Connected communities are places with affordable housing options, pedestrian-friendly street designs, public spaces, and transportation options to access major employment centers, key goods and services, and amenities. Small and mid-sized cities with populations at or below 250,000 face distinct challenges when it comes to providing residents with good connections and choices among housing, transportation, and community amenities such as schools, retail, recreation and health care facilities, and libraries. These municipalities have fewer transit and housing options, fewer staffers, and limited financial resources with which to achieve an effective system of community connectivity; they must instead expand capacity by developing useful partnerships with other private and public entities.
For most households, transportation is the second-largest annual expenditure after housing. Many small and mid-sized cities offer only limited public transportation options such as local bus service, shuttles, or paratransit rather than rail or bus rapid transit systems that can support a broad ridership. Limited transportation options mean reduced access to jobs, public spaces (such as parks, plazas, and campuses), and key goods and services. Decentralized employment, higher gas prices, and the continued relocation of low-income households to suburban areas further isolate these communities. Moreover, because land located closer to employment centers, bus or rail transit, and amenities is often expensive, affordable housing developers often select sites located on the city’s periphery, where residents are forced to rely on car transportation — a challenge for the 18 percent of households earning less than $35,000 that do not own a car. These geographic choices can hinder the purpose of housing assistance by increasing a household’s expenditures on transportation, even as they save money on housing. The average cost of owning a car ranges from about $6,000 to $12,000 a year, an expense that is particularly acute for low-income households.
A recent report released by HUD, “Creating Connected Communities: A Guidebook for Improving Transportation Connections for Low- and Moderate-Income Households in Small and Mid-Sized Cities,” features in-depth case studies of five cities that have attempted to improve the connectivity of their communities: Gonzales, California; Traverse City, Michigan; Lake Worth, Florida; Portland, Maine; and Lakewood, Colorado. The report identifies the key challenges that these cities have experienced and their responses to these hurdles.
The case studies reveal several guiding lessons for local leaders.
- Coordination among different departments that play a role in housing and transportation can aid in the creation of connected communities. Such partnerships are especially beneficial to small and mid-sized cities with limited resources and staff. In Portland, this involved synchronization among multiple transit agencies. Traverse City officials consulted affordable housing developers as they made decisions about the location of new developments. Collaboration can even occur between cities as was the case with Lakewood and Denver, which along with their housing authorities and regional transit agency, created a multijurisdictional working group.
- The types of transportation options that residents need can vary depending on the city’s location within the region. Low-income residents of Traverse City who reside at the city’s periphery struggle to get downtown and to other areas of the city. By contrast, low-income residents of Gonzales needed transportation options to access employment — much of it on farms — as well as health care facilities and shopping centers located 15 miles away in the region’s main city of Salinas. The establishment of subsidized and regulated vanpooling programs helped meet this need.
- Land use plays an important role in determining the ease with which residents can make use of alternate transportation options. Bayside, a neighborhood near downtown Portland, was the focus of a plan to create a walkable urban gateway featuring a mix of uses, compact and intensive development as an extension of downtown. The vision was to create a transit-oriented district focused around shuttle and local bus service. Because of the neighborhood’s location, land-use characteristics, trails, and sidewalks, new residents who move into the affordable neighborhood can access work, grocery stores, and green spaces.
- Considering location and transportation accessibility in selecting sites for new affordable housing can help create connected communities. The Village at Grand Traverse Commons, a centrally located affordable housing community in Traverse City, offers access to employment, healthy food, schools, and the city’s downtown through public transportation, bike paths, and sidewalks. The developers of Orchard View Terrace, another affordable housing community in Traverse City, did not consider connectivity in their plans; residents there continue to face difficulties accessing jobs and other essential destinations.
- Several cities have demonstrated the benefits of partnering with local, state, and regional agencies and foundations to fund these projects. Gonzales, partnering with the California Department of Transportation, obtained grant funding for a Community to School Pedestrian Plan; they also partnered with Monterey County and the city of Del Ray Oaks to receive funds from the Community Development Block Grant program. Lake Worth, partnering with Palm Beach County School District, was awarded a $750,000 grant from the Palm Beach Metropolitan Planning Organization to create a greenway that will allow students to travel to school safely.
From Research to Practice
The report presents five overarching goals for local leaders and strategies they can use to build connected communities.
Leaders of small and mid-sized cities can begin by assembling decisionmakers and stakeholders drawn from county governments, transit agencies, state departments of transportation, public housing agencies, and nonprofit and private affordable housing developers. Leaders can foster successful outcomes by organizing city departments around the goal of linking housing affordability and transportation and by keeping housing and transportation integration on the agenda at planning meetings.
Second, providing multiple transportation options to meet local needs helps more residents access important destinations. Leaders should assess the degree to which existing transportation networks meet the needs of low-income commuters. Developing routes and schedules that work best for these residents, working with transit providers to make transit use easy for all riders, and working with community organizers and other agencies to fill gaps left by traditional transportation services can all help shore up connectivity. Leaders can also make incremental improvements, such as painting new bike lanes or crosswalks, to facilitate alternate transportation, prioritizing projects that improve mobility for residents of affordable housing.
Third, the report proposes that municipal leaders promote accessible affordable housing in connected communities. Because many cities already have neighborhoods with connections to jobs and services, leaders can build on these assets, prioritizing the preservation of existing affordable housing and encouraging the development of affordable housing in these neighborhoods.
Fourth, municipal leaders should support established neighborhoods. In some cities, existing neighborhoods may not yet offer a full range of services and amenities. Leaders who focus on improving established neighborhoods can build on their cities’ current resources, provide additional opportunities for existing residents, and advance the efficiency of municipal services. Strategies include reforming parking requirements, ensuring that zoning ordinances support the development pattern the city envisions, creating parks and plazas, and linking the city’s economic development strategy with its transportation planning.
Finally, the report encourages city leadership to seek out additional funding from federal programs and other partnerships. Focusing public dollars, coordinating investments, and using existing resources more efficiently can all help fund the creation of connected communities.
The report also contains additional technical resources and online tools — design checklists, links to primers for planning, development toolkits, lists of key federal housing and transportation programs, links to design guides, website information for pertinent organizations, and an annotated bibliography of resources — that community leaders can use in their efforts to link affordable housing with transportation.
Given the wide range of actors and disciplines that need to be engaged in the planning process and the variety of places and conditions where development can occur, this guide will be a primary tool for understanding and articulating the range of benefits that can be realized by optimizing the mutually beneficial relationship between public transportation and comprehensive community development, particularly for low- and moderate-income (LMI) individuals.