New Study Quantifies High Personal Costs of Building CA Cities for Cars

Household_transpo_costs_small.jpgClick to enlarge: Annual household transportation costs in the Bay Area.

California residents living in sprawling suburban developments could save billions of dollars every year if they lived in denser, urban zones and along transit corridors, according to a study released today by smart growth and transit advocates TransForm. Analyzing four metropolitan areas–Southern California, the San Francisco Bay Area, San Diego, and Sacramento–Windfall for All found that shifting populations in those regions to denser development along transit corridors would save save $31 billion per year, or $3,850 on average per household [Report Summary PDF].

In the Bay Area, where annual car ownership costs on average over $8,000 per person, individuals spend roughly $34 billion every year on personal transportation costs, compared to only $4.6 billion spent by public agencies on transit and roads combined. Households with poor access to public transit not only spend double the amount per year on transportation when compared to those with good access to transit, they produce more than double the amount of CO2, a greenhouse gas.

"The most astounding thing is that agencies pinch their pennies on transit and cut back and we feel like we can’t afford not to save that service," said Stuart Cohen, Executive Director of TransForm. "We’re already spending more than seven times as much as our agencies spend on public transit and roads just on buying and operating our vehicles."

What’s more, the report points out that fuel costs represent a small minority of the cost of owning a car, so the craze for electric and other low-emission vehicles will not dramatically reduce the transportation costs for those living far from their jobs and far from transit. The best solution to combating climate change, the report notes, is to build walkable, vibrant communities where residences are situated close to job centers. 

Transpo_CO2_small.jpgClick to enlarge: household CO2 from transportation in the Bay Area.

The report highlights California’s Senate Bill 375 (SB 375), which establishes a legislative framework for mandating smart growth along transit corridors, and it argues there are economic incentives for individuals, developers, cities, and regions for limiting the role of the private automobile in transportation spending.

"By reducing public and private transportation costs and increasing revenues to local governments, SB 375 can help put dollars back in the pockets of consumers and local governments," said Cohen.

Windfall for All counters the claim that SB 375 will be too costly to implement during the current economic crisis with several examples of how planning denser cities and offering alternatives to private car travel can save money.

First, in Sacramento, the Sacramento Area Council of Governments (SACOG) created a 2050 development blueprint that forecasts current development patterns and compared them to smart growth patterns. SACOG found that Sacramento would save $9.4 billion in public infrastructure costs (transportation, utilities, water, etc), $655 million in annual residents’ fuel costs and $8.4 billion less for land purchases to offset environmental degradation from sprawl. The city would also see a 300 percent increase in public transit use if the city clustered development around transit within an urban growth boundary.

Transpo_Cost_and_CO2_small.jpgBenefits of public transportation for household costs and pollution. Image: TransForm.

Another case study from TransForm’s report analyzed the promising results from the University of California San Diego’s (UCSD) experiment in promoting non-automobile travel to the campus. Rather than build 10 additional parking facilities that had been planned and using parking revenue from three garages built between 2001 and 2007 at UCSD’s La Jolla campus, the university invested in shuttles, expanded routes, discount and free fares on transit, as well as facilities for bicycling and pedestrians, all of which has resulted in a dramatic reduction of solo-driver trips. The alternative transportation measures and the costs savings from not building the new garages were so significant, UCSD has frozen the construction of new garages. The USCD model was successful enough to convince the  University of California system to require universities to present a business model analyzing the benefits of transit, ride sharing, and bicycle facilities before building new garages.

In the Bay Area, parking regulations are a significant impediment to dense development. In San Leandro, parking minimums of more than two parking spaces for each new home made dense development a planning impossibility. When San Leandro re-wrote its downtown plan, it rezoned to allow 3,400 new homes, more than seven times the limit under the old zoning laws. The first development in the new Downtown Transit-Oriented Development Strategy, The Alameda, designed by San Francisco Architect David Baker, saves $3.9 million by eliminating a level of parking and produces 30 more affordable units, according to the report.

Based on these and other case studies, Cohen suggested California should consider levying a climate impact fee on gasoline to generate enough money to expand public transit options and expand walkable communities while improving the economy and meeting ambitious greenhouse gas targets.

"Building our communities with the expectation that every driver in a family is going to have to own their own car is part of what is part of what is bankrupting families," said Cohen. "The infrastructure for the… roads and those patterns of growth is part of what is bankrupting our public agencies."

Costs_of_Car_ownership_small.jpg

Windfall for All Critical Recommendations

  • Integrate full economic analysis into planning. The huge dividends from efficient land use become evident once personal costs, not just public budgets, are considered. Without such analysis, we will continue to promote plans and policies that cost too much for families, businesses, and local governments.
  • Provide cities and counties with an infusion of funds to engage the community in planning. The state should make funds available for updating zoning codes and parking policies to make more efficient use of land and resources. Identifying strategies to maintain and expand the number of affordable homes is also critical.
  • Fund cost-effective public transportation. The state needs to provide leadership and restore funds for public transit, as well as make it easier for regions to raise new revenues with climate-impact fees. Economic analysis could determine whether such fees, if spent in ways that promote more efficient communities, can reduce our overall costs.
  • Innovate, evaluate and replicate. There are dozens of innovative strategies – whether an individual program such as car-sharing, or a comprehensive rewards approach such as UC San Diego’s. MTC, the Bay Area’s transportation agency, will soon launch the first “Transportation Climate Action Program.” This program will seed, evaluate and replicate innovative programs. Other regions should follow suit.
  • New development should minimize pollution from new residents – or pay to mitigate it. The San Joaquin Valley is encouraging efficient development from the start. New developments that don’t provide walkable communities with convenient transportation choices must mitigate the costs of the air pollution that will be generated by future residents. The state and regional air districts should encourage this same system for mitigating the costs of greenhouse gases.
  • “What’s more, the report points out that fuel costs represent a small minority of the cost of owning a car, so the craze for electric and other low-emission vehicles will not dramatically reduce the transportation costs for those living far from their jobs and far from transit.”

