Connected Neighborhoods

The cover of the Fall 2019 edition of Shelterforce magazine, which focused on transportation.
The cover of the Fall 2019 edition of Shelterforce magazine, which focuses on transit.

Transportation is the second largest direct expenditure for American households, after housing. Of course transportation costs vary widely based on where you live, how far you have to travel to work and other activities, and what kinds of transportation modes you have access to. This is why many people have argued that when we measure housing affordability, we should use location-dependent figures that combine housing and transportation costs. (We don’t revisit this conversation in this issue, but you can find our coverage of it here.)

But the importance of transportation is not just about what we pay for it. It’s also about how well the transportation you have access to functions. If your commute takes four hours one way—as it did for one woman who joined an effort to expand the Indianapolis bus system—the toll on your life extends far beyond the cost of the fare. The primary thing that gets sacrificed is time—to sleep, to spend with family, to cook, to go back to school, to volunteer in the community. Sometimes access to crucial amenities is also sacrificed. Those who don’t have easy walking or transit access to a full-service grocery store, job center, or health care facility often don’t get to them at all, or frequently enough. The cost and quality of transportation systems translate directly into effects on people’s health—physical, mental, and financial.

Given all of this, it should be no surprise that transportation access is the No. 1 factor in lifting adults out of poverty, an often overlooked finding from the last several years’ wave of big data research into economic mobility, or the lack thereof, in this country.

In this way, the question of transportation is directly bound up with the work of community developers, who are trying to further healthy communities and opportunities for people who have been marginalized. It also affects the affordable housing world directly as the pent-up demand for transit-rich neighborhoods affects housing cost.

Transit development, and even transit advocacy, can be their own specialized worlds, just like housing, education, and health can be. But there are plenty of connections to be made that don’t require the ability to finance a rail station or even have an opinion about how to park electric scooters. Community developers are already thinking about transit access (don’t forget buses!) when they site housing, and in some places they may be able to get a boost from transit agencies that recognize the potential of new riders nearby.

Supporting organizing for better bus service, especially as part of a coalition, is also a good role for community-based organizations. Some apparent improvements might not be—there’s good reason to be skeptical of “microtransit” an equitable and practical transit solution, and yet many health care providers are looking to use something like it to improve connections to health appointments. If it’s not a matter of zero-sum changes to transit agency budgets, perhaps it’s a different story? And make sure that the right questions are being asked if street redesign and bike infrastructure are coming to your community, so that the projects increase racial equity instead of increasing racial disparities. Meanwhile, I think that in an environment of scarcity, who has access to transit-rich neighborhoods should be a matter of equity, not just equality.

Finally, when transit planning and construction come to town, consider the use of arts and culture tools to engage people in the process and see your neighborhood through the changes.

Also in this issue, we’re printing our roundtable with five amazing leaders of color who have recently taken the helm at national organizations in the community development field. We think this cohort of leaders (and several others who also took their positions in the same time frame) marks an important sea change for the field. And for some further thoughts on this topic, see “Who Will Lead Community Development Corporations?” and “New Communities at 50: Thoughts on Vision and a New Way Forward.”

Our health supplement this issue looks at healing spaces, rural hospitals, and how to measure the health benefits of community development work. We look forward to hearing your feedback.

This piece appears in the Fall 2019 edition of Shelterforce magazine. Help keep Shelterforce strong by subscribing here.

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