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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."
boldface mine

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,, 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.
Suburban Transportation...


City Transportation...


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.

crossposted at A World of Words

Originally posted to Ecomusings by Sven Eberlein on Mon Mar 05, 2012 at 11:22 AM PST.

Also republished by Ecocities Emerging.

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Comment Preferences

  •  This is a critical issue (8+ / 0-)

    I think NRDC (Natural Resources Defense COuncil) has launched an effort to get banks to includin transportation costs in their scoring of mortgage eligibility, since the usual budget includes a standard two cars, but obviously if you have no car, you have more cash for mortgage payents.  A LOT of the foreclosures have happened in those outlying suburbs.

    (one quibble:  San Rafael and Brentwood (esp brentwood) are fairly high end housing markets, compared to Oakland and Berkeley, so some of those differences are driven by higher house costs.  The Antioch comparison is probably more comparable.  Of course, SF real estate is possibly more expensive than San Rafael on average)

    Thanks for bringing this forward!  I can't wait to look at the study more

    •  great info about NRDC (4+ / 0-)

      I hope that this can become a standard practice when assessing costs.

      There are obviously a lot of fluctuations between different suburbs, and for a full assessment you have to go a lot deeper into many other factors as well, but to at least factor in transportation into the real estate cost is an important step. I think a lot of people looking at their housing choices are already doing this on their own, but it would really help to make it standard practice.

  •  Great diary (12+ / 0-)

    When I moved a few years ago, I decided to spend extra on rent to live in a neighborhood that was walkable--literally anything I could want is within a mile of my house.

    Now, I'm carless, and my total expenses are down compared to what I was spending to live out in the burbs a few years ago.  And as another benefit, my carbon footprint is a fraction of what it used to be, too.

    I left my heart in NAZ.

    by Scott in NAZ on Mon Mar 05, 2012 at 11:41:24 AM PST

  •  It gets even crazier sometimes (18+ / 0-)

    Recently the state decided to make one of local bridges a toll bridge (don't get me started on the 'screw the poor' aspect of toll roads). To avoid the $1.60 toll people drive 20 miles out of their way. Nobody thinks about the price of gas while they're using it. They only notice the price while they're filling the tank. We need a little device in the car that basically says, "You've spent $1.47 since you started this trip" and have it update in real time. That would get people thinking about the price of their actions in a very real way.

    "What profit a man, if he gain the world, but has to pay taxes on it?" Paul 8:36

    From the Gospel of St. Ron Paul in the Teachings and Misunderstandings of the Words of Adam Smith

    by ontheleftcoast on Mon Mar 05, 2012 at 11:41:47 AM PST

  •  Living without a car (11+ / 0-)

    It's a pain sometimes and there's some days I cringe away from the human contact and wish for my protective car pod. But on the other hand, I feel much more connected with my neighborhoods and surroundings because I walk to and from the grocery store, post office, coffee shop and everywhere else. The Big Blue Buses get me to and from places I can't walk or bike.

    Our rent is ridiculous -- we spend more than half our income on it.  But we really live where we are.

    "There once was a union maid..." Political compass: -9.75 / -8.72

    by mijita on Mon Mar 05, 2012 at 11:42:55 AM PST

  •  Sadly (11+ / 0-)

    and I really do mean sadly...This same argument also applies to many folks who want to be localvores.  

    that is, if you drive 20 miles to buy some locally grown tomatoes, it is very likely that you have expended more gas than if you go to your local Safeway and buy some non-organic factory-farm tomatoes from Chile.

    Simply put, moving entire trucks and boats filled with tons of tomatoes from Chile is often more efficient than moving your one ton automobile 20 miles with a couple pounds of tomatoes.

    None of this is to deny the benefits of local production and organic food.  Both matter a lot.  All I am saying is that its never that simple to balance out all the varying costs for things.


    "Empty vessels make the loudest sound, they have the least wit and are the greatest blabbers" Plato

    by Empty Vessel on Mon Mar 05, 2012 at 11:48:50 AM PST

  •  this matters to the government as well (10+ / 0-)

    in that it is more expensive to provide police and fire protection, roads, water, sewer, schools, etc in less densely populated areas with all those extra miles of nothing to pass to get to the next house.