    Thank you for finally stating the obvious! Electric cars are not going to save the car culture.

  • Not to sound defensive, but we’ve stated the obvious on this here blog before. 🙂

    http://sf.streetsblog.org/2009/02/19/a-decidedly-dim-view-of-electric-vehicles/

  • I was referring to the study, not Streetsblog. But you are right, this is anything but new news.

  • I probably pay $1,000 a year (basically car insurance and some gas) .. granted, I barely drive my car since I live downtown in the Rincon Hill neighborhood and can walk, bike, or transit around town pretty easily … I think I’ve driven 300 miles over the last year? When this car dies, I’ll probably join the car-free crowd with a ZipCar membership for those times when other transportation modes just aren’t practical.

  • We got rid of our van and downsized to just one car for our family. Our van was paid off but the maintenance costs were increasing. We figure we are saving $4000 a year (maintenance, insurance, gas) by not having it. We joined City Carshare but by using bikes and Muni we have yet to use it.

    I agree that public transit combined with bicycle infrastructure is a much healthier, less expensive (and, given the expenses involved, more likely) way to revolutionize American transportation than converting the entire present fleet of cars in the US to electric. It will, however, require denser land use patterns and transit and bicycle infrastructure created on the double.

    But it doesn’t mean electric cars don’t have a positive role to play. Every car in America doesn’t need to be replaced because Americans have twice as many cars as they need. I know families that have four cars, one set aside for a teenager who is still too young to drive! However, there are those who, for various reasons, will insist on a personal vehicle and will still have the money to pay for one. I would much rather see those folks in small electric cars than in large, pollution-spewing SUVs. Electric engines are so much more efficient than internal combustion engines that even if the electricity is powered entirely by nasty, horrible coal, the environment is still a big winner.

    Oil is amazing stuff. One gallon of gasoline contains the energy of over two weeks of human labor. (And it costs only $3.00?) Squandering it on grossly inefficient internal combustion engines to propel 5000 lbs of metal to the grocery store and soccer field is probably the worst use we could put it to. (Okay, stripping off mountain tops for coal is another bad use.)

  • I don’t own a car, and when I talk to people about it (who always assume I’m doing it for the environment), I tell them it’s economic, with an environmental bonus. I have the Caltrain Go Pass, Translink and use my friends’ cars sometimes. I think combined, I spend about $750/yr on transportation, at most — and I take the train to Palo Alto from SF every day.

    I can’t even fathom having to spend $15,000/yr on getting around.

  • From SanLeandro

    “In the Bay Area, parking regulations are a significant impediment to dense development. In San Leandro, parking minimums of more than two parking spaces for each new home made dense development a planning impossibility. When San Leandro re-wrote its downtown plan, it rezoned to allow 3,400 new homes, more than seven times the limit under the old zoning laws. The first development in the new Downtown Transit-Oriented Development Strategy, The Alameda, designed by San Francisco Architect David Baker, saves $3.9 million by eliminating a level of parking and produces 30 more affordable units, according to the report.”

    This is misleading because the ratio given is for single family homes, not apartment units. 3,400 single family homes are not being built in San Leandro’s TOD. Almost all the new housing units will be apartment units. Right now the City of San Leandro permits up to 1.5 parking spots per apartment unit.

    The Alameda is a 100 unit complex for low income residents that will come with 109 parking spaces The San Leandro TOD includes a 200 unit market rate complex, The Crossings, that will have 290 parking spaces. Both projects have approved.

    Will then the TOD actually reduce car use? Under the TOD, the wealthier get more parking. These folks are more likely to get in their cars each morning and drive off to San Ramon or Fremont for work as they are to walk to the BART station and ride to their job. TOD residents will commute to where the jobs are, whether by car or public transit. The most rapid new job growth in the Bay Area over the past 20 years has not been in the downtowns of SF and Oakland serviced by BART.

    Two more market-rate apartment complexes are planned as part of the San Leandro TOD. The too may have almost 1.5 parking spaces for each unit. This is called TOD because of its proximity to BART. The reality is that these developments continue to promote the use of cars and will bring even more cars into the center of San Leandro than is present today.

  • Yeah. Uhm.

    So, the lowest “average” transportation cost is $7,460? I could see how if I was dropping $350-$400/mo on a brand new car, possibly paying for some parking, I could blow that kind of money on a car in a year. But, that seems pretty darn high to me.

    Especially if you consider there are a lot of young people, college students, seniors and hippies living in San Francisco, tooling around on $45/mo Muni passes, I just don’t see how this study has any credibility whatever, unless it is somehow adding the government’s cost and dividing that up per capita . . .

    Even then, if you look at a per-capita GDP of around $42k in California, spending 1/8 of that on transportation within an urban infrastructure sounds reasonable enough to me. That the cost-effectiveness of transportation infrastructure in rural areas crawls past 1/4 per-capita GDP, likely requiring subsidy from urban taxpayers, is hardly a shocker or a new idea.

    But it would be nice to clarify just what costs we are talking about here.

    Sincerely,
    -daniel

  • To Daniel:

    It doesn’t matter what costs you are looking at.

    The point of the study is to demonstrate that increasing the fuel efficiency of cars will not save a significant ammount of money for those that own cars.

    What you are asking for is irrelevant to that.

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