Some smart-growth advocates argue that, even though housing costs more in cities than in suburbs, transportation costs in cities are so much lower that the total cost of housing plus transportation is lower. The problem with these claims is that they are based on average transportation costs.
As Steve Polzin, a transportation researcher from the University of South Florida, points out, low-income people spend a lot less on transportation than high-income people. He estimates the people in the top 20 percent spend five or six times as much on driving as people in the bottom 20 percent.
While wealthier people do drive more than low-income people, they don’t drive five or six times as much. Instead, much of the difference in expenditures “lies in the very meaningful differences between new car ownership and the reality that much of America isn’t driving new cars with high depreciation levels.” In other words, only a few people actually buy cars new and then replace them as soon as they’ve paid them off (which is the assumption that AAA makes in its annual cost-of-driving survey).
People are responding to the current recession by keeping their cars longer, says Polzin. The average age of autos is up to 10.8 years, which means autos survive, on average, 21.6 years. That’s up from about 18 years when I wrote Gridlock. Polzon also notes that the number of personal cars has declined from 236 million to 230 million, though we’ll see how long that lasts when the recession ends.
In any case, Polzin is correct that people have many ways of reducing the cost of driving. People should be allowed to make their own choices of where they want to live and how they get around without the government prodding them in one direction or another. As Wendell Cox points out, census data indicate that most people still prefer to live in low-density areas, which usually means suburbs or–increasingly–smaller cities.