    •  good point (3+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      jfromga, BachFan, Odysseus

      there are so many externalized costs that we often don't consider.

    •  Your Point Is Wrong... (0+ / 0-)

      We currently have a greater percentage of people living in urban areas than any time in our history.  And the trend is continuing.  To use your line of thought, we should make all the people that live in the country move to the city if they want to have local Post Office service.

      •  Where I lived in CA the cities you are talking (2+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        citisven, jfromga

        about were suburban small towns with sprawling housing developments taking over farm land. They could claim to be cities but usually were around 150K to 250K pops  spread evenly along newly laid grids of developments on former farmland that was incorporated to gain some property tax benefit to cover services to the new homes.

        I worked at the waste water / water plants. My hubby was a  FF and we saw the spreading areas that made coverage more expensive and required more distant stations ( Fire and water of Wastewater pumping stations) By the time I left the plant the cost for water and for wastewater had gone up from around 6 K  for both to 36 K in a a matter of just a few years... The increase in hook-up fees was to cover the extensive sprawl.

        In defense they did have groceries close as well as the standard retail outlets But libraries, theaters, bookstores, Bus service, taxis,  etc ... well you drove for most culture and specialty quite a ways.

        Now Oregon keeps a strong control of sprawl except for around Portland which actually could be considered the ONLY truly urban area in Oregon (over 3K in Met area) The next largest is less then 200K. Though I must brag Eugene does great on encouraging bike use and has a fab bus service (but then it did even 50 years ago). They have great city parks and have kept private development off the rivers banks where it didn't occur before thier urban planning efforts started.

        Proud Slut...Fear is the Mind Killer

        by boophus on Mon Mar 05, 2012 at 05:05:24 PM PST

        [ Parent ]

      •  just because more people (0+ / 0-)

        live in urban areas doesn't mean that in non-urban areas, the government doesn't spend more money for far flung and less dense development.   Two different situations.

        I also didn't say that people should be made to live anywhere.

        If you knew anything about planning and zoning, it would mean that even in a rural or exurban area, if the government (and planning and zoning is primarily a local goverment concern and support infrastructure is supported by local property taxes in most places)  is concerned with future costs of support,  it would favor higher density development around existing towns,  'nodes' where major transportation arteries already exist, ie, the major crossroads areas of the county, etc.    Having subdivisions or residential growth pop up like mushrooms here and there in a rural area is expensive.  It also brings conflicts between the existing agricutural users who tend to have smelly animals that bring flies,  or crops that they don't want people's kids, four wheelers and dogs in, because the people who move out to the country, frequently have trouble with actually living in the country with the 'real country'.

        And in the country, the post office is in town,  and some places they make you come in and get your mail.   My town has changed in my lifetime, but everyone outside the city, and all businesses were required to have a PO Box and come in to get their mail.

  •  This is an important idea to push and develop (7+ / 0-)

    For decades we've been lulled into doing the gas-burning for the big box stores, helping them create the illusion that they are cheaper--when, in fact, taken as a whole they are more expensive for most folks.

    It's also a mindset that we should develop, share and teach. Believe me, combining trips, carpooling, fighting against idiot zoning laws (that prevent walkable community development), emphasizing locavore shopping...all of these things threaten the oil industry bigtime. Then throw your plastic bag at them and you are doing something a lot more significant than typing a message into this box.

    Quidquid latine dictum sit, altum viditur.

    by MrMichaelMT on Mon Mar 05, 2012 at 12:01:28 PM PST

    •  Plastic bags are a great example (9+ / 0-)

      They banned all major stores from using them in SF 5 years ago, to great uproar. But then life actually continued and people and stores actually thrived. Now they're looking to expand San Francisco's ban on plastic bags and to impose a 10-cent charge on all other bags handed out at the checkout stand or takeout counter. There'll be an outcry by the plastic manufacturers and oil industry and then we'll find out that we didn't need all the stuff they were peddling in the first place, at least not at such wasteful quantities. The city finally said we're tired of paying for all your externalized costs, dealing with all those bags in our waste system and clogging up sewers, not to mention polluting the ocean. It's time to pay for the true cost of doing business.

