This innocuous-sounding quote from the recent SF Chronicle article Transportation boosts cost of living in suburbs very poignantly describes not only the structural problems of suburban life but gets to the core of the absurdity and unsustainability of our modern fossil-fueled lives.
It’s from Scott Bernstein, President of Chicago’s Center for Neighborhood Technology, whose organization just released The Housing + Transportation Affordability Index, a study that adds transportation costs to the usual measure of affordability — housing prices.
Here’s the full quote that I think is worth being made into a refrigerator magnet for anyone thinking about moving, whether you’re buying or renting:
“You think you’re buying a cheap house 30 miles out,” he said, “but it’s 10 o’clock at night, and you need a gallon of milk. You have to get in your car, drive out of your subdivision down a two-lane road, get on the freeway and drive 10 miles. You just spent a gallon of gas to get a gallon of milk.”
While the issue of access by proximity as a key principle for organizing human civilization so it can survive on and live in harmony with planet Earth only resonates with some of us, the more immediate effect of our decisions on our pocketbook is something that everyone can and should relate to.
In light of over $4 a gallon gas prices, it seems like a good opportunity to reevaluate the conventional wisdom that living in the suburbs is cheaper than living in the city.
Often, Bernstein said, people in search of more affordable housing will head to the distant suburbs where real estate is cheaper but won’t always consider that transportation is costlier because driving distances are longer and public transportation is often unavailable.
While transportation costs may not be a factor in a world of $1 per gallon gasoline, it becomes a serious factor in a $4 or $5 per gallon of gasoline world. The point of the survey that is based on figures from the Census’ American Communities Survey and includes about 89 percent of the nation’s population, is to include transportation when considering housing affordability.
The study allows visitors to the center’s website, www.cnt.org, to see and compare the costs in 180,000 neighborhoods. Not surprisingly, denser communities with access to public transportation fare better than far-flung suburbs.
Affordability is defined as a combined housing and transportation figure below 45 percent. Taking the Bay Area as an example, the study comes up with these very interesting, though to me not surprising numbers.
San Francisco households spend 39.5 percent of the average income in the region on housing and transportation compared to 41 percent in Oakland, 43 percent in Berkeley, 50 percent in San Rafael, 51 percent in Antioch and 59.1 percent in Brentwood.
In other words, if you’re making 40k a year and you’re living in SF, Oakland, or Berkeley, you’re spending about 16k of that income on housing and transportation, whereas if you’re living in Brentwood or some of the other far out bedroom communities, you’re spending 24k of your hard-earned money on housing and commuting. Aside from all other factors that may lead someone to prefer living in the city or the suburbs, from an economic perspective, denser city living clearly has the edge.
The authors of the study are in no way demonizing the suburbs, but their goal is “to provide planners, decision makers and everyday folks with information about the true costs of choosing where to live.” Obviously, not everyone who lives in the suburbs commutes to far away jobs and not everyone who lives in a city can walk or take public transit to their jobs, but the average difference in affordability cited here is huge. Also, for some people the bigger house in the suburbs may be worth the considerably higher cost of transportation, not just the $’s but the time spent on the road.
What this does say though is that living in the suburbs comes with a price tag that is often ignored when considering a move. And I’m not even talking about the costs to the only planet we have.
Find your own Housing & Transportation Affordability.
Find your Walkscore.
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