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.
bob dorn says
For a long time cars have been cult objects for many of us; oversized, chromed substitutes for their drivers’ accomplishments and talents. The tough-talking cowboys selling pickups and SUVs, and the bejeweled sex goddesses sending lust signals to the drivers of luxury sedans, will still convince a majority of citydwellers they need cars years from now. But more and more people aren’t buying that fantasy. It’s just not affordable.
Dave Rice says
I really wish I could buy into this. If I had an office job that gave me a place to change and shower, I would in a heartbeat.
But, sadly, none of my three hats are conducive to riding a bike to work, even though I love pedaling and would do it just for fun, environmental benefits be damned…
If I’m working as a journalist, there’s a good chance the event I’m covering starts within an hour of my daughter going to school – no chance to combine cycling/public transit to get from school to work in a timely manner.
If I’m working as a used house salesman, it’s highly unlikely I can show a handful of potential houses to a buyer client via bicycle – especially if their interest spans a variety of neighborhoods.
If I’m working as a handyman, I can’t reasonably expect to transport 100+ pounds of tools to and from the job site on a bike/trolley daily.
Even though I drive a terribly inefficient 1987 Mazda, I take some comfort in the fact that not trading in my car every few years for the new cool thing has kept a half-dozen cars’ worth of scrap out of landfills, and that by keeping a car almost as old as me on the road prevents the waste of manufacturing a few new ones, even though I’m burning more gas than I could.
Once I’m done paying for my wife’s car, I’ll probably start coveting a new one for myself…until then, at least I’m not adding to the mess any more than I need to. In the meantime, if someone wants to offer me a desk job and a public shower I’ll forsake cars forevermore.
guarantee full time employment at the same location and bicycling makes sense. but given that people must expect to juggle different jobs, different locations in order to remained employed(make a living) one must have an auto in southern california.
bob dorn says
The freeways were built for cars; the cities were adapted to accommodate the car. Those are two different realities. We can change the cities to accommodate both bicycle and car, and thereby lower the amount of noise and expense and danger that accompany the car. And gain more healthy bodies in the bargain. No one is suggesting we get rid of The Beast. We just have to tame it.
Mike Berry says
Great article John. The real challenge in having mass transit or cycling viable in a suburb centric area like San Diego is the “last mile” We can get folks from point A to point B easily. It’s getting people from their homes to Point A and from Point B to their place of work that is the real challenge.
If mass transit was more accommodating of bicycles, specifically the express buses to and from North County, we might see more bike commuters. If the buses were more accommodating, then we could work on safe routes that originate and terminate at Transit Centers. Easier said then done, I know. Not sure how the buses could be modified to accommodate more than two bikes at a time.
Jack Shu says
Many good points in this article. But let’s get real. $200 million out of a $214 Billion dollar budget is almost not worth mentioning unless an agency is after better PR. SANDAG did not really raise the budget for bicycle infrastructure. They are borrowing from future bicycle funds to pay for the “Early Action”. So in reality, there was no real increase in the allocation for bicycle infrastructure. We are not moving forward, only falling behind a little less then other cities which are developing better transportation systems changing mode shares away from autos.