Transportation and the Vision for an Affordable Pittsburgh

In desirable cities throughout the nation, rents and home prices are rising. Creating and preserving affordable housing has become a major policy focus as residents are displaced from their communities in cities across America.  While the cost of housing is important, the overall cost of living also needs to be examined when considering how affordable a place is to live.

The Federal Highway Administration’s Transportation & Housing Costs report illustrates that transportation is the second largest expense for American households after housing.   This rings true in Pittsburgh as well, with the average single Pittsburgher spending $6,612 on housing and $5,705 on transportation per year — 42 percent of his or her annual income. The Housing and Transportation (H+T®) Affordability Index provides a more comprehensive view, allowing users to input their  zip code to view their  neighborhood’s affordability. According to the Department of Housing and Urban Development’s Guidebook for Creating Connected Communities, typical households in auto-dependent neighborhoods spend about 25 percent of their income on transportation costs, but this number drops to 9 percent in neighborhoods that are more connected with a variety of mobility options.

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Graphics from U.S. Department of Transportation, Transportation and Housing Costs Report

Many households struggle to afford the significant cost of transportation, especially the cost of owning and maintaining a car. According to American Community Survey (ACS) data, nearly 25 percent of Pittsburgh households within the City don’t have access to a car, while 13 percent of Pittsburgh workers have no access to a car. This means alternative modes of transportation including public transit, taxis, jitneys, rideshare, walking, and biking are the only choices available in order to get to work, the grocery store, school, doctor’s appointments, or anywhere else that they need to go.

Recently, the Obama Administration’s “toolkit” on housing development made local zoning and land-use regulations a national issue. The White House reports, “Significant barriers to new housing development can cause working families to be pushed out of the job markets with the best opportunities for them, or prevent them from moving to regions with higher-paying jobs and stronger career tracks. Excessive barriers to housing development result in increasing drag on national economic growth and exacerbate income inequality.”

The White House toolkit calls for the elimination of off-street parking requirements. Development parking costs can range from $10,000 per surface parking space to $60,000 per structured space, expenses that are incorporated at the start of a project and can slow the development and limit its affordability. Those costs are then passed onto tenants and shoppers through higher costs on rent, products and services. While Pittsburgh offers up to a 30 percent car parking swap for bike parking (a great start), more aggressive parking swaps for bike parking could provide a huge opportunity to save on development costs. A bike corral in space that previously accommodated one motorized vehicle, can accommodate approximately a dozen non-motorized vehicles, increasing the overall parking capacity. “By reducing parking and designing more connected, walkable developments, cities can reduce pollution, traffic congestion and improve economic development. Businesses that can be accessed without a car can see increased revenue, increased use of alternative modes of transportation, and improved health outcomes for residents,” the White House report said.

Affordable transportation needs to be included in the affordable housing discussion

The influx of younger people and empty nesters moving to Pittsburgh has resulted in an increase in demand for housing in desirable locations. “Between 2000 and 2014, units renting for less than $500 decreased from 50.1 percent of the housing inventory to 18.6 percent, while units renting for $1,000 or more increased from 4.8 percent to 28.9 percent,” according to the Pittsburgh Housing Needs Assessment. These statistics illustrate a market shift in Pittsburgh from from a large pool of affordable rental housing to one with a much greater offering of market rate and even luxury apartments.

Lawrenceville and East Liberty are prime examples of neighborhoods currently experiencing market transitions. In June 2015, the owner of Penn Plaza apartments in East Liberty sent notices requesting that the nearly 200 tenants, many of whom were low-income and elderly, to leave the building in advance of the land being redeveloped. Many of those who left were unable to stay in the neighborhood due to rents more than doubling in recent years.

As our most connected neighborhoods see higher housing costs, Pittsburgh’s underserved are being pushed to places with less frequent transit service that often lack sidewalks or a bike lane network. Our policies should ensure that it’s not only the well off who have access to quality transit and safe opportunities to bike and walk.

Working together for a common goal

Affordable transportation and affordable development together form the foundation of an affordable Pittsburgh. One is not possible without the other. PolicyLink, in partnership with Neighborhood Allies, Urban Innovation 21 released the study, Equitable Development: The Path to an All-In Pittsburgh, which explains, “In the face of these trends, urgent action is needed to steer growth and change in a new direction: toward one, “all-in” Pittsburgh. The evidence is clear that the benefits of new growth and development will not automatically trickle down to poor and working-class residents. Local leaders must implement a targeted, intentional strategy to ensure all can thrive in the new Pittsburgh.”

The way we see it, affordable transportation and affordable housing advocates are on the same team and we need to work together. Affordable housing isn’t affordable if one must to spend a large portion of their disposable income in order to access it.

Here are some resources where you can find out more information on affordable housing and transportation. Know of more local and national resources that are missing? Email us at and we’ll add it:


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