The True Cost of Commuting from the Exurbs

A new study from ULI details the transportation costs for households around the San Francisco Bay Area, and finds that SFers spend on average $500 less each month than suburban dwellers in the area.

The study was prepared by the Center for Neighborhood Technology in Chicago for the Urban Land Institute.

"In San Francisco, for instance, a household with the median city income of $66,523 has estimated monthly transportation costs of $792. In nearby cities the monthly estimate remains in triple digits, such as Berkeley ($858) or Sausalito ($885).

For families in more distant automobile-reliant suburbs, though, the monthly transportation costs spike. The estimate for Antioch is $1,311, for instance, while in Livermore it's $1,281. Cities with little connection to transit also suffer - such as Pacifica, where a household's monthly transportation is estimated to cost $1,246."

Full Story: S.F. transportation costs lower than in suburbs



Michael Lewyn's picture


Is that monthly difference lower than the gap between city and exurban housing costs?

Comparing Housing Costs

It is difficult to compare housing costs. Walkable neighborhoods generally have higher housing prices because current zoning laws restrict the supply.

Currently, many people move to the remote exurbs because that is the only place they can afford to buy a home. The lower housing costs in these less livable neighborhoods outweigh the greater transportation cost.

But if we built better transit infrastructure and changed the zoning laws to allow more TOD, then the supply of housing in walkable neighborhoods would catch up with the demand, and prices would go down.

Charles Siegel

Time wasted has value too

Not to mention the time wasted sitting in a car two or three hours every single work day. Surely, for at least some of those commuters who live in the “inexpensive” exurbs (places like Antioch or Tracy, for example), all this time wasted must have some economic value, not to mention the emotional distress (to family, etc.) of getting home late every night.

Moreover, in the current housing crash, the value of those “inexpensive” houses out in the exurbs has gone down faster than in San Francisco proper, making any saving on “cheaper” housing a questionable claim. The very same homeowners who thought that they were saving money buying cheaper houses in distant locales are also the same ones more likely to have lost all their equity or worse, gone into foreclosure. Factoring this in, I'm not sure that housing costs in the exurbs were cheaper at all than in the city, at least not over the last five years, and that San Francisco, for homeowners, was actually the better housing deal over time.


True Total Cost

A more realistic study would compare the true total cost of living, both inside and outside the urban center. We can't ignore the fact that people CHOOSE to live in the suburbs because they want more for their money (i.e. bigger house with yard vs. condo unit with noisy upstairs neighbors), or that they HAVE to live in the suburbs because the total cost of living (even with the added commuting expenses) is still significantly less than urban living.

Our current "first time homebuyer rebate" policy is only quickening the pace of suburban home buying: if you meet the income limits for this rebate, you certainly cannot afford to purchase a home in the City.

Jessica L. Giorgianni, AICP, PP

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