We Focus on Housing Costs, but Ignore Transportation Costs

And when you include transportation costs, suddenly those low-cost areas aren’t so low-cost anymore. At all.

Many moons ago, some asshole with a blog noted:

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 thousand 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… 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).

A recent comparison among different metro areas found this (boldface mine):

For decades, Houston has been a city with one of the nation’s most pragmatic sales pitches: Move here for big-city opportunities at a small-city price. Not a fan of swarming mosquitoes, punishing hurricanes, and soul-melting moisture? What if I told you that you could barricade yourself away from all three inside a sprawling single-family home on one acre near good schools and golf courses for under $200k?

…Unfortunately for prospective Houstonians, a crucial downside to all that sprawl has arisen, one that has nothing to do with catastrophic flooding. While the seemingly endless suburban growth has traditionally offered the city the veneer of affordability, the sprawl has also spiked transportation costs, so much so that the city’s combined transportation and living costs now place it on par with New York City….

Monthly median housing costs in Houston in 2016 (the most recent year data was available) were $1,379, nearly $400 less than New York City. However, median transportation costs were $1,152, a figure 38 percent higher than for New Yorkers. In total, the study found, living in Houston was only $79 cheaper each month than New York.

Furthermore, when considering housing and transportation costs as a percentage of income, Houston (and Dallas–Fort Worth, for that matter) appear significantly less affordable than cities with much more expensive housing, including New York, San Francisco, Chicago, and Boston. The annual median household income in Houston was just under $61,000 in 2016, while in New York that same figure was just over $69,000. As a result, Houstonians spend just under 50 percent of their income on those combined costs, whereas New Yorkers spend just over 45 percent.

One of the benefits of mass transit that is often neglected, both for those who use it, as well as those who don’t, but benefit from lower congestion and less sprawl, is lower transportation costs. Since these are gradual (i.e., not part of a mortgage or monthly rent check) and seemingly under drivers’ control (though less than one might think), they are often ignored, but they are a significant cost, within and among metros. Probably worth bringing up when arguing for mass transit.

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