Lack of Housing Hurts Workers More Than Traffic

Photo: Minesweeper/Wikimedia Commons
Photo: Minesweeper/Wikimedia Commons

Urban planners should abandon their obsession with fighting congestion in favor of building more housing in traffic-choked cities because people who live in congested urban centers actually have better access to good jobs and economic opportunity, a new study reveals.

It’s no great surprise that the best jobs in the study region — the San Francisco Bay Area — are in congested areas, but, according to the study by a team of UCLA researchers, commuters who lived near uncongested highways on the fringes of the region couldn’t get to the best jobs faster than people living within the high-traffic areas.

“The most densely developed places typically offer the highest levels of access, despite typically higher levels of congestion,” the researchers wrote in the study, which was published in May in the journal Transportation Research Part A.

The study analyzed the number of jobs available to the 8.2 million people living in the nine counties making up the San Francisco Bay Area. The authors calculated the number of jobs available to commuters living in 1,454 “zones” across the region, cross-referencing data on travel time, distance, speed and job locations.

Those living in the most central zones had greater proximity to jobs, including higher-paying IT jobs, despite the congestion. The higher rate of speed enjoyed by exurban residents couldn’t make up the difference, the study found. In fact, proximity was almost three times greater a predictor of job access than speed. For IT jobs — which the study assumed people were willing to travel farther for because of the greater pay — the effect was much more pronounced: 18 times greater for proximity than speed.


Map: Authors
The places with the least congestion had the worst job access in an analysis of the Bay Area. Map: Authors:  Trevor Thomas, Andrew Mondschein, Taner Osman, Brian D. Taylor

Even if congestion could be dramatically improved across the Bay Area, the authors found, the effects on job access would be relatively minor. As frustrating as congestion is to drivers, only 5 to 12 percent of the region’s residents would see an “appreciable” increase in job access if congestion was essentially eliminated, the job access models the team created showed. That, practically speaking, would be impossible or cost prohibitive to accomplish anyway.

The findings shouldn’t be surprising to anyone with even a passing knowledge of real estate prices in the Bay Area. But the proximity effect — the more important factor from a worker’s perspective — has been almost entirely ignored by the highway planning profession, which has spent billions trying to relieve congestion on urban highways, and largely ignoring the role that land use plays in people’s travel behavior.

Workers in metro regions would clearly be better served by more affordable housing options near jobs, the authors said, recommending infill housing in the urban core.

Hat Tip: Tim Kovach

73 thoughts on Lack of Housing Hurts Workers More Than Traffic

  1. This problem affects many more areas than just the SF Bay region. The costs of land and buildings in central cities often makes the rents or mortgages unaffordable for many people – especially those in lower paid jobs. Some people live in far-distant suburbs with punishingly-long commutes in serious congestion – just so they can afford the housing.

    I have no “magic solution” to this problem, just observations of facts.

    James C. Walker, National Motorists Association

  2. Zoning laws that prevent us from making good use of the land in central cities are a bigger problem than the cost of land. The cost of land is unaffordable if you can only build one or two story buildings on it. But the same land cost becomes much more affordable if you can spread it among more people by building six or eight story buildings.

  3. The costs of housing in the Bay Area, even those areas on the outer periphery of jobs centers are unaffordable for most workers in those jobs. There may be solutions, but none seem likely to be implemented, because it will require both political will and subsidized housing at all levels except the mansions, which are mostly what the banks will finance.

  4. True to a point, but the rents are almost equally unaffordable in many city areas, including the SF Bay area. I have friends in Palo Alto where some people with decent jobs like teachers and nurses live in their vans or small motor homes parked on the street during the work week and shower at fitness club facilities. They go home to more affordable housing on the weekends that is beyond realistic commuting ranges.
    James C. Walker, National Motorists Association

  5. Palo Alto is a great example of a place where zoning rules nearly prohibit the construction of new housing.

  6. ANGIE SCHMITT — In the 1960’s, my father, a few uncles and several teachers all said that the reason for living in San Francisco despite the congestion was that access to downtown jobs was much easier than from suburban communities. Back then, rent on a 2 bedroom flat was $120 per month!

    It is disappointing to read that we need university researchers to tell us what we already know. Somehow, during the last 50 years, a lot of parents didn’t tell their kids. Is this because there has been so much generational rebellion?

  7. Which is why upzoning to share the cost of land for market-rate units and subsidies to fulfill the need for housing where market forces have failed is so important. The cost of commuting from far distant suburbs is as equally punishing as housing costs, sometimes more-so if the spatial mismatch between housing and jobs is bad enough.

