Naked City

All Sprawled Out

You thought you'd heard everything there was to hear about Austin's transportation crisis. But we did miss something. Amidst all the talk from trackheads and road warriors about how this costs too much and that does too little, did anyone ask you how transportation, and its discontents, affect your pocketbook?

After all, individual consumers ponied up by far the bulk -- 84% -- of the nearly $805 billion spent on transportation in the U.S. in 1998. That's a figure (from the U.S. Dept. of Transportation) quoted in the Surface Transportation Policy Project's new report Driven to Spend, which analyzes 28 U.S. metro areas and concludes that, yep, we spend too much money on transportation, and that cars are the problem.

Austin isn't among those 28 metros, but Houston and Dallas/Fort Worth are No. 1 and No. 3, respectively, on STPP's list of the most expensive transportation cities. (Atlanta is No. 2; Miami and Detroit round out the top five.) In Houston, that translates into $8,840 per household per year, or 22.1% of the total household budget, more than Bayou City folks spend on housing and a lot higher than the national average for transport. Though it seems so compared to Austin, Houston housing isn't notably cheaper than the national average, so transportation's hit to the pocketbook is real.

So why is that, Mr. Wizard? Well, the S-word, of course. "The average American family living in a highly sprawling area pays roughly $1,300 more per year in transportation expenses," writes study author Barbara McCann. "Greater distances between destinations and a lack of transportation choices means households have little choice but to own and operate a number of automobiles. This makes sprawl expensive."

That sounds like plain common sense, but STPP uses all the right statistical analyses to demonstrate that sprawl, and not other variables like a city's median income, correlates most closely to high consumer costs. (Although the poorer you are, the bigger the chunk of your budget that goes to transportation.) However, it is true that low-density land use and an auto-dependent transport system are not always synonymous. Seattle scores pretty high on STPP's sprawl-o-meter, but also has a good "transportation choice ratio" (basically, public transport vs. freeway travel).

Austin, one would imagine, would not do very well on the STPP benchmarks. The study also correlates consumer cost and public investment in roadways -- that is, the cities that spent the most on new road miles had the highest personal costs, and the three least-expensive metros (New York, Baltimore, and Honolulu) actually saw a net decrease in lane miles per capita. Considering our metro area has spent more than $1 billion on roads in recent years, and plans to spend about as much more on State Highway 130 alone, things do not look promising.

These are all different ways of looking at the same blackbird. Cars are expensive to own, operate, and maintain, and many of those costs are fixed ones that are independent of how much you actually drive. Compared to other types of personal investment -- say, real estate -- cars are a really bad place to put your money. Which is why it is so moronic to claim, as did anti-rail leader Jim Skaggs, that it would be cheaper to give every Austinite a Lexus than to build light rail.

This points the way to what may be the single sharpest tool in the Smart Growth, pro-transit toolbox -- the advent of "location efficiency" as a criterion for housing lenders. The Chicago-based Center for Neighborhood Technology, the co-presenter of the Driven to Spend report, has brought the comparative analysis done between metro areas by STPP, and between countries by other researchers, down to the neighborhood level. The level of detail is quite sophisticated; CNT says its models can predict with 93% accuracy how many cars an average household will own, and how much they'll be driven, and what the owners would spend on them, at the level of a traffic serial zone, of which there are 1,074 in Metro Austin.

As a result, CNT's models now help potential home buyers in the Chicago, San Francisco, Seattle, and Los Angeles metro areas (with more on the way) see how, when you add in transportation costs, a suburban starter home can actually cost more than a nice old house in a boutique in-town neighborhood or an older, more compact suburb. And lenders in those markets, with assistance from Fannie Mae, are actually writing "location-efficient mortgages" that give urban buyers the increased buying power they deserve.

Absent this obviously good idea taking hold here in Austin, what can we do? Local transit proponents have their ideas. Trans Texas Alliance director Karen Akins, who notes that having two Texas cities at the top of the STPP dishonor roll is "disturbing," is pushing for per-mile auto insurance, as called for in the pre-filed HB45, authored by San Antonio Rep. Ruth Jones McClendon.

But mostly, locals are hoping to use the STPP report as a call to arms. "It's time that Texas communities start looking at affordable transportation ... in addition to affordable housing," says David Foster of the Texas Community Project. And Robin Stallings of Austin Choices for Transportation, one of the pro-light-rail players in last month's election, noted that "following Houston's example on transportation" -- as the road warriors advocate -- "could be a costly mistake for Austin ... We'll be paying much more out of our own pocketbooks."

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