“The stop was a 15-minute walk away in fair weather, and the bus was scheduled to run in half-hour intervals. But the timetable was more of an estimate,” Williams described. “No bench, no shelter, no sidewalk — not even a curb — between me and traffic.”
Far from being anomalous, Williams’s experience is becoming the norm for District residents displaced by the city’s rising rents and property taxes.
A recent study by the University of Minnesota found that in the District, low-income residents are being pushed out of gentrifying neighborhoods at the highest rate in the country. The neighborhoods that have experienced the largest outflow of low-income residents, according to the study — places such as Logan Circle, Petworth and Columbia Heights — have an average walk score of 82.5 and an average transit score of 74.5.
By contrast, the neighborhoods receiving the largest inflow of low-income residents — suburbs including New Carrollton, Aspen Hill and Annandale — have an average walk score of 42.5 and an average transit score of 28.8.
This means the District’s most vulnerable residents, who had not historically relied on a car because they lived in dense urban zones, are being pushed into areas where having a car is necessary. Many can’t afford one.
Just how bad is the economic hit? According to AAA, the average annual cost of owning a car is $8,469. For a household making $49,000 a year, the upper bound of what the University of Minnesota study defines as low income, owning just one car would eat up 17 percent of the entire household budget. The cost of owning two cars — often necessary with two working adults — would swallow a third of the household’s entire budget.
Junfeng Jiao, who runs the Urban Information Lab at the University of Texas in Austin, says that in transit deserts, having a car is so critical that many families stretch their budgets to purchase one. Those who cannot will rely on friends, neighbors and, in some cases, ride-hailing companies to get around. Jiao says low-income populations use these companies at disproportionately high rates, despite the cost.
If none of these options is available, residents resort to public transit, such as it exists. The costs of this choice are significant.
The Center for the Study of Economic Mobility in Winston-Salem, N.C., found that city bus commuters spent on average 8.6 extra hours per week riding the bus compared with how much time it would take to drive to work. This “sixth day” of unpaid work translated into $4,360 per year in lost wages.
Not only that: In transit deserts, those without cars must settle for “bus stop jobs” along limited public transit corridors, cutting off employment opportunities. Hours in transit cut into time that could be spent with family, getting a degree, looking for a higher-paying job or resting. Research shows that long commute times are linked with high blood pressure and increased obesity. The stress of unreliable commutes can also impact the mental health of families.
Of course, not all low-income populations leave the city because they are forcibly displaced. But for the many people who do, the D.C. area must start developing solutions.
The Purple Line, scheduled to open its first five-mile stretch in late 2022, is expected to provide daily service to nearly 75,000 people, some of whom now live in transit deserts. But three years is a long time to wait. Transit improvements can make low-income residents worse off by driving up house prices and making them vulnerable to displacement, says David Bowers, vice president and Mid-Atlantic market leader for housing finance organization Enterprise Community Partners. So, maintaining the supply of affordable housing concurrently is key. The Purple Line Corridor Coalition has released a Housing Action Plan that proposes to preserve 17,000 affordable housing units along the planned route.
One shorter-term option is to extend bus lines and increase frequency of buses serving the areas experiencing population inflows. Efforts such as the Bus Transformation Project are vying to improve the region’s bus system. Another option is to continue expanding micromobility options, including services such as Jump bikes and Skip scooters, which aren’t tied to docking stations that may be absent in transit deserts.
Ride-hailing apps are beginning to introduce low-cost solutions, including Uber’s Express Pool and Lyft’s Line. And the D.C. area may start experimenting with privately owned mini-transit companies, similar to New York City’s dollar vans.
Solutions exist. But they start with recognizing the transit costs of displacement and starting a conversation about how to address them.