Over the last century, Americans who could afford to got out of the city and into the frying pan, fleeing the urban core for the sprawl of suburbs. But to live in a remote, density-deficient sprawl requires a means of transportation that’ll take you places without tiring you out like a bike might, with the flexibility to go off course in the way bus routes and trains never do. Namely, the car.
Cars took over, spurred by their usefulness, an overburdened rail system, and the rise of buses and freeways (which positive feedback looped people into driving their cars more, making the streetcars get stuck in traffic, making streetcars less appealing, making people drive their cars more…). If you’ve seen Who Framed Roger Rabbit, you’re aware of a conspiracy theory that says the auto industry paid to rip up LA’s transitopia. It’s unclear exactly what was causation and what correlation, but they were ordered by a court to pay a small fine for its monopolistic intent for transportation. Even so, many transit historians believe the industry acted more as a result of economic pressure than conspiracy.
Over the next century, the American landscape would adapt to make itself more hospitable to this strange new species. Huge, heavy, and hungry for imported food, cars require special care and keeping. Their human caretakers rushed to keep them happy, fighting wars to keep them fed, creating a massive free range zoo for them to roam, and setting up so many homes for them that their space ate into our own. All of this makes up the “car habitat,” as parking expert and (recently retired) UCLA urban planning professor Donald Shoup (who made his site’s URL shoupdogg as a paean to his Snoop Dogg fandom, one can only assume) calls it. And parking– what you’re left with after you pave over paradise– is built into many city’s zoning codes so that planners and developers are in a vice grip, forced to provide space for cars to just sit and wait for us to take them for a walk.
As Shoup Dogg loves to point out, if you’re a person, housing is crazy expensive, but if you’re a car, your housing is free! To you and your person, at least. Not to the city or developers, who have to build and maintain it, and not to the externality costs of health, environment, and mobility that all this incentivizing private car ownership encourages.
As people return to the urban core, attracted to the excitement and convenience of dense, urban life, we lose the freedom of space yesterday’s builders had to throw up parking wherever, space be damned. And affordable housing often has to battle it out against affordable– that is, subsidized– parking.
Austin is in the midst of redoing its zoning codes, which have stayed their same, modern, relevant selves since 1981. The city’s planners are looking for community participation in reshaping the codes, taking a special look at parking. A recent affordable housing complex helped spur the discussion, as developers were bound by zoning code to build 57 parking spaces for the building’s 45 affordable units. And only 12 of the residents even own a car. Without the requirement to build so many parking spaces, the developer said they could have built more sorely needed affordable units.
This is true as a general rule, as well: the opportunity cost of a parking space is every other thing that could have been in that space, including plants, businesses, sidewalk, and yes, affordable homes. And so, as developers build more parking spots, housing affordability decreases.
But the link between affordable housing and transportation goes beyond parking lots. First of all, many of those freeways that made cars so enticing were forced onto poor, minority neighborhoods, bulldozing through communities and mucking up public health. Today, it’s expensive to own a car, even before you take into account its true cost, which includes everything from service fees to fuel to parking tickets. And unlike almost any other investment you could make, your car is guaranteed to only sink in value. While housing is most Americans’ top annual cost, transportation is second. Access to public transit can determine whether it’s a distant second or lapping at the heels of your rent.
More Americans are going car-free, out of choice or an inability to afford one, but they still need to get around… which leads us to public transit. Unfortunately, however, affordable housing is often built on land no one else wants, in far off corners away from bus and rail routes.
To succeed in fully helping its residents, who face limited access to jobs, shopping, schools, and other necessary destinations, affordable housing needs to be built with access to transportation alternatives (bike lanes included). Perhaps this is why two Bike and Build alumni I know are in urban planning grad school right now, studying transportation.
You can check out what percent of their income people in your neighborhoods tend to spend on housing and transportation with this interactive map created by the Center for Neighborhood Technology.