Higher - and Rising - Transportation Costs for Sprawl Neighbourhoods

By Ryan McGreal
Published July 09, 2012

A piece just published in Better Cities and Towns has assigned a transportation price tag to that cheap suburban house over the past decade.

The latest figures from the Housing + Transportation Affordability Index, the nation’s most comprehensive assessment of housing and transportation costs, show that the difference between living in a compact, well-connected place and living in sprawl rose significantly between 2000 and 2009.

Transportation costs increased by $1,400 a year for the typical household in a location-efficient neighborhood. They jumped by approximately $3,900 in locations heavily dependent on driving. The difference in transportation cost between neighborhoods where things are easy to get to and places that are more isolated grew by about $200 a month.

Transportation costs in the least "location-efficient neighbourhoods" of 20 selected American cities are between $3,000 and $10,000 higher than in more compact pedestrian-, bicycle- and transit-friendly neighbourhoods.

The most cost-effective neighbourhoods in New York City cost as little as $5,053 a year for transportation, rising to a crushing $17,807 in suburban Olympia WA.

Note also that the gap in transportation cost between compact and sprawl neighbourhoods has grown bigger in the past decade, as energy costs have trended upwards.

It's already understood that prospective home buyers tend to underestimate the cost and misery of commuting to far-flung suburbs, while simultaneously overestimating the happiness they will get from the added space of a suburban home.

Drive-'til-you-qualify turns out to be a false economy: the higher transportation costs - in money, time, and stress - offset the lower housing prices of far-flung suburbs.

See also:

Ryan McGreal, the editor of Raise the Hammer, lives in Hamilton with his family and works as a programmer, writer and consultant. Ryan volunteers with Hamilton Light Rail, a citizen group dedicated to bringing light rail transit to Hamilton. Ryan wrote a city affairs column in Hamilton Magazine, and several of his articles have been published in the Hamilton Spectator. His articles have also been published in The Walrus, HuffPost and Behind the Numbers. He maintains a personal website, has been known to share passing thoughts on Twitter and Facebook, and posts the occasional cat photo on Instagram.


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By lol (registered) | Posted July 09, 2012 at 14:47:59

Anyone who commutes is well aware of the costs involved. Not just commuting to work but the drive to Sobey's or Metro for the groceries, or just for a dinner out. Yet many thousands of people still opt for the lifestyle because to them the bigger home, the white picket fence, the whole lifestyle is well worth it. Who are you or Better Cities and Towns to tell them that they have made the wrong choice.

Frankly I am surprised the transportation costs are not higher for living in the burbs.

Wherever that neighbourhood is where the transportation costs are $5,000 can an average person afford to live there? Would they want to live there?

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By 78 bucks (anonymous) | Posted July 10, 2012 at 07:16:41

my total commuting costs (bike repair) last year was $78.

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By Robert D (anonymous) | Posted July 10, 2012 at 09:33:43

Mine was around $5,000, but I commute to Toronto daily.

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By DowntownInHamilton (registered) | Posted July 13, 2012 at 07:11:54 in reply to Comment 79354

Same here. I'd love to cut that down but our mass transportation infrastructure simply isn't mature enough to handle the potential demand. Would love to see all-day service to Mississauga (multiple points, perhaps Square One, Port Credit, the north end of the city, the Oakville/Mississauga border) from Hamilton, as well as other points in the GTA. I'd love to get outside our city to see the other offerings but I am not going to drive there to do it.

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By ScreamingViking (registered) | Posted July 11, 2012 at 00:08:19 in reply to Comment 79354

My experience is similar to yours.

But we should not forget the value of our time as well.

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By Saints (anonymous) | Posted July 10, 2012 at 13:20:04

... And yet the City's sprawl market is still barrelling merrily along...


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By -Hammer- (registered) | Posted July 15, 2012 at 02:21:05 in reply to Comment 79356

The city is shortsighted and wants quick and easy money. It always has, because Council is incapable of managing it's finances. Longtime Councillors who haven't lost an election in years, fill the city bureaucracy with cronies who command high prices in both their wages and their spending practices. Peggy Chapman and Duncan Gillespie come to mind. Nevermind how much money is wasted on consultants whose findings are promptly ignored anyways.

Comment edited by -Hammer- on 2012-07-15 02:21:43

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By Undustrial (registered) - website | Posted July 10, 2012 at 23:46:21 in reply to Comment 79356

Can you say "Canadian Real Estate Bubble"?

