Forbes flubs Houston commute costs + miscSeveral people have passed along the recent Forbes article proclaiming Houston the most expensive city in the country for commuting. Forbes is usually on the ball, but for some reason they let the Surface Transportation Policy Partnership (STPP), a nonprofit research firm with a very anti-car agenda, do their ranking - a group I've criticized before for the flaws in their approach.
They note that Houstonians spend 20.9% of their annual household costs on getting to work. From that data point they make the leap that Houston is an expensive city to get around in. The problem is that a lot of those costs are completely voluntary. What do people do when they have a good income and cheap house? They buy a nice new SUV, truck, or luxury car to drive around in. These vehicles have high depreciation and fuel costs. But they chose to buy that vehicle for their commute and pay those costs. They could have just as easily bought a Honda Civic, Toyota Prius, or similar vehicle and cut their costs in half or more.
Here's an analogy: if a survey shows people living in River Oaks have expensive clothes, does that mean it's expensive to buy clothing if you live in River Oaks? Of course not. River Oaks people can buy their clothes from Target just like anyone else if they want to, but they choose to go out and buy expensive clothes instead.
One test I like to apply to these proliferating city rankings is this: is there something stupid or absurd the city could do to improve its ranking? If so, that's a sign of a bad ranking framework. In this case, if Houston adopted policies to drive up housing prices (or really increase any other household costs), hitting people's incomes and forcing them to cut back and buy cheaper cars, our commute-cost ranking would improve. Bad action -> good ranking = bad system.
On the plus side, they at least note that when it comes to combined income spent on housing and transportation, we drop dramatically to #14 because our housing is so affordable.
Moving on to an excerpt on transit:
Of course, when calculating the "cost of commuting" for those cities, they're ignoring the taxes that people pay to subsidize the transit system. Not surprisingly, if you can get the government to pay 60-80% of the cost of your transit commute, your out-of-pocket cost looks pretty cheap.
The study also found a very high correlation between cities that had extensive train systems and those in which households spent the least on transportation costs. Four of the five cheapest commutes were rated as having large or extensive rail systems...
It's important to understand, though, that the least costly commutes tend to be accompanied by high housing costs. New York and San Francisco were among the cheapest in the country, at two and seven respectively and have some of the highest housing expenses and least affordable housing markets in the nation.
UPDATE: The Antiplanner picks up the story too, and gets a response from the Forbes author.
Moving on, a few minor items to finish out the week:
- A national story on urban infill development, with a profile the Houston Pavilions project downtown (scroll down to the middle).
- A recent New York Times story covered the downtown Houston pedestrian tunnel system. One blogger is astounded it all came together privately without government planning. Thanks to Tom for the tip.
- For all the Houston techies and entrepreneurs out there, consider attending the BarCamp Houston "unconference" this Saturday at the Houston Technology Center. Related to my company OpenTeams, I'm planning on presenting on "How the Houston tech community can collaboratively build the next breakout Web 2.0 company." Hope to see you there.