Transit options make District more affordable than suburbs

By Ashley Halsey III
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, March 24, 2010

That house deep in suburbia might look like a palatial bargain when compared with the high-priced real estate downtown, but a new study says that if home buyers factor in the cost of transportation, they might think twice.

The comprehensive report, which combines the cost of housing with that of transportation, found that although the Washington region may be one of the nation's most congested, its mass transit options make it one of the more affordable.

The report, produced by the Chicago-based nonprofit Center for Neighborhood Technology, coupled census data on population and income with local transportation costs to find the bottom-line cost of living in a particular neighborhood. Not surprisingly, the combined cost of a home that requires a longer commute by car might exceed that of a more expensive home within walking distance of transit.

"The farther you get out, the cost of transportation can double," said Scott Bernstein, president of CNT. "Somewhere between eight and 12 miles out from the center . . . housing costs dropped precipitously, but transportation costs went way up."

Larger urban areas such as New York, Chicago and San Francisco, with more established transit options, fared better than smaller cities where the car is still king. Even Los Angeles, the epitome of urban sprawl, ranked as more affordable than Knoxville, Tenn., Terre Haute, Ind., or Laredo, Tex.

A neighborhood was rated as affordable if the combined cost of housing and transportation was below 45 percent of income. Of 3,012 census blocks in the Washington region, which contains several of the highest-income counties in the country, 2,158 blocks were ranked as affordable.

"So much of the region is served by the Metro system and the rail system out to Baltimore," Bernstein said. "Montgomery County, in particular, probably is the national leader in transferable development rights that . . . preserve the more rural parts. Virginia is just beginning to get an understanding of what livable communities are, particularly around Tysons Corner and the Dulles corridor."

Bernstein calculated that transportation costs the average Washington household $12,000 a year; that's $22 billion for the region as a whole.

Stewart Schwartz, executive director of the Coalition for Smarter Growth in the District, said the foreclosure rate rose when gasoline prices spiked two years ago, catching people who were stretched by their mortgages and unable to absorb the added cost of fuel.

"They didn't have the flexibility to meet that challenge," he said.

Overall, Schwartz said, the study showed that the region deserved "a pat on the back" for its long-standing investment in transit systems and revitalizing older suburban areas to create "walkable communities."

Ron Sims, deputy secretary of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, said the new data would allow people to "make a better housing decision by having more information. People can make a much better decision as to where they live and what they can afford."

The report was issued two months after Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood announced a shift in federal transportation policy to put greater emphasis on non-automotive options, including mass transit and better bike paths and walkways. He said the Obama administration would move away from the "very narrow cost and performance criteria" that have been transportation policy since 2005.

"To put it simply, we will take livability into account," LaHood said in a January speech to the Transportation Research Board, a branch of the nonprofit National Research Council.

© 2010 The Washington Post Company