Transportation: The Hidden Cost of Housing

The Washington Post covered an interesting study by the Chicago-based nonprofit Center for Neighborhood Technology. Basically, to determine the cost of housing, the authors included the costs of transportation along with the cost of housing. Some findings:

...the combined cost of a home that requires a longer commute by car might exceed that of a more expensive home within walking distance of transit.

"The farther you get out, the cost of transportation can double," said Scott Bernstein, president of CNT. "Somewhere between eight and 12 miles out from the center . . . housing costs dropped precipitously, but transportation costs went way up."

Larger urban areas such as New York, Chicago and San Francisco, with more established transit options, fared better than smaller cities where the car is still king. Even Los Angeles, the epitome of urban sprawl, ranked as more affordable than Knoxville, Tenn., Terre Haute, Ind., or Laredo, Tex.

A neighborhood was rated as affordable if the combined cost of housing and transportation was below 45 percent of income. Of 3,012 census blocks in the Washington region, which contains several of the highest-income counties in the country, 2,158 blocks were ranked as affordable.

Just to give you an idea of the tremendous costs of transportation, consider this assessment of the DC suburbs:

Washington regional numbers indicate 26.03 percent of household income goes to housing costs. But add in transportation and the number soars to 43.55 percent.

A home in Loudoun County eats up an average 28.72 percent of household income with transportation raising that to 55.87 percent. Montgomery County housing came in at 26.57 percent but rises to 45.91 percent with transportation costs added in. A home in Fairfax County soaks up 30.63 percent of household income but 49 percent with transportation costs tacked on.

In the Boston area, here's what affordability looks like, once transportation is factored in:

Yellow regions have a cost of housing less than 45% of income; blue regions have a cost housing greater than 45% of income

Even though I want to deport everyone to urban hellholes think urbanization is a good thing, I didn't think that Boston (or Cambridge) would be so affordable after adding in transportation, until I thought of my own experience. When I had a car in Boston, between parking, servicing, taxes, insurance, and driving, it probably cost me six to seven dollars per year. If I actually did more driving (as I did when I lived in Long Island), the total figure would increase a couple thousand dollars more per year. So while I pay more for housing (~30%), my transportation costs are less than one percent of my income.

In fairness, there is an income selection going on here: parts of cities are often not cheap (i.e., Back Bay is expensive), but, still, having to fork over an additional 20-25% of income for transportation is actually quite expensive (the linked website is pretty cool, and you can extrapolate this). I wonder if this is where some of the anti-tax anger is coming from--there is essentially an outer suburb and exurb 'tax' in the form of high transportation costs. This 'transportation tax' is actually higher than many households' income taxes (and in many cases, income and payroll taxes).

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After choosing an apartment not too far from work (7 miles) in montgomery county maryland, my rent is about 50% of my take home pay and transportation is 3% (2 tanks of gas woot).

I've been exploiting this for years - because I'm 30 minutes walk and 5 minutes bus ride from lab, I can afford an apartment approximately 40% the size of my adviser's house (and can afford to keep it heated for my tropical reptiles).

Unfortunately, I probably couldn't do it somewhere like Boston or DC, since I need a yard for the dog. Plus, being far away from cities and suburbs has benefits, mostly in terms of freedom to keep the various dangerous/deadly things I consider "pets".

Running you a car cost you six to seven dollars per year? I could do with a car like that! ;-)

(But yeah; I live in the UK, and the same is often true here, although our mass transit systems tend to be better, which helps a bit.)

Those of us who reside in midwestern college towns/small cities really have it made. Where else can you have a comfortably large home on a large lot (1 acre +) and be just an 18 min walking commute from you office? I once calculated that a 35% increase in my salary being offered at Rutgers would just about allow me to break even in terms of housing and travel costs.

Can I just say that I get really annoyed at referring to every sort of expense or cost as a tax? It's not a tax. Yes, transportation costs money. The more you need it, the more you pay. But to say it's a tax suggests that buying gasoline is the same as paying state taxes that subsidize public transit. But it's not--your car consumes the gas you buy, and the cost is in proportion to the amount you use. You choose how much you are willing to pay for. Whereas your tax payments do no depend on your particular usage of the public transit system. You do not choose how much you are willing to pay for.

The cost analysis doesn't really apply to the working poor, who may not be able to afford close-in housing or a car. They depend almost entirely on mass transit to get to work. The Atlanta region has a pretty poor mass transit system. One of the suburban counties is actually abandoning their transit service this week because of lack of funds (Everybody cheer for tax cuts! Yay!) leaving a large part of the working poor with no good way to get to work.

For those who can afford to consider the two alternatives, the other cost of commuting in cities like Atlanta (not to mention LA) is the hell of commuting itself. If you value your time, that cost alone is staggering.

Actually, you do choose how much tax you pay. If you take advantage of our government's economy, for example, you insist on being paid in government issued money, then you can take a lower paying job and pay less, just as you can take a higher paying job and pay more. Similarly, if you want a place to live in a house on land defended and regulated by the government, you can live in a more expensive house and pay more, or live in a less expensive house and pay less. It's similar for investments in government chartered collectives. If you pick stocks that go up in value, you pay more, but you can always put in a sell order at a much lower price and pay less.

Most people aren't aware of the government services they use. The government is what keeps the economy moving and pushes towards new technologies and ways of doing things. The government provides a currency, a court system, a police system, an army and so on. How much one pays is a matter of choice. No one makes you take a high paying job or buy a high priced house, at least not in America.

P.S. Try actually looking at a dollar bill. Hint: it's not magic; it's a government document. That's why it has a picture of a government employee on it.

I live in Canberra and ride a 125cc scooter. Spend about $15-20 AUD on petrol a week. Parking is free. The biggest transport cost is keeping the car registered.

Those little yellow splotches, they're MBTA light rail stations.

No, they aren't. Some of them correspond to commuter rail stations (the MBTA commuter rail system is heavy rail, not light rail). However, if you scroll up into New Hampshire, which doesn't have commuter rail service, you can still see splotches of yellow on the housing + transport map. Some of those places have Downeaster and/or local bus service (Portsmouth, Dover, Durham, Newmarket), but others do not (Hampton Beach, Plaistow).

Pet peeve regarding these maps: They show interstate highways (the medium gray lines) but not non-interstate freeways; e.g., I-93 is visible but not Route 3. To a driver who knows the area (that would include commuters), a freeway is a freeway whether it's an interstate or not.

By Eric Lund (not verified) on 31 Mar 2010 #permalink

Not completely true, routes 190 and 290 are shown, but it's immaterial to the larger point. It is impractical to get from Worcester (second largest city in NE) to Leominster/Fitchburg (the closest urban hub) except by automobile. Yes, it can be done, but the money spent on the regional freeways might have been better spent on light rail service. Lancaster once had trolleys running to all three cities, and (via Clinton)heavy rail running to Boston, Albany and Nashua/Manchester. Man, I wish we had them now.

By Frank Carpenter (not verified) on 02 Apr 2010 #permalink