TheStreet and Bundle Special Report: America's best and worst commutes
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Whether you live in a city, the suburbs or farm country, commuting by car to and from work can be an unavoidable expense.
Beyond the obvious cost of gas, there are other ways a commute lightens your wallet — wear and tear on your car, repairs and the value of your time as you are stuck behind the wheel in traffic.
An analysis of commuting costs and trends by TheStreet and Bundle set out to determine not only what people throughout the U.S. spend each year for transportation, but what cities are the worst off in terms of expenses. A ranking of how 90 U.S. cities fared can be found on the last page of this story.
According to U.S. Census data, roughly 76% of U.S. workers drive to work alone. Twelve percent carpool, 4.7% use public transportation, 3.3% work from home, 2.9% walk to work and 1.2% used other means (including a motorcycle or bicycle).
Analysis prepared earlier this year by the Center for Neighborhood Technology, a Chicago-based think tank that looks at issues of urban sustainability, illustrates how transportation costs drag down traditional "affordability" assessments. It shows that only two in five American communities are affordable for typical households when transportation costs are considered along with housing costs.
The organization's "Housing + Transportation Affordability Index" examined 337 metro areas across the country, encompassing 161,000 neighborhoods and 80% of the U.S. population.
Under the traditional definition of housing affordability (30% or less of household income spent on housing), seven out of 10 U.S. communities are considered "affordable" to the average household. But in almost all metro regions of the country, when the definition of affordability includes housing and transportation costs — at 45% of income — the number of communities affordable to low- and moderate-income households declines to four out of 10.
Those hit hardest by transportation costs are what a center study refers to as families in "drive-'til-you-qualify zones" — those who moved outside city limits to save money and find cheaper homes to buy, so they could afford a mortgage.
These families often pay more in higher transportation costs than they save on housing, "placing more, not less, stress on their budgets," the study concludes. They "are most sensitive to jumps in gas prices because of the distances they must drive. The longer distances associated with sprawl also translate into more congestion on our highways, less leisure time with families as workers spend more time in their cars getting to and from jobs, and higher greenhouse gas emissions."
"In recent years we have seen foreclosures increasing faster in outer suburbs than in central cities," says Scott Bernstein, president and founder of CNT. "When gas prices peaked in 2008, families in many regions saw their transportation costs soar by $3,000 per year or more. When communities have few transportation options and require driving long distances for basic necessities, already-stressed household budgets are very vulnerable to spikes in gas prices and rising transportation costs."
According to Bundle's data, the average American worker spends more than $6,000 a year in transportation costs. Those over the age of 65 spent the least this year, averaging $3,820. Those ages 36-40 spent the most: $6,240 a year.
To rank cities, Bundle used spending and price data that looked at the average length of commute, miles traveled, annual hours delayed, auto expenses and gas.
Additional information was culled from the U.S. Census and research conducted by Texas A & M University's Texas Transportation Institute. The weighted categories determined a "score" that was used to rank cities on how good, or bad, their commute was.
The worst commutes
The impact of bad commutes is a measurable drain on personal savings and national productivity.
According to the Urban Mobility Report published last year by the institute, a survey that tracked traffic patterns in 439 U.S. urban areas, the overall cost of commuting (based on wasted fuel and lost productivity) reached $87.2 billion in 2007 — more than $750 for every U.S. traveler. The total amount of wasted fuel topped 2.8 billion gallons, or three weeks' worth of gas for every traveler. The amount of wasted time, 4.2 billion hours, represents roughly one full workweek (or vacation week) for every traveler.
Bundle determined that the worst commute in the country, in terms of cost and wasted productivity, belongs to Dallas. Other cities that struggle the most with commuter aggravation and cost are San Jose, Calif.; Houston; Miami; Phoenix; Los Angeles; Bridgeport, Conn.; Riverside, Calif.; Austin, Texas; Orlando, Fla.; and Nashville, Tenn.
