A recent headline in this newspaper reported: "Life in the Suburbs: No longer a bargain." The story said that the Center for Neighborhood Technology, an advocacy group, had calculated indexes showing that while housing costs were much higher in cities, the extra transportation costs of suburban life tipped the living cost balance back in favor of cities.
The figures presented by CNT seem distant from reality. More importantly, they are inconsistent with data from the Consumer Expenditure Survey of the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, one of the main sources of the Consumer Price Index. The government's numbers suggest that the basic housing and transportation costs of suburban and rural life remain slightly more affordable than cities, and far more affordable if homeownership rates are factored in.
The BLS survey shows that CNT is just wrong about the sums of transportation and housing costs. The CNT numbers suggest that transportation spending runs about 26 percent of average household expenditures instead of the 16 percent in the BLS reporting for 2010. Their average for the Washington area is only reached by the highest income quintile of Americans, according to BLS.
I have been tracking these numbers for years, and the average of household expenditures going to transportation and housing combined has been rather stable at around 50 to 51 percent for all areas, with a slight edge to the suburbs and a bigger edge to areas outside metropolitan areas.
BLS data show that central city residents spend about $16,000 on housing plus $6,700 on all transportation for a total of about $22,700, or 51 percent of their total annual spending of $44,400. The suburbanites' share was about 50 percent, with spending at just about $17,500 for housing and almost $8,200 on transportation for a total of $25,700 out of $51,000 in total expenditures.
City dwellers spent a greater share (36 percent of expenditures) on housing than suburbanites (34 percent). The difference in transportation was small in percentage terms -- 15 percent of spending for city-dwellers and 16 percent for suburbanites.
The overall suburban edge is minor, even trivial, but it has held up over the years. It looks like a wash, until you consider that among city dwellers, only half are homeowners. In the suburbs, 71 percent are homeowners. Maybe that's why people keep moving to the suburban fringes -- especially younger families who have to, or prefer to, trade travel time for desirable neighborhoods, more space, privacy, and the opportunity to own a home.
The rural population is perhaps most interesting. They earn much less than their metropolitan brethren, and on average spend just about $39,000 each year. But their share of housing plus transportation is below 49 percent of expenditures. This is despite much higher transportation costs, at 19 percent of spending. Their lower housing costs, at under 30 percent, more than make up for the difference. So despite spending $700 more per year on transportation than city dwellers, their costs are more manageable. In addition, their homeownership levels are above 80 percent suggesting. Like the suburbanites, they enjoy the benefits of more space and personal ownership.
Some people enjoy the bustle of the city, and are willing to trade poorer public services and less personal living space for more seats in an outdoor cafe. Others will opt for the greater space and different atmosphere of the suburbs or rural life. But we don't really need misleading indexes to tell us how to make those choices.
Alan E. Pisarski is a researcher in travel behavior and author of the Commuting in America series tracing American commuting patterns for three decades.