      •  I used to have a chore that involved storing (3+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        BachFan, citisven, greengemini

        or disposing of the excess grocery bags that didn't get reused around the house. Now that they live in the car and are reused to bring groceries home, my life is much nicer.

        Fry, don't be a hero! It's not covered by our health plan!

        by elfling on Mon Mar 05, 2012 at 12:36:28 PM PST

        [ Parent ]

      •  plastic bags could be banned nation-wide (3+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        citisven, kimoconnor, greengemini

        but who would dare to violate those freedoms that allow us to use  several plastic bags per grocery shopping trip to bring them from your shoppoing cart to your car in the parking lot?. A government who dares to ban plastic bags? How authoritarian of you to think that way, Sven.:) / sorry for the bad snark.

        FREEDOM, Sven, don't forget our beloved freedoms. Don't risk them.

        They don't mind to ask 5 cents for it, but most groceries don't even ask for that. And we all pay rather 5 cents than to get ourselves organized and think of grabbing a cotton bag before we hit the grocery stores.

      •  Do They Have Costco In SF? (0+ / 0-)

        At Costco they don't have bags at the check out but give away all the boxes that they emptied stocking the shelves.  Will SF charge 10 cents for each box they give away?

  •  Interesting Google-map-type methodology (5+ / 0-)

    on the easy-to-use WalkScore tool.   However it has some flaws -- said my nearest bar was 6 miles away over by the freeway, when if fact there are at least 3 funky little old neighborhood bars within a mile of me.   Maybe they don't have Yelp reviews ... or something.  

    "The extinction of the human race will come from its inability to EMOTIONALLY comprehend the exponential function." -- Edward Teller

    by lgmcp on Mon Mar 05, 2012 at 12:02:22 PM PST

    •  It seems woefully out-of-date (5+ / 0-)

      at the least. When I punched in a couple of addresses that have meaning to me, there were businesses listed that had gone defunct years ago, schools that had closed without the replacement being listed, and as you say, distances that had some space-time continuum challenges.

      •  Yes, whatever databases it draws from (3+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        Indexer, citisven, BachFan

        are not overly accurate.  On the whole, though, it may wash out due to sheer number of datapoints, yielding a  composite score that might still be relatively accurate. No one could accuse New Mexico of being other than dismally car-dependent, and my neighborhood's 20% score didn't strike me as too far off.  

        "The extinction of the human race will come from its inability to EMOTIONALLY comprehend the exponential function." -- Edward Teller

        by lgmcp on Mon Mar 05, 2012 at 12:13:44 PM PST

        [ Parent ]

      •  Agreed (1+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:

        It doesn't have the nearest major grocery store to my house in it (which doesn't seem particularly new) and lists several other businesses that don't exist anymore.  It also had no public transport information although one mitigating factor (for us) when we decided to live out a bit further was that the end of a bus route was fairly close to our home.

        "We are normal and we want our freedom" - Bonzos

        by matching mole on Mon Mar 05, 2012 at 05:38:01 PM PST

        [ Parent ]

  •  I think that will continue to shake out, though (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    mijita, citisven, Odysseus

    We have a great farmer's market here, but also smaller ones more convenient for different neighborhoods. Community gardens are making a comeback, and we have a service that delivers a box of locally grown produce each week.
    As fuel prices rise, the economics of 3000-mile produce break down - and as locavore....ism? (there's gotta be a word for it) becomes more popular, the economics of that only get better.
    We are looking at the death of suburbia, and hopefully a return to decentralized communities with their own local markets.

    "Money has no motherland; financiers are without patriotism and without decency; their sole object is gain." - Napoleon Bonaparte (attributed)

    by Jaxpagan on Mon Mar 05, 2012 at 12:03:14 PM PST

    •  Hmm. Could you expand on what you mean (0+ / 0-)

      by decentralized communites? Isn't that the definition of suburbia?

      •  should have said . .. (0+ / 0-)

        Decentralized self-sustained communities. A suburb is a decapitated town - it has homes and residents, but little business, and virtually no agricultural or industrial resources.