  8. ANGIE SCHMITT CONT’D — “Workers in metro regions would clearly be better served by more affordable housing options near jobs, the authors said, recommending infill housing in the urban core.”

    This is like when comedian Steve Martin told his audience how to become a millionaire: “First, get a million dollars!”

    The researcher is useless to ordinary people. Everybody can’t live near downtown San Francisco. This is ostensibly remedied by building new cities, like Irvine in Southern California. Thus, we circle back to the tiresome issue of excessively high housing cost.

  9. ANGIE SCHMITT CONCL. — We Americans are fatally dependent on having the Federal Reserve Bank “print money,” which necessarily drives prices up. Those who own financial assets (including real estate) fatten up on inflation. Government overspending notoriously forces Fed “money printing.” However, we ordinary Americans borrow so much money with our credit cars and our loans for autos, education and homes that we need heavy “money printing” just to finance our purchases up front.

    The worsening unaffordability of housing is a symptom of the United States being BROKE, but trying hard to deny that it is broke. Currency devaluation is legalized COUNTERFEITING. What if a different bill payer knocked on your door every day, then you went into a back room to run your own machine that counterfeits dollars, then you paid each bill collector with your freshly made fake dollars? You would be imitating the federal government!

    You need to learn that subsidies are inherently unworkable because they cause more dollars to chase the same goods/services. This is why “tax the rich, feed the poor” doesn’t work. Doing so just creates a spike in demand with no additional supply, which causes money to lose value very fast.

    Working class people need money that keeps its value. Instead, nobody RESPECTS THE VALUE OF MONEY. Every government housing solution consists of price-driving subsidy and new bureaucracy of elite, tax-financed workers, which make housing even more expensive. No one thinks that bad monetary policy is the underlying problem.

    We’re on a pathway towards living in our cars once repair and maintenance of a car becomes too expensive.

  10. Yes, Palo Alto could easily double its population, providing an enormous relief to commuters. But it won’t due to voter interest in keeping the city low density. The same dynamic plays out to some extent in every other inner-Bay Area city. That’s the NIMBY catch-22: those who already live there make policy against the wishes of those who would like to live there. The voices of the next generation are ignored.

  11. And tell most commuters from the suburbs they are no longer welcome and they have to quit their jobs? Kind of an impractical idea.
    James C. Walker, National Motorists Association

  12. Or they could move closer to their jobs, closer to transit. Instead of subsidizing car trips and giant highways we could invest in efficient mass transit and equitable housing. Vehicle congestion is going to exist and we can’t build our way out of those punishing-long commutes from far-flung suburbs.

    Why should city-dwellers bear the brunt of the “bucolic” suburban existence? It’s time to stop pushing the failed mantra of more lanes, more bypasses, and more free parking.

  13. We have an opportunity to create networks of local Enterprise Centers in our most crowded metropolitan areas. This distributed design approach acknowledges that more people are now engaged in information jobs and that information technologies continue to apply pressure for a digital transformation. Localizing more jobs helps congestion mitigation while expanding access for both employers and employees.

  14. Lost in the NIMBY narrative is the reason that many people become NIMBY in the first place:poor planning and decreased quality of life. I live in Queens,NYC, at least an hour from Manhattan by public transit.

    Density is increasing but we have no increase in services. What used to be a quiet street in front my home is now alternatively a parking lot during rush hour (with impatient drivers honking) and a drag strip after hours, with cars zooming down the street. More people means more people who don’t clean up after their dogs/allow the dogs free reign all over my area; more noise, as there’s now groups of people walking around (but never quietly, for some reason); more trash, because of course the City won’t put litter bins in residential areas so they drop garbage everywhere. Not to mention more people vying for the same number of seats in the local schools, more people scrambling to get on the already crowded trains and buses. How about improving the infrastructure and services before just cramming people in? How about lowering or at least freezing the property taxes since the quality of life is decreasing? Pay more, get less…and then wonder why people say NIMBY.

  15. As someone who once dove into the depths of armchair monetary economics, allow my “vast wisdom” cast a little doubt on this analysis.

    The “printing” of money is an interesting system that is only influential to the money supply when the banks have borrowers. Those borrowers essentially create new money when it is paid back. Whether it’s paper money or 1’s and 0’s, the fiat system can expand and contract with the amount of economic exchanges that are happening due to people’s investments and ability to qualify for loans. This system is actually established to automatically respect the value of things and provide the money supply to freely serve the exchanges of goods and services with growing/shrinking populations. Shrinking inevitably leads to bankruptcy (which carries a lot of negative social stigma, but in fact is required to shrink the money supply when investments are too extraneous to properly serve the economic system).

