Suburbs drive high cost of transportation

Development patterns are causing more driving and higher transportation costs which can hamper local spending.

Suburban and exurban communities are hampered by structural land use patterns that affect household budgets and local spending. Local spending has long been a major driver of suburban and small town economic activity. But household budgets in Michigan may no longer be able to support local activity at historic levels. The changes in our land use patterns have forced outer ring suburb and exurban town residents to drive further and further, putting a strain on the household budget as more is dedicated to transportation related expenditures.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics national average household spending break down household expenditures into various categories with average spending on housing at 34 percent of household spending and transportation at 17 percent. Now if we compare several southeast Michigan counties to these national averages we start to see some interesting data. Washtenaw County is at 27 percent of household expenditures on housing and 24 percent on transportation. Oakland County is at 32 percent on housing and 26 percent on transportation. Macomb County is at 26 percent housing and 25 percent transportation. If we look farther out from Detroit to Livingston County we see average expenditures on housing of 33 percent of income and 30 percent on transportation and Lapeer County at 25 percent on housing and 32 percent on transportation. Overall the metropolitan statistical area has an average of 27 percent housing and 25 percent transportation. If we were more in line with the national average of transportation spending and reduced transportation spending by 8 percent it would represent a significant household savings. The region has an average household income of $52, 954 and a possible household savings of $4,236.

When you look at finer scale than county level the data shows a definite trend. The areas that developed rapidly during the period from 1990 to 2005 consistently show housing and transportation costs above the regional average. This period of time also reflects a period of some of the lowest real gasoline prices.

The higher than average cost of transportation is the direct result of the development patterns created in our communities. Conventional single use zoning has created networks of streets and roads that require driving to meet most if not all of our daily needs. The good news is that there is an alternative to this problem caused by development patterns. Compact development patterns allow for more daily trips to be done by something other than a car. Current research on the performance of compact mixed use developments show a range of vehicle mile reductions from 20 to 40 percent over convention patterns. If we take an average of a 30 percent reduction this would place travel costs closer to the national average for those in mixed use development.

The problem is that even if new development followed compact development patterns there still exists the large amounts of area of low density sprawl that drives high costs of transportation. These areas need to create greater levels of connectivity and mix of uses to reduce travel costs. There are numerous strategies communities can undertake to repair these land use patterns and reduce travel costs. For more information on how a community can begin this process and assistance in it contact Michigan State University Extension or contact a Land Use Educator for more information on these issues facing communities. 

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