This post originally appeared on Orphan Road.
In a recent Hugeasscity comment, a friend was described that drives 100 miles to work everyday so that they could have a large house in the suburbs. I ran a quick calculation to see what kind of house they could afford in the city with the money they’re wasting in the commute. The difference, with less than a 30-year payback, was $500k. This analysis did not take into account the wasted time from the commute.
Let me quickly go over this analysis again, just to let it sink in. At 200 miles a day x 5 days a week x 52 weeks a year, you’re putting 52,000 miles a year on your car. Using a lifespan of 200,000 miles for a $20,000 economy car getting 30mpg, that’s $7,700 worth of car you’re burning through a year. Add $1,400 a year in maintenance (low, I’d say for that many miles), $600 a year for insurance, and $7,000 in $4/gal gas, and you’re up to $16,700 a year (I came up with $14,000 in my comment – I think I used a cheaper car?). In 30 years you’d spend $501,000 doing this.
Now I ask, what kind of upgrade of a house can you get in the city for an extra half million? Assuming you don’t need a ritzy area (which you don’t if we’re comparing the suburbs) that’s a big house and a big yard. And you don’t need to spend 3.5 hours a day (at an average of 55mph = 910 hours/year = 16% of your waking life = 24% of your non-working waking life) driving a car.
Note that this comparison isn’t apples-to-apples. First of all, you’d have to get rid of a car when you live in the city to save on all of those insurance and maintenance benefits (though they’d both shrink immensely if you didn’t drive much). But then most of the money was in the gas and wear on the car itself – both of which are all but removed in city life. But the real difference in this comparison is that in the exurb case the money you spend is just gone – sent to oil companies and car manufacturers. In the city case, this money still exists in your house. Yes, perhaps half of it will go into the interest in your loan, but you get the rest back when you sell your house (and likely more, if housing prices go up in 30 years).
Of course a working-class commuter probably can’t afford a half-million dollar home in the first place. I think the lesson here is that if you can find a city house that you can live with and afford (even with a larger mortgage than you’re comfortable with), it’s a strongly better deal than anything you can get out in the country.
This is an extreme example. But it’s a real-life example, and likely a common one. Also, the lesson applies for shorter distances as well – the numbers get more mild as you approach the suburbs, then drop off once you don’t need a car at all.
Which brings me to the tie-in to Seattle transit infrastructure. With rail or bus access within walking distance, we can extend that carless-commute out a ways from the city center. You still waste life (though less of it), but you don’t waste close to as much money.