    All that said, it’s not perfect. Depending on how easy it is to qualify for a loan can lead to wasteful, socially/ecologically irresponsible economics, BUT, that’s why there a long books on these topics. I surely will not write a comprehensive monetary economics thesis in on comment section.

  16. This problem effects very few areas other than the SF Bay region: Manhattan/Brooklyn, Seattle, Vancouver. That’s it. The rest have large swaths of neighborhoods where rent is extremely affordable. Sadly, as we have forever subsidized the private automobile to such an extent that neighborhoods have developed of only the absolutely destitute directly within the core of locations of employment, no one chooses to live there.

    Stop kicking the sand and saying ‘whatyagonnado?’ The answer is to stop subsidizing transportation. These affordable stretches will fill with young families and professionals. You know this as well but have chosen to die on the hill of the private car at no cost to you.

  17. “This problem effects very few areas other than the SF Bay region: Manhattan/Brooklyn, Seattle, Vancouver. That’s it.”

    You’re mistaken. The current urban over-growth bringing accompanying problems exists in many, many other areas. Denver, D/FW, San Diego, LA, D.C., etc, etc.

    All infrastructure in the USA is subsidized. Transportation will remain so.

  18. I live in Ann Arbor and virtually none of the service workers can afford to live in this town of about 120,000 permanent population + about 45,000 students. The rents are too high. Our city council has TALKED for decades about the need for affordable housing, but does virtually nothing about it. A current proposal for a big development would have a modest number of “affordable” housing units. But “affordable” to the council is rents not more than 150% of the average locally – a moronically idiotic definition of “affordable”.
    James C. Walker, National Motorists Association

  19. Thank goodness we, in this country, have high-level academic researchers who can work hard to provide data that state the obvious.

  20. Ian, this is not about job sprawl but about understanding the settlement patterns of knowledge workers, their related and location of employer, and the opportunity of locating some employment opportunities closer to where the labor force lives. The premise is that information technologies provides us a unique opportunity to use this infrastructure to overcome issues of lessening job proprieties. What constitutes optimal densities is still being determined but what is known is that rates of growth/migration into many metropolitan areas has overwhelmed current and near term transportation and transit systems. The strategy of developing a timely, scalable, secure and inclusive digital transformation model for the workplace focuses our attention more directly on making labor more accessible to employers while improving job opportunities within the local community. Understanding the dynamics of major area employers, their co-incident geographic hiring patterns and the settlement patterns of growth provides insight as to how Enterprise Centers could become a powerful building block for sustainable communities. I’d be glad to share further background on the Distributed Metropolitan Design method if you have an interest.

  21. Rents are unaffordable in the Bay Area because many cities in the Bay Area have suppressed housing construction for decades.

  22. You want to freeze or lower property taxes (and not add any new units to expand the property tax base) while having the city provide more garbage service, more schools, and more transit?

    I mean, I get that you want that, since it sounds nice in the abstract, but you do understand the flaw in that plan right?

  23. In the narrative I provided, the density has already increased. It continues to increase, so the tax base has expanded and we are not getting an increase in services. So can we at least cut back on the taxes? Happy to pay more if we were getting more services, but we’re not so….

  24. The political system in the Bay Area and elsewhere is obsessed with fighting congestion. So while it may be obvious to you that access by proximity outweighs congestion, it’s not obvious to the folks who make funding decisions. Studies like this are the currency to get better zoning decisions.
    Living in a central location in an economically strong major American city is increasingly a class privilege. It wasn’t like that before the last couple of decades, and it shouldn’t be like that.

  25. Cities used to evolve on their own, because of the logic of cities. Cities in the United States grew organically and the country prospered. The logic of cities – in the United States – was disrupted by the 1950s by vast subsidies designed to accommodate the automobile. In Europe, where these changes did not occur, the infrastructure remained and cities prospered. In the US, we have hard-wired our cities for cars, destroying our streetcars and wasting countless billions of dollars with traffic, pollution, injuries, inefficiency, slums, wars for oil, etc.

  26. to your first erroneous example…. have a look a prices in the transit accessible 1/2 of queens lately. Or most of the Inner Boston metro area. Or a whole lot of LA. Or DC…. the list goes on, but those are your most obvious and egregious omissions

  27. since it is largely owner occupied, they also have an interest in artificially inflating the value of their own homes by restricting supply through zoning.

  28. How about starting at 100% of the average – a number that I never hear from local officials.
    James C. Walker, National Motorists Association

  29. A lot of people, particularly those with kids, don’t want to live in hi-rise apartments or condos with no personal yards for their kids to play in. And single family homes in major metro areas are out of the range of affordability.
    James C. Walker, National Motorists Association

  30. Not your city, Jim, you. What do you, as a concerned citizen desiring housing affordability in your community consider ‘affordable’?

