Opinion, Berkeley Blogs

Transportation policy is housing policy

By Stephen Menendian

BART expansion map

Many years ago Haas Institute Executive Director john powell warned education advocates that "housing is education policy" — a refrain now regarded as common wisdom. The insight behind this assertion is a recognition that patterns of racial and economic isolation that manifest in schools and other educational environments are chiefly a function of residential housing patterns and policies that segregate families by race and class among neighborhoods and across jurisdictional boundaries.

Any serious attempt to solve our most pressing educational problems must begin with an understanding that systems of local control and neighborhood schooling replicate the same demographics of the neighborhoods from which they derive. Concentrating poverty – or wealth – has a tremendous influence on the success of children in our educational system.

If housing policy is education policy, I would like to suggest that transportation policy is housing policy. Transportation infrastructure is the critical linkage that connects families and individuals to areas of employment and education. Employment opportunities are the main reason that families move residence. Access to transportation defines and limits where families are able to live.

Well-funded, broad-based levels of public transportation and infrastructure through a region have the potential to connect families across that region to the entire economy and economic opportunities in the region. Conversely, poorly funded, haphazard and unreliable public transit and infrastructure can isolate families and communities from the larger economy.

Growing levels of income inequality threaten public infrastructure in several ways. They may channel public investments in ways that regressively burden the less well-off. At the same time, they may redirect public funds to areas that are less needy or reliant on public transit. More generally, income inequality may elevate housing costs beyond where most families can afford, and push families further from access to public transit.

Patterns of gentrification and displacement in booming metro areas are most harmful when they not only displace families from housing, but also from access to employment and economic opportunities. Gentrification is most harmful when public transportation is lacking or costly or in areas that are dependent on automobile ownership.

BART expansion map

Policies such as rent-controls and preserving existing affordable housing stock are necessary, but insufficient to the needs of marginalized families. Creating or expanding public transit networks in a piecemeal fashion may actually generate further displacement. Research suggests that creating new stops on light-rail or bus stops may rapidly increase property values in otherwise stable communities, creating further displacement, rather than ensuring access to public-transit reliant families.

The San Francisco Bay Area is ground zero for these complex issues. The Facebook effect – the economic dynamism of Silicon Valley – has dramatically escalating housing costs in the Bay Area, resulting in accelerated gentrification and displacement that is reverberating throughout the entire Bay Area. Families have been displaced from traditional communities and relocated to areas further from their employers, meaning longer commute times and less convenience.

The economic vitality of the region has severely taxed the transportation grid, as highways become choked with commuters and as public transit lines see dramatic growth in ridership without a corresponding expansion in services. The Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) rail-line, which opened over 40 years ago, is a focal point that illustrates all of these issues.

In 2010, advocates successfully challenged a planned expansion using federal stimulus money that would have severely impacted low-income residents reliant on public-transit. A new labor fight has brought into focus BART's planned expansion, and how the funding for that expansion to far flung suburbs is to be supported by existing ridership.

The basic issue of how to preserve access to affordable housing for low-income families cannot be disconnected from the issue of transportation. They are part and parcel of the same dynamic. How these issues, rising levels of inequality, gentrification and displacement, sustainable housing, stressed infrastructure and inadequate public transportation all play out will be one of the great challenges for our nation in coming decades. How the Bay Area, with its historical commitment to progressive and inclusive policies, resolves these issues will be a critical lesson for Americans everywhere.