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How Commute Times Affect Auto Debt

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The trade-off of affordable suburban living is the dreaded daily commute. But car payments are taking a bite out of that affordability aspect in some U.S. cities. Metros with longer commutes tend to have drivers with higher auto debt, according to new research by LendingTree. For every additional minute spent commuting, the average driver tacks on about $269 more in auto loan debt.

Key findings

  • Data for auto debt and commute times suggests that every minute longer one’s commute is, the average driver tacks on about $269 more in auto loan debt.
  • Texans have high auto debt — Texas cities take five of the top 10 spots.
  • Four of the top 10 cities for longest average commutes are in California: Stockton, Riverside, San Francisco and Los Angeles. They also tend to have relatively high auto debt.
  • The 10 cities with the lowest average auto debt are all within the Rust Belt: Detroit, Grand Rapids, Mich.; Toledo, Ohio; Rochester, N.Y.; Buffalo, N.Y.; Milwaukee, Cleveland, Akron, Ohio; Harrisburg, Pa.; and Scranton, Pa. Commute times were mixed, but most cities had average times of 23 minutes or less.

Cities with the highest auto debt

McAllen, Texas

These Texans buck the trend. Commutes in McAllen are relatively short, just 20 minutes on average, for a round-trip drive of 40 minutes. Yet, the south Texas metro ranks first for auto loan debt at an average of $28,963. We’ll talk more about McAllen in a minute.


Houston, however, is the poster child for our findings that long commutes and high auto debt are linked. Average auto debt stands at $26,623 while the average commute is 29.5 minutes one way, about 4 minutes behind Washington, D.C., where commutes are the longest. Houston is a sprawling city, 655 square miles, large enough to contain Washington plus New York, Boston, San Francisco, Seattle, Minneapolis and Miami.

Cities with the lowest auto debt


Motor City drivers, on the other hand, have a slightly longer commute, 26.4 minutes on average one way, despite having the lowest average auto debt on our list of $16,451. In a previous study, we found that Rust Belt cities tend to buy the oldest used cars, which may be a reason drivers here have low auto debt.

Grand Rapids, Mich.

Commute times are significantly lower in this Rust Belt city as is the average auto debt at 20 minutes and $17,230, respectively. That’s the same commute time as McAllen, Texas, an outlier on our list and the city with the highest auto debt.

Cities with the longest commutes

Washington, D.C.

The nation’s capital has the longest average commute time at 33.1 minutes and ranks No. 9 for the highest average auto debt, at $24,355. Most Washingtonians — 85% — continue to depend on their cars despite worsening traffic and access to public transportation, according to a recent poll by The Washington Post and Schar School.

Stockton, Calif.

California dominates the cities with the highest commute times. Stockton, Riverside and Los Angeles all have one-way commute times edging toward 32 minutes, but the central California city of Stockton is tops at 31.7. More than 100,000 people leave and come into San Joaquin County every day, according to the San Joaquin Council of Governments, perhaps many headed for high-paying jobs in Silicon Valley where housing prices have soared. But average auto debt is still taking a chunk out of incomes in Stockton, falling in the top half of our list at $23,414.

Cities with the shortest commutes

Wichita, Kan.

Cities in the heartland of America tend to have lower commutes, including three of the top five spots for the lowest average commute time. Wichita, Kan. won this one handily at 18.6 minutes one way— drivers there were the only ones in our study that had a commute of less than 20 minutes.

McAllen, Texas

The town near the U.S.-Mexico border is an outlier, as we mentioned earlier. It has the second-lowest average commute time right at 20 minutes but the highest average auto debt. Texans carry 44% more auto debt than Americans as a whole. They not only take out more auto loans but pay higher average car notes, too.

Auto debt hits record levels

Cars are more expensive than ever and Americans are taking out higher loans in order to afford them. Americans owe $1.16 trillion in auto loans. Though car sales slowed in the first half of 2019, auto debt accounts for nearly 10% of outstanding consumer debt, including mortgages. Age plays a role in auto debt as previous studies have shown — Generation X tends to hold the most auto debt.

Of course, the longer your commute, the more you use a vehicle, the sooner you may need to replace it. And perhaps the more you’re in the driver’s seat, the more you may realize you would prefer your vehicle to have a better audio system, leather seats and cool technology. Other factors could be at play as well. Family size, income, credit score and comparative costs of commuting by bus, train, subway, taxi or ride-sharing may make commuting by car more or less attractive.


Using an anonymized sample of more than 700,000 LendingTree users who took out an auto loan, LendingTree researchers compared it with U.S. Census data on commute times for people who drive to work alone in 98 of America’s largest metro areas.


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