  31. LA or DC? I’ll give you the north half of Queens and the fact that Boston (due to the compressing effects of the Harbor) is high but that Chelsea remains affordable (no good public transit options)

    But LA and DC? Really? These are two examples which best prove my point: you subsidize those with means to live well outside urban areas and drive in, and you get urban areas filled with the destitute where the middle class no longer wishes to live because the subsidization allows them to transverse the slums on their way to the office. Hell, you can buy a house next to the Capitol Building for 200,000 USD! Hardly people being priced out of the urban core, or?

  32. I guess no kids anywhere have ever grown up in urban environments. A big yard and lots of space vs a center location IS the trade-off. If you still demand in living out in the suburbs, efficient mass transit is the solution. More highways aren’t going to make your location any better or your commute quicker.

    Now, imagine if kids had streets to play in where they didn’t have to worry about speeding drivers or cut-throughs. Imagine how much parkland could be opened up by ripping out roads like the Penn-Lincoln Freeway in Pittsburgh or FDR drive in Manhattan.

  33. Perhaps a formula for affordable housing almost anywhere could be estimated as what a person on average service employee earnings in that area could afford with about 30% of their income. Example: If the average full time service worker in the area earns $14/hour, they make about $14 x 40 x 4.3 = $2,408 per month. You could estimate affordable at about $800 per month.
    James C. Walker, National Motorists Association

  34. The suburban transit system needs to create door-to-door commute times not more than 1.5 times the time to drive. In many areas, that is simply not possible.

    Allowing kids to play in streets that are open to any vehicle traffic is negligent to the point of being reckless endangerment.

    The US is based on freedom – the pursuit of happiness – and it needs to be a part of the planning. I like visiting big urban environments for their cultural advantages & other reasons. The chances I would want to live there full time are zero.

    James C. Walker, National Motorists Association

  35. Can’t do the first if we keep catering only to motorists and needlessly spending billions on widening projects that do little to improve commute times.

    Can’t do the second if we keep catering only to motorists when designing our streets and cities, with little regard to other users. Speed limits are too high and streets too broad, all in the name of preventing congestion.

    Futhermore, our laws consistantly fail to hold motorists accountable for the true scale of death and destruction they impose. Carelessly kill someone behind the wheel while you’re not under the influence and you’re likely to see no jail time. Is that the freedom of which you speak?

  36. Keeping door-to-door transit times not more than 1.5 times the driving times is essentially impossible outside of close-in urban areas.

    Letting children play in even the smallest, slowest, least-traveled streets that have any motorized traffic is reckless endangerment that no one should tolerate.

    And I trust you understood, but chose to ignore and change the subject, that freedom includes living where you want to live. I choose far suburban and/or small town – that is freedom.

    James C. Walker, National Motorists Association

  37. It could be if we didn’t waste billions catering to an inefficient travel mode: solo drivers.

    But you seem tolerate the countless lives lost due to traffic violence without presenting any real solutions. You want to preserve the status quo to the tune of 50k lives lost a year.

    No one is infringing on that freedom, nor ever has. The freedom of a quick commute from a far flug burb is not a right. You just prefer that other people subsidize your lifestyle through their taxes or deal with the negatives of having massive highways and speeding cars go through their neighborhoods.

  38. With respect, time, privacy, multiple stop routes, and other personal preferences are a part of freedom.

    Our fatality rate is about 1.2 fatalities per 100 million vehicle miles traveled, more than 75% safer than the 5.1 rate in 1960 when I got my first license. Someone who is in a vehicle about 15,000 miles a year can expect to be killed about once in every 5,500 years. Given our 3+ trillion miles traveled per year, we do NOT have a terrible crisis today. Can we do better? Sure, but not with wishful thinking proposals that will never happen.

    James C. Walker, National Motorists Association

  39. well, Chelsea does have the T about 12 times a day, and a new Silver line extension to Logan Airport.
    Sure, there are some pockets of affordability in Central metro Boston in areas poorly served by transit and some in LA and DC. But prices to both rent and own in all the above have been rising far above the rate of inflation for some time. BTW. prices for a 1 BR in Capital Hills start at 350K.

  40. Over growth is creating numerous, serious problems. Undergrowth would be a quaint, cute “problem” to have, one that can NEVER occur in California.

  41. California has a problem with dumb growth, not over growth. Aside from SF proper, most of California’s cities are very low density.

  42. no, just sitting in traffic endlessly and making all housing unaffordable.
    how’s that going – so far so good, huh?
    Well, it does keep out the poors, so some people are happy.

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