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Greenlink News

Mapping the Cost of Transportation: Who Can Afford to Get from Point A to B?

Q: What is Transportation Burden? A: The percent of income spent on transportation.

Transportation is a pricey household expense. The cost of public transport and buying, fueling, insuring, and maintaining a vehicle adds up quickly. So quickly in fact that the average American spends about 15% of their annual income on transportation, second only to the cost of housing. 

This plays out so that lower income households tend to pay a larger percent of their budget towards transportation than those in higher income brackets due to a combination of fewer transportation options, less flexible employment, and more isolated housing. These prohibitive expenses eat into a person’s ability to pay for other necessities in life, such as food and medical care, which further solidifies and exacerbates the economic divide and harms quality of life. The point being that reliable, affordable, and easily accessible transportation are essential components of good living and social equity.  


Or, as Peter Haas succinctly put it, "Transportation is a means to an end, not an end itself." He's the chief research scientist for the Center for Neighborhood Technology (CNT), which helps communities use tools to tackle the issues they face to improve living standards and economic opportunities.

Greenlink Analytics, in partnership with CNT, just launched a new mapping layer for the Greenlink Equity Map (GEM): Transportation Burden. This dataset measures the percent of a household’s income spent on public and private transportation. Understanding the relative weight of this cost can help city managers, mayors, and other legislators understand who and where people are most impacted and where to direct funds, including towards clean energy transit options like an electric streetcar.


Not all communities are equally served when it comes to transportation choice. Take for example, San Francisco, CA, or Boston, Mass., vibrantly dense cities where residents can walk, cycle, rideshare, take public transit, order food delivery, telecommute, and finally, if need be, use a car.  In comparison, Birmingham, AL, or Nashville, TN, would be a very difficult place to live car free due to accessibility and sprawl. Combine that with a lower income and life starts to get very challenging.

Cars are expensive from A to Z. Who can afford to get from A to B?

“Transportation costs are driven by two things,” said Haas. “The characteristics of a neighborhood and then those of a household.”


That’s the kind of data CNT gathered from the American Community Survey 2019 to model transportation costs in maps, charts, and statistics for 917 metropolitan and micropolitan areas—covering 94% of the U.S. population down to neighborhood level. After multiple conversations about the best way to represent household-based transportation equity across the country, Greenlink acquired CNTs transportation burden data. The data was integrated into Greenlink’s database on the census tract level and loaded into GEM.

“Bottom line was, we needed tools like GEM to help us understand where to focus our resources and attention, because we didn’t want to go to an area that wasn’t equity focused” says Karen Apple, EV program manager for the City of Phoenix Office of Sustainability. “These tools are available, they’re helpful, and they can help mayors and councils understand where our equity areas are.” 


Apple explains tjat Phoenix is a large, car-dependent city that likes to “build out not up.” Sixty percent of residents live in lower-income areas. So, when the City decided to launch an electric-mobility (read: electric cars, e-buses, and e-bikes) and equity project, it became essential to understand how people get where they want to go, where people are going, and what would help make travel better. For eight months the City listened to communities and used tools, like GEM, to help them understand where to focus their e-mobility equity sessions. 

"Our goal is to minimize greenhouse gas emissions and improve air quality,” said Apple. “We understand that electric vehicles are just one solution to pollution.”


Of course, this is just one specific city project within a huge realm of opportunities. Greenlink is thrilled to launch the transportation burden indicator and begin to understand what  differences the maps can make in supporting cleaner, more accessible, and affordable transportation for everyone. 

(Watch the full Community of Practice on Transportation Burden:


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