        The point of suburbia was to live very far away from, well, everything. Which is the whole problem. It never paid for itself - fire and police protection, over a large, low-density area, massive infrastructure requirements - and now the residents are starting to finally see the pain of it.

        What I'm talking about is a return to communities that have those commercial/agricultural parts re-attached - where you can live within walking distance of a job or a food market or the local entertainment. Smarter infrastructure, and a community that can function independently of the urban core.

        And that urban core would change, too - no longer a commercial district with an enemic residential component. They would play out that same "walking distance" rule with a greater population density (brownstones and apartments over houses). A return to real neighborhoods, not just groups of houses and not much else.

        "Money has no motherland; financiers are without patriotism and without decency; their sole object is gain." - Napoleon Bonaparte (attributed)

        by Jaxpagan on Wed Mar 07, 2012 at 02:40:25 PM PST

        [ Parent ]

  •  I live out in the country and...... (10+ / 0-)

    ....sometimes, when I'm headed to town for supplies, I'll ask a neighbor if they need me to get them anything. They always turn me down but.....

    I'm just saying that, if people would work together a little bit, we could really be a lot more efficient. Maybe one day there'll be an app for that.

    How many times do you see big empty SUVs and pick-ups travelling down the road with one person on board.....they could be hauling something.

    Don't roll your eyes like that......think about it

    by suspiciousmind on Mon Mar 05, 2012 at 12:11:50 PM PST

  •  Thank you for this. If an extraterrestrial (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    kimoconnor, citisven

    were to casually observe us from afar it would reasonably conclude that the dominant life form in this country is cars.

    An investment in knowledge pays the best interest. -Benjamin Franklin

    by martinjedlicka on Mon Mar 05, 2012 at 12:18:03 PM PST

  •  Another way of highlighting (5+ / 0-)

    the need to have energy and location efficiency within the mortgage process.

    Of course, this story is repeated throughout the nation ...

    Once booming symbols of possibility, the Twin Cities exurbs are scarred by foreclosures, battered by gas prices and uncertain when recovery might come.

    Blogging regularly at Get Energy Smart NOW! for a sustainable energy future.

    by A Siegel on Mon Mar 05, 2012 at 12:25:12 PM PST

  •  I love my current locale (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    I have a (to me) long commute to work (about 22 miles each way), but even it isn't TOO Bad, its a straight shot down an interstate to get there.  25 minutes most days.

    within 3 blocks from my apartment are a trio of back-to-back shopping centers with 2 grocery stores, a dozen restaurants with fast food like Wendy's, mid-range buffets and sit-in restaurants, and high-end fine dining. drug stores, home-improvement, furniture stores, arts and crafts, pet stores, etc.  for a mile up and down  this main road are more shopping and dining options, gas stations, car dealerships (new and used) and repair shops, movie theaters, with a shopping mall just a single mile away.  Two bus lines as well.

    And I'm in a fairly small city and nowhere near its downtown.

    We have no desire to offend you -- unless you are a twit!

    by ScrewySquirrel on Mon Mar 05, 2012 at 12:25:58 PM PST

  •  Who can afford to live "close-in" ? (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    citisven, Catte Nappe

    it's not that people want to live in cookie-cutter suburban houses, they have to live there far out, because they can't afford to rent or buy "close-in".  

    You have barely touched how difficult it can become to make the rent and the gasoline in a suburb home and the rent in a close-in to downtown home. People won't be able to get to work in the long run, if gasoline rises up some more.

    I was always thinking that it would be a good idea to have a cow in the backyard, some fish in the swimming pool, a couple of chicken under the deck and the rabbits in the dog house. :)

  •  Good diary (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    citisven, Egalitare, Odysseus

    But WalkScore is ridiculous. Getting better, but still ridiculous. From my office they have me within close walking distance of a coffee shop, a grocery, 2 banks, a  restaurant. The first is actually a coffee roasting company, the grocery is actually a distribution warehouse for a wholesaler, the banks are designated credit unions for employees of two specific companies, and the restaurant is a biker bar.

