Chauffeuring the kids isn’t just a pain; it’s a major expense

Thursday, September 25, 2014
Big transportation costs for families living in sprawling, auto-dependent communities.

Don Cayo, Vancouver Sun columnist September 25, 2014

Every suburban parent knows they spend a lot of time and burn a lot of gas driving the kids around. Columnist Don Cayo how been looking into the costs.

It will come as no surprise to moms and dads that it costs a lot to drive the kids — and maybe their aging grandparents, too — here, there and everywhere. Yet the size of the price-tag for this volunteer chauffeuring might still shock you.

It is one of two big transportation costs for families living in sprawling, auto-dependent communities — the other is commuting to and from work — and it is spelled out in a new study from Todd Litman of the Victoria Transport Institute.

For American sandwich-generation suburbanites (no Canadian figures are available) the cost of volunteer chauffeuring ranges from an estimated low of $788 to an average of $1,742 US per driver per year, depending on how they value their time and control their driving expenses. (The lower estimate places the value of the time spent driving at 35 per cent of average wages, and the higher one at 65 per cent.)

Don’t imagine that these mom and pop chauffeurs pay the full cost of the driving they do. Estimates of the cost of what Litman calls “externalities” — increased congestion, accidents, pollution and the like — range between $146 and $732 per year, depending what assumptions are used.

The traffic volume — and hence the strain on public infrastructure and the greater negative affects of accidents and pollution — is surprisingly large.

“Travel surveys indicate that nine to 15 per cent of U.S. peak-period vehicle travel consists of parents chauffeuring young children to school,” Litman writes.

“Considering other types of chauffeuring trips (children and adolescents driven to non-school destinations, seniors driven to shopping and medical services, adult non-drivers driven to work and other destinations, drivers being picked up after drinking alcohol, etc.) it seems reasonable to conclude that chauffeuring generates 5-15 per cent of total vehicle travel and vehicle costs.”

Non-urbanites aren’t the only ones who contribute to these costs. Some people living in dense urban areas — although they are a significantly lower percentage of the neighbourhood population — also drive cars and kids and grandparents. But even for the minority whose trips are frequent — say they drive the kids to school every day — the distances they go are an average of five miles and five minutes shorter, so the costs are much lower.

Litman, working with the same assumptions he used for suburbanites, reckons the lowball total for urbanite chauffeur/parents is just over $100 per driver per year, and the average is $218 — a difference of $685 to $1,524 compared with those who live in sprawling communities.

It is hard to know how precisely the American estimates mirror costs in Canada, although it’s a safe bet they are in the same ballpark. Hardly anybody is “average;” most families will face costs that are either higher or lower than the mean, and most will have at least a little control over how much they spend compared with others in similar circumstances.

But the analysis is still valuable, partly because it is so rare; Litman notes that volunteer chauffeuring costs, whether borne by families or by the communities they live in, are hardly ever measured or considered in transportation studies.

Many families — such as mine, back in the day when both my wife and I would drive to work — will calculate at least roughly what their decision about where to live totals in commuting costs, although I doubt many factor in the value of their time.

But these chauffeuring costs, while only estimates and not reflective of every individual family, are hefty enough to be budget-busters. At the very least, they are worth thinking about when a family is deciding not only how far they want to live from work, but also from the places where their kids learn and play.

It is an area that could use more research, especially in the Canadian context.

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