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Driven to Spend

National transportation report shows sprawl taxes family budgets

November 30, 2000 | By Kelly Thayer
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service

Embargoed Release Date:
Nov. 30, 2000
Contact: Kelly Thayer, Transportation Project Coordinator
Michigan Land Use Institute
Phone: 231-882-4723 x13 - Fax: 231-882-7350
E-mail: kelly@mlui.org

Barbara McCann
Surface Transportation Policy Project
Washington, D.C.

Benzonia - A national study to be released Thursday shows Americans spend more on transportation than on health care, education, or food, and that sprawl drives up family transportation costs.

"Driven to Spend," to be released November 30 by the Surface Transportation Policy Project and the Center for Neighborhood Technology, analyzes Consumer Expenditure Survey data and other factors. It finds that in the most sprawling metro areas, households spend approximately 20 percent more on transportation than households in less sprawling areas.

"This study shows how sprawl turns driving from a convenient choice into an expensive necessity," said Kelly Thayer, transportation project coordinator at the Michigan Land Use Institute. "We can save Northwest Michigan families money if we provide more transportation choices and more convenient communities."

The study's findings are relevant to the current debate in the Traverse City area over building the Hartman-Hammond bridge and bypass, Mr. Thayer said. Those places the report ranks most expensive for households are the same cities that have also invested heavily in expanding their highway networks, while the opposite is true in the least-expensive areas. "The proposal to build a massive, $25 million bridge and connector roads will create the busiest corridor in the Grand Traverse region. And it will continue the costly trend in Garfield Township of requiring a car trip for even the simplest errand," he said.

The "Driven to Spend" report found that this trend is already full-fledged downstate, where families in the region of Detroit, Ann Arbor, and Flint devote nearly 19 cents of every household dollar on transportation, making this area the fifth most costly part of the nation for transportation. Measured another way, Detroit's families direct more than twice as much of their household budget toward transportation than do households in Toronto, a city with reliable public transit.

The study found that household transportation costs are often thousands of dollars higher per year in sprawling neighborhoods with little or no public transit or safe, convenient routes for biking or walking. Sprawl increases distances and shuts out non-motorized travel choices, which forces multiple car ownership and drives up the amount of hard-earned money families must devote to driving. About 75 percent of a family's automobile costs go toward simply owning a car, without ever driving a mile.

One of the nation's most sprawling cities, Houston, Texas, ranked most expensive out of the metro areas surveyed, with households spending an average of more than 22 cents out of every dollar on transportation. Families in Honolulu spend the least, at less than 15 cents out of every dollar. No figures were available for the Grand Traverse region. On average American households spend almost 18 cents out of every dollar on transportation.

"Grand Traverse County can save families money and cut transportation costs by building the `Smart Roads' alternative to the Hartman-Hammond bridge," said Mr. Thayer of the Michigan Land Use Institute. "'Smart Roads' includes a parkway along Beitner and Keystone roads, which would provide room for cars, bicyclists, and pedestrians. `Smart Roads' would cost less to build and less to use. That's a winning combination."

"Garfield Township and Grand Traverse County continue a one-dimensional, cars-only approach to community planning that drives up costs for everybody," Mr. Thayer added. "Garfield Township offers residents only about a mile of sidewalk as an alternative to driving everywhere you go. Meanwhile, Traverse City - which covers a much smaller area than Garfield Township - has built more than 75 miles of sidewalk. That's planning that saves money and enhances the quality of life for everybody."

High transportation costs are not just a matter of a few pennies, but of a family's financial future, Mr. Thayer said. In some cities, households spend more on transportation than any other single category, including housing. High transportation expenses can hurt family finances by shifting money away from productive investments, such as home ownership, and toward an asset that actually loses value over time.

"While a less expensive home far from town may seem to be a good bargain, many families end up spending more on vehicles to reach that home," says Barbara McCann at the Surface Transportation Policy Project.

About STPP
The Surface Transportation Policy Project is a nationwide network of more than 250 organizations, including planners, community development organizations, and advocacy groups devoted to improving the nation's transportation system. The Center for Neighborhood Technology is a Chicago-based group inventing new tools for creating livable communities.The full report, along with state fact sheets, will be posted on November 30 at STPP's website, www.transact.org.

About the Institute
The Michigan Land Use Institute is an independent, non-profit research, educational, and service organization founded in 1995. More than 2,400 households, businesses, and organizations have joined the Institute in support of its mission to establish an approach to economic development that strengthens communities, enhances opportunity, and protects Michigan's unmatched natural resources.

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