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By lol (registered) | Posted July 11, 2012 at 16:08:43 in reply to Comment 79359

Do you really believe that the American real estate bubble was the result of "sprawl"

Or are you suggesting that we are going to have a real estate collapse because our sprawl is to big?

Either way by the light of day both seem kind of far fetched.

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By -Hammer- (registered) | Posted July 15, 2012 at 02:02:47 in reply to Comment 79368

I don't think we'll have a real estate collapse, I think we'll have a government debt issue. Sprawl means more infrastructure costs and generally not as much tax income as compared to dense urban areas. That can crush a city's finances, who in turn have to be bailed out by the feds and province (who are also having debt issues) who in turn start printing money to pay off the debt and devalue the currency and thus the economy.

This is why the province has been a little bullish on Hamilton expanding it's urban boundary with the airport fiasco.

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By Robert D (anonymous) | Posted July 11, 2012 at 21:57:01 in reply to Comment 79368

I disagree. Sprawl, sub-prime mortgages and the "American Dream" all feature prominently in the most recent American real estate bubble.

Sprawl and the "American Dream" (suburban home ownership) are both factors here, and the government has done a decent job monitoring mortgage rates to ensure we don't suffer the same problem here.

Ironically the biggest issue in Canada is condo prices in Vancouver and Toronto - of which arguably sprawl and the American dream are only indirect contributors (as they take up substantial land on the periphery of these communities, forcing higher densities downtown and demand for these areas that outstrips the supply.

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By mb (registered) | Posted July 16, 2012 at 12:15:47

I've said it before and I'll say it again to all you suburb-haters. When you're young, downtown is great and it's the place to be. Even when you get married, it's fun to be trendy downtown couple. But things change when you have kids. MOST people just do not want to raise their kids downtown. They want big lawns, sidewalks, wide roads, and let's face it CARS (b/c it's just easier to drive places with your kids rather than take a damn bus).

Sorry, but it's true. You can glorify downtown living all you want. Families prefer the suburbs. Now, for those of you who do raise a family downtown, I am not knocking you. If you enjoy raising your family downtown, and your kids have a happy life, than that's all that matters. Like the old saying goes, it's not where you're raised, it's how you're raised.

Comment edited by mb on 2012-07-16 12:18:54

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By ergo (anonymous) | Posted July 16, 2012 at 13:27:24 in reply to Comment 79504

You'd be right if it were purely a matter of personal choice. Of course people want to raise their kids in the suburbs, and of course they want to drive cars everywhere. The benefits of these are too great for the externalities of both to factor into the equation, despite this site's idealistic belief that people will see the light and become better consumers. But the fact is that suburbs are paid for by city dwellers. The costs are too great - if development charges and operating costs were levied fully, and if social services and housing were distributed equitably, it would be prohibitively expensive to live in the suburbs. Same thing for cars if we paid the true cost. So the issue isn't one of choice but one of fairness. Make people pay for what they use and then no one has a right to complain about another's choices.

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By DowntownInHamilton (registered) | Posted July 18, 2012 at 07:16:44 in reply to Comment 79508

Make people pay for what they use and then no one has a right to complain about another's choices.

So by that logic...

  • I don't need to pay anything into public transit since I don't use it with any regularity
  • I don't need to pay into our healthcare system since I haven't been in need of medical attention in years
  • I don't need to pay for any roadway outside of the area that I drive in
  • I don't need to subsidize those who need social assistance
  • I don't need to pay into public education as I don't have kids right now
  • I don't need to pay into the CPP if I choose since I'm not old

Your logic is extremely flawed.

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By ergo (anonymous) | Posted July 18, 2012 at 13:51:12 in reply to Comment 79532

think you misread by logic. You are reading it as: make people only pay for what they use. I said: make people pay for what they use and then they don't have a right to complain about other's choices. So if someone is paying their way for their kid to be educated, then I don't have a right to tell them not to do that. But if I am contributing to that education, then I do have a right to object to that. Somehow you read that to mean I want a purely user pays social system.

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By norendr (anonymous) | Posted August 13, 2012 at 21:07:17

We all contribute to NECESSARY services.
A 50+ foot lot isn't a necessity that the rest of us should be expected to subsidize.

It's true that if suburban dwellers had to pay the full cost of the infrastructure, they might make different choices.

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