Serious Questions About “A Heavy Load” Report

Serious Questions About “A Heavy Load” Report

A report by the Center for Housing Policy relies on data that is at odds with consumer expenditure data as reported by the US Department of Labor, Bureau of Labor Statistics. The report modeled transportation data that was readily available in consumer expenditure reports. The Center’s report generally puts the cost of transportation at more than double the figures reported by the Department of Labor. As a result, it would appear that the report, A Heavy Load is of dubious value.

Recently, the Center for Housing Policy issued a report on the costs of housing and transportation to American households in metropolitan areas (A Heavy Load: The Combined Housing and Transportation Burdens of Working Families. The report found, among other things, that transportation represents a larger share of household income in a number of metropolitan areas. Moreover, a thesis of the report seems to be that people who move farther away from their jobs to obtain less expensive housing end up spending most of the savings on additional transportation costs.

It is worthy of note that the figures developed by the Center for Housing Policy are considerably at odds with the Consumer Expenditure reports of the U.S. Department of Labor Bureau of Labor Statistics. For example, among the seven metropolitan areas that the Center singles out for detailed analysis, the share of household income committed to housing averages 28 percent, while the share committed to transportation amounts to 31 percent. Data from the 2004 Consumer Expenditure report indicates rather more moderate figures --- 22 percent for housing and 12 percent for transportation.

What is the difference. To start, the Center used 2000 Census information (1999 data) for consumer expenditures on transportation. It is fair to suggest, however, that the authoritative source for consumer expenditures is the Consumer Expenditures report and its data is five years more current. The Center used a modeling technique to estimate the transportation expenditures, which it notes was “peer reviewed.” This was a wholly unnecessary exercise, since 1999 transportation expenditure data was directly available from the Consumer Expenditure report for that year.

Moreover, the Center notes that lower income households spend a larger share of their incomes on housing and transportation. True enough. The Center estimates that households with incomes from $20,000 to $35,000 spend from 54 percent to 70 percent of their income on housing and transportation. The 2004 Consumer Expenditures report shows that households with incomes of $20,000 to $30,000 (the closest approximation to the Center’s $30,000 to $35,000 classification) have total household and transportation expenditures of 49 percent --- below the low range estimate in the Center’s report.

None of this is to dispute the fact that housing and transportation costs are a burden for lower income households. It is simply to point out that the data in A Heavy Load is at considerable odds with the Consumer Expenditure report and may not be appropriate for serious consideration.

A Heavy Load makes a very useful recommendation: “Policies to encourage car sharing or make car ownership more accessible and affordable (through subsidized loans or insurance, for example) could go a long way to reducing the transportation cost burdens of Working Families.” Amen to that. Research by the Brookings Institution and the Progressive Policy Institute has come to similar conclusions.

However, A Heavy Load slips into the usual hopeless rhetoric about improving mass transit for commutes to suburban areas. If mass transit could be made competitive with the automobile for employment locations outside downtown areas, then people would use it for such commutes. Nearly three years ago, we issued a challenge to the transit industry to propose an automobile competitive transit service design for an entire urban area. Not a a single serious reply has been received. There is good reason for the silence. Automobile competitive mass transit service cannot be provided for a price that can be afforded, except to downtown. Even the Center’s report finds average transit commutes to approach or even double average car travel times. Working households choose cars because they minimize their transportation burden, by providing far more time for household activities and leisure.

However, whatever the reality, the fact is that people often move farther away from their jobs to obtain better housing at a lower cost. They do so in the full knowledge that their commuting costs will be higher. In the longer run, many may change jobs and restore lower commuting costs by working closer to home, a choice made possible by the dispersal of employment locations. This factor is an important reason why American urban areas have such short average commute times by international standards.

Finally, A Heavy Load uses 1999 data that does not reflect the huge runup in housing prices that have occurred, principally in areas that have adopted authoritarian planning practices, such as the more draconian “smart growth” measures. Perhaps the greatest threat to the future expenditures of lower and middle income households is the escalating housing prices that have been generated by these opportunity destroying policies. For example, the average household buying the median priced house in 2004 in the San Francisco area will pay, at least $600,000 more in mortgage payments and capital costs than if the house had been bought in 1999. This is a price not even Hugo Chavez or OPEC can match. Over the same 30 years, the average household can be expected to pay less than $11,000 more on gasoline due to the gasoline price increases over the same 1999-2004 period.

Originally posted to On the Heartland: 2006.10.14