The City Really Is Cheaper

March 27, 2010

I’m a city boy and always have been.  I feel comfortable around people and concrete.  I am trained by sixty years of doing to screen out most of the extraneous noise and darker corners.   I have actually lived in West Country villages in England, and I have dreamed of retiring to Nakusp in the wilds of mountainous BC, but right here, right here in the throbbing heart of the big city, is where I am truly comfortable.

So, I am a booster for the downtown lifestyle.  I understand and appreciate the qualities of walkability, easy access to services, and easy access to a variety of modes of transportation, some of which are publicly run.   I haven’t owned a car for nineteen years, haven’t needed one.  We walk mostly, take buses, take cabs and every now and again we rent a car for the weekend.  We couldn’t live like that anywhere else but in the city.

I am comforted in my beliefs that this is the way to live by research such as that by the Centre for Neighborhood Technology.  Their new Housing + Transportation Affordability Index looks at neighborhood affordability as an aggregate of both housing and transportation costs.  In most cases, city neighborhoods — even those with much higher housing costs — were more affordable than those in the suburbs when the cost of transportation was counted in.  This feeds into what they call the Location Efficiency Index which among other attributes approximates the green footprint of a location.

Compact neighborhoods with walkable streets, access to transit, and a wide variety of stores and services have high location efficiency. They require less time, money, and greenhouse gas emissions for residents to meet their everyday travel requirements.

From the article in FastCompany that led me here:

The overwhelming result: It’s cheaper or just as cheap to live in cities when transportation is factored in. Transportation costs can range from 15% of household income in location efficient neighborhoods to over 28% in inefficient locations. So for example, while housing costs will suck up at least 30% of your income in San Francisco, transportation will cost less than 15%. In comparison, housing in nearby Richmond costs under 30% of residents’ income, but transportation uses up to 28% of all income.

It is a pity that the data on the CNT site is only for the US.  However, it has an educational value for us all.  Make sure to check out the customizable mapping options at the bottom right of the website.

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Since I first drafted this, I have heard from Stephen Rees who writes so eruditely on transportation issues.  He wrote to remind me (as if I already knew!) that:

[T]he costs of transportation – and the effect on affordability of housing –  have been established long ago. That was why “location efficient” mortgages were developed. If the borrower did not have to cary the heavy burden of travel costs, they could afford a bigger mortgage closer to … well initially work, but since workplaces started dissipating that may not longer be so obvious. And, as fas as I can recall, it was only commute costs that counted, not all the other trips that have to be made. And anyway LEMs were not available outside the US.


But the other thing I have always had to point out is that no-one stops you from spending money on transportation, but there were – and probably will be again now after the credit crunch – all sorts of rules about how much you could borrow on a mortgage (usually multiples of income or some kind of credit evaluation). Hence the old “drive till you qualify” rule.


Having been quite out of the housing market for decades, this is all new data for me.  I made the choice long ago to follow the “don’t drive, live local” rule, I guess.