    Meanwhile, my home rates a compartively awful walk score, even though the reality is there is much more within walk or bike distance than my office. Of course, the site offers me as the closest "shopping" options a tailor, and a 7-11 convenience store.  (Not totally OT question - is there anybody in the US where 7-11's exist that isn't in walking distance of a 7-11?)

    from a bright young conservative: “I’m watching my first GOP debate…and WE SOUND LIKE CRAZY PEOPLE!!!!”

    by Catte Nappe on Mon Mar 05, 2012 at 01:44:29 PM PST

    •  Seems like a lot of folks (4+ / 0-)

      are having issues with Walkscore. I'll have to check into that. As I said above, I'm wondering if they have some sort of a function in their system where users can update information about their neighborhood.

      •  Part of it is goes beyond any errors (1+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:

        in the database.  It doesn't really take into account the nature of where you are walking.  I compared the walk scores for every place I have lived in the last 20 years (north side of Chicago; 2 addresses in Phoenix; Urbana, Illinois; and 2 addresses here in Tallahassee.

        The Chicago address got an 88 and it seems clearly the most walkable.  Lots of amenities of life quite close by and excellent access to mass transit.

        Our northern Phoenix apartment where we lived on first arrival and the location of our first house in a historic neighborhood just north of downtown scored a 55 and a 77 respectively.  These seem very high relative to the other locations.  In northern Phoenix we lived on a very major street and there were businesses fairly close by.  Mostly they were not the sort of places you would be walking to on a regular basis and if you walked anywhere it was through a landscape of parking lots lining a six lane road with cars roaring by at 50 mph.  The nearest grocery store was a mile away but you had to go under I-17 to get to it - not a fun experience on foot or on a bike.

        Downtown was a bit better but other than a circle K and restaurants there wasn't anything really useful close to our home.

        In contrast our home in Urbana got a fairly dismal score of 31.  It's true that there were no businesses of any kind within about a 15 minute walk in any direction.  But those walks are through very pleasant neighborhoods and parks and then you got to downtown and there was the farmer's market and a lovely bakery and used bookstore, etc.  Despite its lower score it seemed much more walkable than the Phoenix locations largely because walking was so much more pleasant and although you had to walk a longer distance to get to businesses when you did they were clustered together.  It was also a very safe and easy environment to bicycle which was not true in either Phoenix or Chicago so I made much more use of the bike in running errands.

        "We are normal and we want our freedom" - Bonzos

        by matching mole on Mon Mar 05, 2012 at 06:24:56 PM PST

        [ Parent ]

        •  Forgot to say (1+ / 0-)
          Recommended by:

          excellent diary as usual.  I got distracted by the Walkscore stuff.

          "We are normal and we want our freedom" - Bonzos

          by matching mole on Mon Mar 05, 2012 at 06:28:40 PM PST

          [ Parent ]

        •  goes to show (1+ / 0-)
          Recommended by:
          matching mole

          how complex it is to measure these kinds of things. There are so many intangibles. Like you say, it's not just about the distance, but what kind of walk it is. And that's when you get into really murky waters when trying to standardize. But I think it's good that they're at least trying, but you just have to look at it as a starting point in your own evaluation of a place and take it with several grains of salt.

          Thanks for swinging by, matching mole, good to see ya!

  •  There is more than one solution to this (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    citisven, nikilibrarian

    problem. Here's just a few the come to my mind:

    1) Don't drink milk.

    2) Don't drink milk at 10 o'clock at night

    3) Stockpile milk. With any decent refrigerator milk can last a week or more before going bad.

    4) Borrow milk as needed from you neighbor.

    5) Start a 24 hour milk delivery business.

    6) Buy a goat.

    7) Open a 24 hour convienience store in your neighborhood

    By the way, the cost of driving ~30 miles to buy a gallon of milk is probably twice or three times the cost of just the gallon of gasoline, if you include depreciation, financing, insurance, the value of your time, etc.

    That said I am sure the realtors will be happy to sell you on a residence wherever you decide you want to live.

    H'mm. I'm not terribly into this, anymore.

    by Knarfc on Mon Mar 05, 2012 at 09:50:01 PM PST

  •  Who does this though? (0+ / 0-)

    If you live in the burbs, you use that car to haul a week's worth of groceries -- including milk -- home.

    And you drink your coffee black the one morning out of a million you run out.

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