How the Motor City got slammed as the worst city for drivers

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Detroit Unsplash / Josh Garcia

Financial advice website WalletHub created a list ranking the 100 best and worst American cities to drive in. Raleigh, North Carolina, comes up number one as the best place in the United States to drive a personal car or truck—but you may be shocked to find out which city is ranked as the worst for drivers.

According to WalletHub, that would be Detroit. Yes, according to this report, the Motor City is no haven for motorists.

I’m a native Detroiter who is not averse to touting how efficiently you can get around here. I’ve also spent a fair amount of time driving in and around New York City, Chicago, and Los Angeles. Scratch that. I’ve spent way too much time driving in and around those cities because of their intense congestion. My home in Oakland County is almost exactly 40 miles from Hagerty’s editorial offices in Ann Arbor. Apart from rush hours, I can get there in about 35 minutes, no sweat.

Not long ago, I was on Staten Island, New York, for a family celebration. I arranged for a business meeting in Hicksville, about 30 miles away on Long Island. Getting there took me an hour and a half—and, because of a couple of wrecks on the Long Island Expressway and Harlem River Drive, it took two and a half hours to get back to Staten Island. Add a number of tolls to the time cost.

When I travel to Chicago, I always allow an extra hour to accommodate for that city’s snarling traffic jams. It often takes me less time to get from South Bend, Indiana, to downtown Chicago than it takes to get from downtown Chicago to the northern suburbs. Gasoline taxes are also high enough in Cook County that, on the way into Chicago, I typically top up my tank in Indiana.

Los Angeles? Yes, the canyon roads in the Malibu Mountains are spectacular, but L.A. is the definition of traffic jams.

So how did Detroit get to be ranked the worst city for drivers? The study’s methodology seems to be at the heart of the matter. WalletHub’s introduction says, “WalletHub compared the 100 largest cities across 30 key indicators of driver-friendliness. Our data set ranges from average gas prices to annual hours in traffic congestion per auto commuter to auto-repair shops per capita.”

Based on that methodology, it seemed to me that Detroit shouldn’t be at the bottom of the list. Gasoline is relatively inexpensive in Michigan, there are plenty of repair shops, and, as mentioned, traffic congestion isn’t a huge problem around here. (Admittedly, congestion has definitely gotten worse as the state’s economy has started to thrive for the first time in a generation, but are we going to complain about that?)

Detroit
Derek Gauci

To find out why the Motor City got ranked as the worst for drivers, I dove a bit deeper into the methodology.

The data was collated into four broad categories: cost of ownership and maintenance, traffic and infrastructure, safety, and access to vehicles and maintenance. Detroit got dinged the most under categories of “traffic and infrastructure” and “safety,” so I looked to see what data was compiled under those two categories. That’s when the reasons for Detroit’s low ranking became clearer.

You see, under traffic and infrastructure, Wallethub does not simply rate for the time spent in traffic, average commute times, and the quality of roads and bridges. It also ranks cities based on the number of days with precipitation and the number of cold days.

While Michigan’s infrastructure certainly needs upgrading and the roads and bridges around Detroit are far from the best in the country, traffic isn’t terribly congested around here and commute times are low, even to places as far away as Ann Arbor and Flint. Though the current administration in Lansing says it is focusing on improving our roads and bridges, nothing can be done about our weather. It can rain here from March to November, when it starts to snow. Temperatures rarely rise above freezing from December into March.

As for the safety rankings, Detroit takes a hit because of uninsured drivers, car theft, and Michigan’s famously high car insurance rates. While Detroit isn’t even one of the ten worst American cities for car theft, stolen cars are a problem in Detroit, which contributes to the high cost of auto insurance. Those high costs are partly because of Detroit’s car theft problem, but also because Michigan’s no-fault auto insurance laws mandate very generous catastrophic injury coverage. Because insurance is so expensive, many drivers forego it, choosing to instead risk driving while uninsured.

Among the data collected under the safety category is also “Punitiveness of High-Risk Driver’s Insurance.” As car insurance in Michigan is already costly, should you be characterized as a high-risk driver, insurance can get very expensive. Plenty of folks end up paying more for their monthly car insurance premium than they do for their car payment.

That’s how the city that put the world on wheels got rated as the worst for drivers, despite the fact that the actual driving part is pretty good around the Motor City. What do you think of driving conditions in Detroit? What about your own city? Let us know below.

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