Dallas had the unfortunate distinction of having one of the nation's longest average commutes (with a combined 52,077,000 miles a day travelled by its rush hour commuters), as well as costly auto expenses ($400) and a high rate of hours delayed (53).
The best commutes
The cities that emerged as the least expensive and relatively free of trouble included: Eugene, Ore.; Brownsville, Texas; Toledo, Ohio; Laredo, Texas; Anchorage, Alaska; Spokane, Wash.; Beaumont, Texas; Boulder, Colo.; Akron, Ohio; and Buffalo, N.Y.
Boulder was "best" among the 90 markets surveyed, in large part because it had fewer commuters traveling fewer miles during their commute as compared with other cities. Brownsville followed close behind in both categories.
Though other factors bumped it off our top 10 list in this category, residents of Detroit, a one-time center of the universe for all things related to automobiles, spent the least on auto expenses and gas than any other city.
Hours delayed• [Slideshow: See the top 5 cities with the worst delays, and the cities with the least delays]
One of the obvious causes of roadway congestion is that many workers need to arrive at work at pretty much the same time. According to the U.S. Census, 53% of commuters leave for work each morning between 6:30 and 8:30 a.m.
Of those who drove each day to and from work, the average commute was 25.5 minutes each way; 30.8% had a 10- to 19-minute average commute and 8% endured an hour-plus drive.
The influx of cars on the road often overtaxes roads serving as the major artery between city centers and outlying suburbs.
A study last month by Navteq, a provider of maps, traffic and location data, offered its analysis of the cities with the worst rush hour commutes. In order, they were New York, Washington, D.C., San Francisco, Seattle, Los Angeles, Philadelphia, Chicago, Dallas-Fort Worth, Atlanta and Houston.
Navteq also offered a list of the most congested cities and freeways. The freeways with the "slowest typical rush hour" were:
- New York City at the Brooklyn Battery Tunnel northbound
- New York City at the George Washington Bridge eastbound
- Philadelphia at US-202 southbound
- New York City at the George Washington Bridge westbound
- Los Angeles at Interstate 10 eastbound
- Boston at U.S. 1 northbound
- Dallas at State Route 366 eastbound
Bundle's analysis found that residents of Los Angeles, wasted the most time stuck in traffic, with an average of 70 hours of delays each year during peak commutes. Other cities suffering from stop-and-go syndrome were Atlanta (57 hours of delays), Houston (56), San Francisco (55), Dallas (53), Orlando (53), San Jose (52), San Diego (52) and Detroit (52).
The weekly fill-up can detract significantly from savings over the course of a month for daily commuters.
One might imagine that with all its oil wells, Texans might have an easier time at the pump, but they, in fact, spend more than many others. Austin drivers, on average, pay $345 a month for fuel, significantly more than even fellow Lone Star denizens in Corpus Christi ($209), Dallas ($193) and Houston ($197).
Californians also bear a bigger than average burden when they gas-and-go. San Jose commuters can expect to pay an average of $220 a month, and even the smaller communities of Oxnard and Palmdale pay upward of $230 and $207 a month, respectively. The average commuter's monthly tab will hit $210 in Nashville, $219 in Little Rock and $216 in Oklahoma City. Residents of Raleigh, N.C., pump away an average of $295 a month.
The various expenses for keeping a car on the road also add up significantly during the course of a year. In averaging 12 months of data for such items as toll and bridge fees, supplies and new auto parts, tires, parking lot fees, garages, auto body and repair shops, car washes and towing services, Bundle found Austin and Bridgeport drivers expend an average of $509 and $529 a month on these expenses, respectively. Car owners in Phoenix ($440), Dallas ($400), San Jose ($401) and Hartford ($401) also pay more than most of the country in these costs.
This category may be one area in which city drivers seem to get a break: New Yorkers averaged only $137 a month and Philadelphia's commuters just a bit more — $156 on average each month. The prevalence of public transportation and each city's relative walkability are among the factors that may have driven down costs when spread among the population.
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Infographics by Selma-Rachel Swire. Read more about the artist here.
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