A D.C metro bus
Mr.TinDC Flickr

Transportation in the Washington, D.C., metro region is frustrating — and expensive — for anyone.

The average household in the region spends $13,000 annually on transportation, according to a 2009 report by the Urban Land Institute. In some areas, the cost is even more. Someone living in College Park, Md., will spend almost $15,000 on average commuting in and out of Washington, according to the Center for Neighborhood Technology (CNT). If commuting from northern Montgomery County, add about another $2,500 to that figure.

But what about the costs for those who do not have a home?

For organizations helping the homeless or those living below the poverty line, there are so many other needs to meet — housing, food, clothing, education, employment — that transportation often becomes a secondary concern.

“Transportation is one of those issues that is unaddressed specifically by any certain organization in the city,” said Amanda Formica, a case manager at Miriam’s Kitchen and the facilitator for the Coalition of Housing and Homeless Organizations’ (COHHO) workgroup

on transportation. While no one group or program has championed the cause of affordable and

accessible transportation, many organizations in the city do what they can to help the homeless and impoverished get around. But these efforts are only meant to provide temporary assistance –

not long-term solutions. Formica pointed out that many programs give out bus tokens, but only in small amounts.

FareShare, an organization of volunteers created in 2005 by David Mortlock,

takes donated paper Metro farecards and converts them into $100 SmartTrip cards to give to veterans in transitional housing in the area. Jesse Sanders, who leads FareShare today, said Mortlock created the organization because it was an easy way to help homeless veterans.

“[Mortlock] didn’t see transportation as the most pressing issue, but what he figured out he could give [homeless veterans] was transportation assistance,” Sanders said.

Capital Bikeshare recently partnered with Back on My Feet, the running program for the homeless, to give discounted memberships to certain individuals who have remained consistent in their exercising and training. Larry Taylor, one of the men who received a discounted membership, is looking forward to the financial and physical benefits to riding a bike to get around. “Oh man, [riding a bike] is going to save me money and make my endurance even better,” Taylor said.

Chevy Chase Presbyterian Church’s Transition Assistance Program (TAP) will pay for public transportation for the first two weeks of an individual’s new job or training program if he or she is are enrolled in TAP.

Still, with all this effort, the transportation assistance provided by these organizations is a short-term solution and often not the main concern. Back on My Feet may help the homeless move around, but the running groups are not meant to provide transportation. Priscilla Skillman, the chair of the TAP Board, also emphasized that the church’s program was not about transportation, calling the cause “a secondary thing we do.”

Transportation is even forgotten in how we define affordability. Traditionally, affordable housing is defined as costing less than 30 percent of a person’s income, according to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). However, a house that costs 30 percent of a person’s income may put him or her farther away from a job, making the total cost of transportation and housing higher than if the person had paid more for housing closer to work.

In 2006, CNT redefined affordable housing as a home where housing and transportation costs did not exceed 45 percent of a household’s income. Based on this definition, 61 percent of neighborhoods are considered affordable in the D.C. metro region, compared to 72 percent when using the traditional affordability definition.

With transportation needs either placed to the side or altogether forgotten, some are calling for an increased focus on the issue.

“There are a lot of piecemeal efforts, but how can we address this problem among the other pressing problems?” Formica said.

COHHO created a transportation workgroup more than two months ago to begin bringing harmony to these “piecemeal efforts.”

The workgroup has focused on three areas to improve transportation for the homeless and poor: Opposing the increase in Metrorail and Metrobus fares, ensuring Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Autority’s transition to electronic payments with SmartTrip cards does not make public transportation less accessible for the poor and improving shelter transportation during hypothermia season.

In a letter to the transit agency , known as WMATA, Formica and COHHO asked the transit authority to increase Metrorail fares more than bus fares (the opposite is true in WMATA’s approved increases), keep bus tokens in use and not charge more for riders who do not use SmartTrip cards.

“WMATA will have to make some tough decisions regarding where to place the burden of increased costs,” the letter reads. “COHHO asks that the increased funding not be obtained at

the cost of making transportation unaffordable to the region’s most low income and vulnerable residents.”

WMATA did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

The COHHO transportation workgroup also wants to overhaul the shelter transportation system during hypothermia season. Currently, the United Planning Organization is contracted to have vans go back and forth to shelters during hypothermia season and take people to different locations to stay out of the cold. But problems often arise.

“Men end up being late, [the vans] can’t hold a lot of people, they have to stand in line for an hour or two sometimes,” Formica said.

Defeat Poverty DC, an organization advocating for the basic needs of people in the city, is planning a campaign in the future for affordable and accessible transportation for low-income residents. Joe Weedon, executive director of the organization, added another pertinent issue to the list created by COHHO – transportation out of the city. Weedon wants to explore the options

and reliability of transportation to get people into the suburbs.

“Our transportation funnels people downtown, but as our economy changed, not all the jobs are downtown,” he said.

In the end, what COHHO and Defeat Poverty DC are advocating is simple:

“What it comes down to,” Formica said,