Transportation Affordability in North Carolina’s Triad Region

Like the Triangle, the Triad is a sprawling region with several urban centers. In the same 2014 rankings that we’ve reported for the Triangle and Charlotte, Winston-Salem and Greensboro-High Point were ranked the 13th and 14th most-sprawling metros in the nation. Each scored particularly poorly on street connectivity – meaning that even short drives may take longer due to fewer routes between two places.

Sprawl is a bit of a double-edged sword for transportation affordability. Spreading jobs throughout the metro area could reduce transportation costs by making commutes shorter. However, the Triad’s poor public transit and lack of street connectivity forces many families to spend a disproportionate amount of income on transportation.

This is the final post in our series on transportation affordability across North Carolina’s three largest metro areas. As in the others, we’ll examine employment density across the metro before turning our attention to transportation costs faced by three types of households: a single-person in poverty, a single-parent family with two children, and a working-class family of three. All data come from the Location Affordability Index.

Employment Access: Spreading the Wealth

As in the Triangle, job access in the Triad is spread across the region’s urban centers. Both downtown Greensboro and Winston-Salem have the greatest concentrations of employment opportunities, followed by the smaller cities of Asheboro, Burlington, and High Point.

The LAI also contains data on retail job density; these are similarly spread throughout the Triad, and are concentrated in many of the same urban centers. Clusters of retail jobs in even smaller cities – such as Lexington, Thomasville, and Kernersville – are also seen on this map.

Transportation Costs: A Familiar Story, with a Twist

Transportation affordability patterns we’ve seen in the Triangle and Charlotte largely repeat themselves in the Triad. Single-person households in poverty devote a large amount of income toward transportation, especially those who live outside denser, urban neighborhoods. This geography is similar for both single-parent households with children and working class families, although each, in turn, spends moderately less on transportation.

What’s noteworthy about the Triad is that single-parent households spend much more income on transportation than in the Triangle or Charlotte.* In some outlying areas, these households spend nearly half their income on transportation, per the Location Affordability Index. Lack of public transit access and poor street connectivity – coupled with the number of trips that households with children must take – contribute to these areas’ un-affordability.

One can see the Triad’s poor street connectivity in its block density – measured as the number of blocks per acre. Only the Triad’s of major cities have relatively dense street networks, and even these are relatively low-density (fewer than one block for every 3 acres). More outlying areas average fewer than one block for every 10 acres.

Summing it up

As we’ve seen in the Triangle and Charlotte, the Triad’s sprawling nature means that many low-income residents spend a large portion of their income on transportation. While many urban neighborhoods in the Triad are reasonably affordable regarding transportation costs, low-income residents in more outlying areas devote significant financial resources to transportation.

There are both challenges and opportunities for improving the Triad’s transportation affordability. On the one hand, the spread of jobs throughout the metro area could allow for shorter commutes, as a large number of people aren’t commuting to a single employment center (like in downtown Charlotte). This, in turn, could allow for smaller transit projects, like connecting neighborhoods in Alamance County to Burlington, instead of larger efforts like Charlotte’s light rail system.

On the other hand, coordinating any such investments across the Triad’s numerous political jurisdictions will be tricky. Its five largest cities are spread across four counties (Alamance, Forsyth, Greensboro and Randolph), each with its own elected representatives and growth agendas. Moving forward, coordinating growth and land use agendas will be critical to mitigating sprawl and making the Triad affordable for all families.


* – For the other maps, we’ve been consistent in using the same legend for each map across the three metros. However, we’ve adjusted the Triad’s single-parent household map so that you can see variation across the metro. If we utilized the same legend, virtually the entire map would be dark blue.

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