The cost of a long commute

The cost of a long commute

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By Dave Van Hattum, Advocacy Director

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Recently we blogged (How to Measure Traffic Congestion) about the problems associated with the USDOT’s proposed rule that all states measure transportation performance based on the delay of cars. As we said, focusing too narrowly on motor-vehicle congestion and delay leaves out a large portion of the performance equation – i.e. how well people traveling by bike, on foot, or on public transit can get where they need to go.

Some might argue that most people, in most cities, have few options but to travel by car. But what if things were not so far apart, making for shorter commutes? As a new tool from City Observatory shows, we’re paying a high cost for being too spread out.

The City Observatory has long been a critic of the overly narrow focus on motorized traffic congestion costs, such as those in the USDOT proposal and in the annual congestion rankings from the oft-cited Texas Transportation Institute. So, City Observatory developed a tool to calculate the cost of sprawl—of living in places that are spread out and have long commutes.

Their tool provides a more complete picture of the benefits and costs of differently designed cities and transportation systems. They define what they call excessive commutes by comparing cities across the country to benchmark or standard commutes in far more compact cities. Then, as with congestion cost rankings by city, the study monetizes the cost of excessive commutes to both an average traveler and the metro region as a whole.

Cost-of-sprawlHere is the formula: City A commute distance (x miles) – Compact City Benchmark commute distance (x miles) * 59 cents per mile (AAA) = cost to individual. To get the metro wide cost, multiply the individual cost by the number of commuters.

The City Observatory tool says the Minneapolis Saint Paul region commute (at 19 miles round trip) is 4 miles longer than it would be in a more compact city. That translates to 1,000 miles per year, at a cost of $590 for the average commuter. For the region, the cost of being too spread out is $1.1 billion annually.

Minneapolis-St. Paul Metropolitan Region

19 mile average two-way commute – 15 mile average Compact City two-way commute = 4 miles/day excessive commute
4 miles * 250 work days = 1,000 miles excessive commute/year
1,000 * 0.59 cost of travel per mile (AAA) = $590 cost per commuter per year
$590 * 2 million = $1.18 billion annual cost to metro region

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man walkingThe city that’s the baseline in this tool has shorter distances between jobs and home, which means more people and jobs per square mile. It likely also would have streets better designed for bicyclists and walkers and good transit and sharing options.

A minimum density is a prerequisite to providing transit cost effectively and enabling commuters to access a large number of jobs within a reasonable bicycling/walking distance. Currently, that’s not the case in the Minneapolis-St. Paul metropolitan region. Given the sprawling landscape, only about 10% of jobs can be reached by convenient public transit.

Sprawl is not inevitable; there are many tools (e.g., up zoning, growth boundaries,  Transit Oriented Development grants, density incentives for developers) for cities to shape growth. The option of transit-supportive density is there for all cities, but it takes proactively planning to achieve it.

Having good data on the costs of sprawl, as well as congestion costs, allows planners, engineers, and decision-makers to approach the transportation performance question from a holistic framework. That is, to not just look at the delay of cars, but to look at the land use patterns that make cars the default transportation mode.

Changing land use requires both a longer time frame, and a messier local process, than widening roads to reduce car delay. But if we truly care about the long-term performance of our transportation system, the land use that shapes the outcomes of all transport modes needs to be an integral part of our assessment.

What can you do? Make sure your local elected officials know you support planning that leads to shorter commutes, more options, and lower overall costs. Now would be a good time to speak up, because metro area cities and counties are updating their comprehensive plans.

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