A new study from the Terner Center and Urban Institute demonstrates how U.S. housing and transportation policy encouraged sprawling, car-dependent housing development that has reinforced social and racial inequity while increasing carbon emissions. The study begins by providing a history of urban sprawl and housing growth far from public transportation. The authors then offer opportunities and strategies to leverage federal programs and policies to promote the linking of transportation to housing.
The 1970s was the peak decade for new housing construction in the post-WWII era. This rapid expansion of housing stock resulted in affordability benefits; in 1979, only 30.6% of renter households spent at least 35% of income on rent—compared to 40% of households in 2020. However, this housing boom also led to negative externalities, such as urban sprawl, car reliance, expansion of the Interstate Highway System that divided neighborhoods, and federal subsidies for purchasing single-family homes that were usually only for White residents. As many new houses were being built in neighborhoods designed around cars, new construction in high-density urban areas was stalled.
There have been recent improvements in these trends. Since 2000, an increasing share of new housing has been constructed in higher-density, transit-adjacent neighborhoods. Federal programs like HOPE VI, Choice Neighborhoods, and more recent investments from the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law and the Inflation Reduction Act have further incentivized increased housing development in transit-friendly urban cores. The authors note that the inclusion of Metropolitan Planning Organizations (MPOs) in housing plans and the coordination of transportation plans with housing plans is a critical and necessary step across all jurisdictions. MPOs commonly lead regional planning efforts and coordinate major economic development initiatives across local jurisdictions.