The One Thing America’s Most Equitable Cities Have in Common

Low housing prices don’t always create equal societies.
(Photo: Brent Winebrenner/Getty Images)
Jun 25, 2016· 1 MIN READ
Jillian Frankel is an editorial intern for TakePart. She is the features and student life editor at the UCLA campus newspaper, The Daily Bruin.

High rents in New York and Boston might deter potential residents from putting down roots in the popular East Coast cities, but a new report finds that New Yorkers and Bostonians are still saving big thanks to low transportation costs.

The most walkable cities in America have the highest rates of social equality, according to a report from Smart Growth America published in June.

Researchers at the Washington, D.C.–based nonprofit compared the walkability scores of the 30 largest cities in America with a Social Equity Index, which they created based on housing costs, transportation costs, and access to employment for median-income families. The group found that the three most socially equitable cities are also the three most walkable ones.

“People can rely on automobiles less than they otherwise would, or not at all, and thereby save in transportation, get to destinations, and have more destinations near them,” Michael Rodriguez, the director of research for Smart Growth America, told TakePart. “Those are equity points because the moderate- to low-income family needs jobs, they need ways to get to jobs, and they need housing.”

Residents in the top three socially equitable cities—New York, Washington, D.C., and Boston—spend up to 47 percent of their income on housing. But residents’ low transportation costs (about 17 to 19 percent of individuals’ earnings) offset their spending upwards of $2,500 a month for a studio apartment.

In cities such as Pittsburgh, San Antonio, and Cincinnati, the cost of housing drops to less than 35 percent of residents’ earnings, but the cost of transportation climbs above 30 percent of their earnings. That pushes these cities out of the top 10 for achieving social equality.

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(Chart: Courtesy Smart Growth America)

Rodriguez, who is also the director of research at The George Washington University Center for Real Estate and Urban Analysis, believes investment in quality mass transit systems is one of the most crucial steps to achieving social equality. Each of the cities ranked in the top 10 for social equity has a rail transportation system.

“That’s what’s going to lower your transportation costs for moderate-income families and get you to jobs,” he said.

Several of the other cities on Smart Growth America’s list also have rail transit systems, but their services are either not as expansive or outdated. Rodriguez pointed to his hometown of Miami as a prime example. Miami has the third-lowest social equity score and the eighth-lowest walkability score. Residents spend more than 75 percent of their income on housing and transportation. Although Miami has a rail transit system, it was built in the 1980s and doesn’t connect to the areas that have since become more populous.

Along with building more public transportation systems, Rodriguez noted that achieving social equality is a three-part process. Urban planners must create more affordable housing, with thriving job markets to match.

“For equity, you need to get to jobs,” Rodriguez said. “It does you no good to live in an area where [the housing and transportation costs are] very cheap and maybe you can buy a house for $40,000 but there’s not a job to support you.”