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Car Culture

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

10:38 AM PST on November 20, 2009

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

(editor's note: The section with area specific data for Southern California isn't done yet.  When it is, we'll have a post specific to our region.  In the meantime, this statewide article prepared by Matthew Roth in San Francisco is a great read.)

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].

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.

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."

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

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.

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.

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


Windfall for All Critical Recommendations

    • Integrate full economic analysis into planning.The huge dividends from efficient land use become evident once personalcosts, not just public budgets, are considered. Without such analysis,we will continue to promote plans and policies that cost too much forfamilies, 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 andparking policies to make more efficient use of land and resources.Identifying strategies to maintain and expand the number of affordablehomes is also critical.
    • Fund cost-effective public transportation.The state needs to provide leadership and restore funds for publictransit, as well as make it easier for regions to raise new revenueswith climate-impact fees. Economic analysis could determine whethersuch 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 individualprogram such as car-sharing, or a comprehensive rewards approach suchas UC San Diego’s. MTC, the Bay Area’s transportation agency, will soonlaunch the first “Transportation Climate Action Program.” This programwill seed, evaluate and replicate innovative programs. Other regionsshould follow suit.
    • New development should minimize pollution from new residents – or pay to mitigate it.The San Joaquin Valley is encouraging efficient development from thestart. New developments that don’t provide walkable communities withconvenient transportation choices must mitigate the costs of the airpollution that will be generated by future residents. The state andregional air districts should encourage this same system for mitigatingthe costs of greenhouse gases.

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