Need to Consider Transportation Costs when Choosing “Best Places to Live”

Money Magazine's cover story failed to take into account the cost of transportation

Money Magazine's "best places to live" cover story fails to take into account the cost of transportation.

Money magazine’s “100 Best Places to Live in America” is the most recent, high-profile example of how we need to re-think our definition of affordability when it comes to where we live. A quick scan of the communities that topped Money’s list suggests the magazine didn’t consider the cost of transportation in making their selections. Many of the places — suburban Minneapolis, suburban Baltimore, suburban Dallas, — are low-density, outer-ring suburbs that lack transit options and require households to drive most places and own several cars.

Like the Money article, many of us fall into the trap of thinking affordability boils down to the cost of our mortgage or rent payments. That encourages a “drive ‘til you qualify” mentality, where home-hunters pass over city neighborhoods or inner-ring suburbs and choose to live in outer-ring communities where housing is cheaper. However, these people soon learn that their new community is not as affordable as they thought, finding themselves stuck behind the wheel to get to work, school and the grocery store.

A true measure of affordability must take into account housing and transportation costs, which are the two biggest expenses for households. That’s why CNT developed the H+T Affordability Index. The innovative web tool allows users to see the average household housing and transportation costs by region and neighborhood.

Although transportation costs do not necessarily define a community, transportation costs certainly should not be ignored when determining the best place to live for one’s readers or one’s family. CNT staff read Money’s rankings and wondered: These places may rank highly among Money’s various criteria — jobs/economy, arts/leisure, health, education, and housing affordability — but what are families in these places paying for transportation? And, how do their costs compare with inner-ring suburbs or city neighborhoods that have residents with similar incomes?”

We crunched some numbers using our H+TSM Index, and you can see what we found for Money’s top five places below. What’s clear is that people who move to these locations may find themselves needing more cars to drive everywhere they need to go, discovering too late that compact, transit-rich communities are often much more affordable when transportation costs are taken into account. There may in fact be better places to live than Money’s “best places,” at least from a true affordability perspective.

#1 Eden Prairie, Minnesota
The average household in Eden Prairie — Money’s best place to live — owns 1.7 cars, drives a little over 19,000 miles a year, and spends $897 per month on transportation costs. The average household in Edina, an inner-ring suburb of the Twin Cities, owns slightly fewer cars (1.6), drives nearly 4,000 fewer miles a year (15,057), and saves about $90 a month ($810) on transportation costs compared to Eden Prairie. A slightly greater percentage of Edina households take public transit for their commutes: 7 percent versus 5 percent in Eden Prairie.

Get even closer to downtown, in Minneapolis’ Prospect Park neighborhood, where household incomes roughly match Eden Prairie’s, and the average household owns 1.4 cars, drives 11,679 miles a year, and spends $709 per month on transportation. Sixteen percent of households in Prospect Park get to work by public transit. Compared with Eden Prairie’s average household, the average Prospect Park household spends $188 less per month on transportation and saves $2,256 a year.

#2 Ellicott City, Maryland
Located 21 miles west of Baltimore, the average household in Ellicott City owns 1.6 cars, drives 20,816 miles a year, and spends $890 per month on transportation costs. By comparison, in Towson, a suburb nearer downtown Baltimore, the average household owns the same number of cars but drives 6,000 miles less per year (14,739) than the Ellicott City family. The Towson household spends $781 in monthly transportation costs.

The average household in Baltimore’s Guilford neighborhood owns 1.4 cars, drives 13,956 miles a year, and spends $736 per month on transportation costs. The Guilford household has an extra $154 per month ($1,848 annually) freed up to save or pay for other expenses.

More households in Guilford take public transit to work than those outside the city. Only 3 percent of households in Ellicott City commute via transit, 6 percent take transit in Towson, while 16 percent of households in Guilford leave their car at home when heading to work.

#3 Newton, Massachusetts
The average household in Newton — an inner-ring suburb of Boston served by light rail, commuter rail and bus — owns 1.6 cars, drives 15,656 miles a year, and spends $805 per month on transportation costs. The average household in Back Bay, a Boston neighborhood, owns less than one car (.8), drives less than 7,466 miles annually, and spends $442 per month on transportation. Eleven percent of families in Newton take transit to work, while 42 percent of those in Back Bay take the “T” or the bus. The average Back Bay household spends $363 less on monthly transportation costs than the Newton household, adding up to $4,356 in annual savings.

#4 Bellevue, Washington
The average Bellevue household owns 1.8 cars, drives 15,220 miles a year, and spends $910 per month on transportation costs. Across Lake Washington in Seattle’s Capitol Hill neighborhood, the average household owns 1.6 cars, drives 10,090 miles per year, and spends $788 per month on transportation. Twenty-one percent of Capitol Hill households commute by transit, while only 10 percent of Bellevue households do. The Capitol Hill household also spends $122 less on transportation than the Bellevue family, saving $1,464 a year.

#5 McKinney, Texas
The average household in McKinney, 30 miles north of Dallas, owns 1.7 cars, drives nearly 21,600 miles a year, and spends $908 a month on transportation. In Richardson, a suburb roughly halfway between McKinney and Dallas, the average household owns slightly few cars (1.6) but drives significantly less each year (14,811 miles), and spends $793 per month on transportation costs.

Meanwhile, in Dallas’ Historic District, the average household owns 1.2 cars, drives less than 9,700 miles per year, and spends $600 per month on transportation. The Historic District household saves $308 per month or nearly $3,700 annually on transportation compared with the McKinney household.

Only 3 percent of McKinney households commute using transit, 5 percent in Richardson, and 20 percent of those in the Historic District leave their cars at home when they head to work.

To learn more about the affordability of your neighborhood, go to htaindex.org.

2 Responses to “Need to Consider Transportation Costs when Choosing “Best Places to Live””

  1. Peter Harnik Says:

    Super article, well written, well researched.

  2. Chris Bradshaw Says:

    It would be useful to express transportation savings in terms of the amount of extra mortgage that money could ‘carry.’

    But even that would ignore the assumption that each household needs the same amount of indoor and outdoor space regardless of how far in or out their neighbourhood’s location. I find that a household needs less space as one moves in, thanks to more shared facilities (community centres, recreational facilities, and other ‘third places’).