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.

(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 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.
  • DJB

    “Provide cities and counties with an infusion of funds to engage the community in planning.”

    This gets to a core dilemma. What if the community wants to sprawl? What if they don’t care about the financial and environmental costs of suburbia and driving? If you truly engage people like that in a planning process, won’t you loose all of the smart growth content you’re after?

    It’s really hard, because land use authority is local, and people, particularly homeowners, tend to vote with their feet. They move to places they like, if they have a choice. Hence, these people probably want things to stay the same way they were when they moved in.

    There may be an agonizing tradeoff between wider participation and achieving cities with better environmental performance. What’s more important? A good process or a good result?

  • This revelation is absurd. If people wanted to live in small stacked boxes and spend their time being trundled around in dismal public transportation, they would. I grew up in New York and believe me, your wonderful future is my not so golden past. It’s what millions left behind when they fled the cities for the suburbs.

  • “It’s what millions left behind when they fled the cities for the suburbs.”

    How well has that been working out? Last year they were showing a special on PBS about homeowners in Temecula and Murrieta going apeshit over gas prices and home foreclosures. One dude, a real man’s man, owned a truck nearly his whole life and after 2008 the fucker was driving a Prius with three other people.

    People scream, “But the free market! The free market! People will live where they want!” all day but you have to determine whether the free market actually was at work all these years. You know, if planning favored the suburbs, if government funding favored the suburbs, if policies favored single family homes, how free market is that? If I wanted to live in the city, but I saw that they were only investing in the suburbs and not urban areas, I’m going to choose the suburbs! The decision was practically made for me!

    If you had a bunch of blacks and Hispanics wanting to move to the suburbs but local governments artificially inflated the price of housing by enacting strict zoning laws and outright banning the construction of apartment units in some cases, how free market is that? If a company wants to build an apartment, why prevent them from doing so? Where’s the laissez faire attitude then?

    Some people advocate pro-choice attitudes about where people can live. I’d like to see it, believe me.

  • DJB

    John, you just proved my point beautifully :)

  • DJB – I swear, this Metro fetish is just bizarre. If little electric trains and high density housing are the savior of the world and the solution to Global Warming, then how come NYC isn’t the Garden of Eden?

    Been there, seen it, don’t want to do it again.

  • New York City is just one extreme and no one says you have to live in a place like that. Hell, even streetcar suburbs weren’t that bad as far as suburban development patterns go. Some of them were actually relatively dense. I still think there are ways to live close to transit and closer to work without having to deal with the bums downtown, John.

    Where do you choose to live anyway?

  • Let’s say you worked in Downtown LA. You’re telling me that some people wouldn’t find it attractive to live near the Gold Line and commute into Downtown every day once the regional connector is open? Sounds more attractive to me than living in Pomona and tackling the 10 everyday.

  • DJB

    Single family homes on small lots are a good way to compromise on density. East LA has a lot of good examples of the concept along the new Gold Line Extension, including a very interesting design just south of the Pico/Aliso station. If the house sits on 4,000 square feet you can do about 11 of them per acre. You can maintain interior floor space by going up a story and putting some of the second story over the garage.

    The combination of small-lot single family homes and 2-3 story apartment buildings should be able to provide enough density to support some transit and walkability.

    However, I prefer to go denser than that. That’s where the real benefits are.



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