Getting around the Twin Cities is nearly as costly as housing

  • Article by: DAVID PETERSON , Star Tribune
  • Updated: November 14, 2013 - 1:06 PM

Faster than the nation as a whole, the cost of transportation in the Twin Cities may soon exceed that of a roof over one’s head.

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The Twin Cities can see congested commutes, such as on Interstate 35W in Minneapolis.

Photo: Renee Jones Schneider, Star Tribune

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The cost of just getting around town is threatening to push right past the cost of a roof over your head in the Twin Cities area.

And the sudden narrowing of the gap between those two bills is catching even well-informed analysts off guard.

“We’ve long known that’s true of low-income folks,” said Hilary Reeves, of the advocacy group Transit for Livable Communities. “But for a wider demographic as well? Wow!”

In 2007, the annual cost of housing was $3,173 more than annual transportation costs. By 2012, the gap had shrunk to $462.

The shrinking gap between the cost of transport and that of owning or renting is twice as pronounced in the Twin Cities area as in the nation as a whole, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics’s Consumer Expenditure Survey.

That could be partly because housing is relatively affordable here. New U.S. Census Bureau data being released Thursday find that despite some slippage, the Twin Cities area has emerged from the recession with the highest homeownership rate among the nation’s top 50 metro areas. And logic suggests that a median home price that is $100,000 below Seattle’s isn’t hurting.

But rising transport costs may also be due in part to our sprawling development patterns, leading to lots of long and congested single-motorist drives.

The notion of understated transportation costs as a hidden contributor to sprawl has been a big issue for sprawl fighters for years. For some, the new data underscore the importance of more close-in urban development and transit. But conservatives and homebuilders counter that “sprawl” helps cut housing costs and promotes the area’s exemplary homeownership rates.

From 2007 to 2012, the new data show, the annual cost of housing for a household in the Twin Cities has fallen from $12,802 to just over $10,359, or about 20 percent.

The cost of transportation fluctuated, dipping to about $7,900 in 2010 before jumping 26 percent to nearly $9,900. Nationally, that compares to an 11 percent drop and an 11 percent rise.

The rise in transport costs, Reeves said, is all the more remarkable given the recently arrived results of the Metropolitan Council’s once-every-10-years Travel Behavior Inventory.

That study, covering the period from 2000 to 2010, shows that transit use is up strongly, though still not to the massive numbers compared with driving. Meanwhile, the number of miles driven dropped.

“The AAA says the average cost of owning a sedan is $8,946,” she said. “The annual cost of riding transit is around $1,500, depending on the fare. Even if you add some money for taxis, the savings is pretty significant.”

Look at commuting costs

There’s also lots of anecdotal evidence that commuters, especially those with long trips, have taken many steps to throttle down their transportation costs.

Kelly Ebner of Roseville, for instance, bought a more gas-sipping car within the past few years to cope with the costs of her commute to an education job in Cambridge, Minn.

The drop this fall in the cost of gas, plus her ability to buy gas more cheaply in Cambridge than closer in, is probably saving her $100 a month, she said — a small sign of just how deeply gas costs cut into many budgets.

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  • Why the shrinking gap?


    • Since 2007, the average annual household cost of owned dwellings has dropped; rent stayed stable. The median property value dropped by nearly $30,000.


    • Indeed, 2012 was the first year since 2007 that the share of cost-burdened households dropped, meaning those paying 30% or more of income on housing. (34.4% in 2011, 31.1% in 2012).


    • On the transport side, vehicle expenses caused the jump. Since 2007, household expenses for gas and other costs have risen by more than $1,400; average spending on transit dropped.


    Source: Wilder Research

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