We are building a database of intersections that are problematic for pedestrians. See badintersections.com

  • dfiler

    Interesting, Pittsburghers spend the least on housing but the most on transportation.

  • Miles Bader

    My point is that is not surprise that some people pay that much—obviously there are places where they do—it’s simply to point out how unnecessary that is in the abstract, that it’s very possible to do much better.

  • SF Bay has a higher Social Equity Index? Really now? Driving all the lower income people out towards Stockton, Sacramento and Modesto might have something to do with that. As might making the area increasingly a region of the single and the childless, who are not raising families and don’t incur those costs.


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