The average San Diego household that rents pays more for automobiles than housing.
By John P. Anderson
SANDAG recently approved $200 million for bicycle initiatives under the Regional Bike Plan Early Action Program (EAP). This money will be spent across the county for high-priority projects over the next decade. There are 42 projects included in the EAP which will add 77 miles of new bikeways to the region.
$200 million is a lot of money and I was thrilled when the EAP money was approved. I’ve attended many meetings over the past few months and written a number of articles regarding two of the projects in the EAP – the Uptown Regional Bike Corridor Project and the North Park – Mid-City Bike Corridors Project. The approval of this money means that those projects can go forward, hopefully with a focus on University Avenue which is the best opportunity in the county for showing what bicycling infrastructure can do.
San Diego is far from a leader in bicycle commuting, ranking 20th of the largest 45 cities in the US as shown in the below chart from the Oregon Transportation Research and Education Consortium at Portland State University. San Diego has about 1% of commutes that are taken by bicycle compared to national leader Portland, with a 6% share.
Having more people commuting by bicycle is good for a host of reasons – cycling is healthier than driving, has much lower parking space requirements, eases congestion on roads, and helps to keep the air clean. Perhaps most importantly cycling costs far less money than driving and each person commuting by bicycle helps keep more money in our local economy.
How much money is spent by consumers on vehicle costs? According to AAA the average cost of ownership for 2013 nationally is $9,151 per year for a mid-sized sedan driven 15,000 miles. That is a cost of 61 cents per mile driven. Per the U.S. Census Bureau American Community Survey there are 1,079,653 households in the San Diego metro area and each household owns an average of 1.77 vehicles.
Using AAA’s annual cost of ownership and the total estimated vehicles, 1,909,222, the cost of vehicle ownership here is $17.5 billion annually. From studies done in a number of other areas in the U.S. like New York City and Portland, an estimated 84% of vehicle costs leave the local economy. Since San Diego isn’t an oil producing area and also doesn’t have a major automotive manufacturing industry it seems that this figure would also be applicable here.
If only 16% of dollars spent on automotive costs stay local each year that means that about $14.6 billion of the $17.5 billion total leaves our region annually. That is a serious amount of money and excludes any government spending on roads and other automotive infrastructure.
If vehicle use was reduced by 1% that would mean $175 million remaining in the pockets of local residents. They might choose to spend that money outside of the local economy, but they would have the option to save or invest it back into area businesses as well.
In 1990 Portland, the US leader in share of transit by bicycle, stood about where San Diego is today – 1.2%. By 2008 that share had increased to 6.4.%. Portland wasn’t born as a bicycle (and pedestrian) haven, it planned and chose to become one. As a result, this much wetter, cloudier, and colder city beats the tar out of sunny San Diego in regards to making cycling (and walking) a safer and more convenient transportation choice.
Perhaps a more revealing way to look at automobile costs is comparing with housing costs. The high cost of housing in San Diego is constantly in the news and universally reviled as a scourge on residents. According to the U.S. Census Bureau the median rent in the San Diego region in 2012 was $1,253. Using the same census data and the AAA estimate of car ownership costs the average monthly household spending on automobiles is $1,349 (1.77 cars per household times $9,151 average annual cost per car).
On average, a renting household spends more on the cars in the garage than on a place to live. The census report does not break out mortgage payments per household for owner-occupied units so they are not considered here, although the results are likely similar if tax benefits of owning were also taken into account.
The cost of car ownership is significant in San Diego and we need to work to make options other than driving safer, more convenient, and more comfortable. It’s important for the environment and for our economy.