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Thursday, October 11, 2012

Public transportation: always going uphill?

Remember when…?

For a brief moment a few years ago, just when “going green” had finally arrived, and all of a sudden everything at Wegman’s was an “eco-“something (and “An Inconvenient Truth” was still in theaters) - it became almost a political statement to take public transportation, even if you had a car.

There was a bit of a social kudo, a warm fuzzy feeling you got when you climbed aboard a bus or a subway, and left your car at home.  The sentiment was that we were each doing our own small part for the environment by participating in the great citywide carpool. 

By keeping our own vehicle out of the fray whenever possible, we had the power to limit the exhaust cloud forming over our town.  We had the power to tame the snarl of traffic.  Bike lanes and bus passes were a virtue, and a driver alone in his car was widely deemed uncouth.

Oh, those were bright and promising days!

But what happened?

We got tired of standing in the cold and the rain waiting for buses.  Late trains made us late for work.  We started getting up later, and found that we just hadn’t the time or the willpower to squeeze on a crowded morning bus.

Never mind the cost of the fare.  Public transit will always be fighting an uphill battle because of one cost we often neglect to consider, namely because it’s a cost we can’t see

And that cost is, in a word: inconvenience.

In a previous post I talked about the difference between the PRICE of something and the COST of something.

A good or service’s price is easy to understand, quantify and transact.  It’s money.  How much $ I give up to get that coffee, that oil change, that house.

But true cost is a little bit more subtle.  Its whatever I give up to get something.  Economist often talk specifically about opportunity costs, as in the opportunity to purchase, acquire, earn or do something that we give up to instead pursue something else.

Say I’m budding rock star who also has a aptitude for law.  If I decide I to go to law school, I’ll have to pay maybe $100,000 in tuition, books, fees, etc.  So there’s the price of law school. 

But I’ll also incur an opportunity cost when I give up on my dreams of being a rocker.  I “pay” an additional cost in the glory, fame, immortality (and probably personal/creative fulfillment, but its unlikely they’ll mention that part on VH1) that I sacrifice when I enroll in law school.

Ok, it’s not a life altering decision, of course, but for those of us who can choose whether or not we commute by car or commute by bus, there’s a hidden cost aside from the price of a ticket.  If I leave my car in the driveway and walk down to the bus stop, I’m electing to pay a fare in time, convenience, and ease, as well as in actual currency.


So far I’ve been only addressing those of us who can choose to drive or take public transit.  For many people this isn’t a choice.  They might have no vehicle, can’t afford one, don’t know how to drive… 

But when people promote public transit among those who do have the option to drive, they have to realize they’re asking people to make a donation.

It’s definitely a worthy cause – more folks on the bus means less congestion,  pollution, and demand for energy.  But it’s still requires a donation – of the rider’s time and comfort.  And not everyone will be able/willing to donate to that cause every time, even if they believe in it.

Here’s the (kinda) scary part about that.  It means even if fares could be $0, and there is no "price" to the rider to use mass transit, there still will be people who’ll decide not to use it.  For them the price may be zero, but the cost is still prohibitive – and beyond their willingness to pay

I have to get myself to the bus stop, and it won’t just drop me off where ever I want.  I have to adapt to its schedule.  I don’t have room to transport much more than myself.  It can be crowded, uncomfortable, and VERY time consuming!

On the other hand, my car travels on my schedule.  It has room for more than just people.  It will always beat public transportation in speediness!  Its route starts exactly where I am, and ends exactly where I want to be.  It only makes stops when I say it does.  And most importantly of all…I have SOLE  control over the radio.

You might see these are minor "costs."  You might not even see them as “costs” at all!  But as long as someone does, and as long as there’s no law against it – but for some out there these costs will make it feel more expensive to ride in a public vehicle then in a personal one.


The university I attended had two campuses – one just inside the city limits, and one well outside.  There was a free bus that ran back and forth between them.  I lived in an apartment a short walk from the campus in the city.  But all of my classes were at the other campus.

For the first few weeks of the semester, I got up at 7am, five days a week, and walked to the bus stop.  I hopped on board, paid no fare, sat back and enjoyed the 10 minute ride to school.

I had a car!  But it was permanently parked in the driveway.  Well, it was for the first few weeks of the semester…

Soon, it started getting cold.  The walk to the bus stop seemed to be getting longer every day.  As 7am got darker, my inclination to get out of bed at 7am got weaker.  The bus was crowded, and I’d often miss it.  Some days there was such a mob at the bus stop, you’d have to wait 2 or 3 buses before you could even get on one.

So what did I do?  I eventually started driving myself to class every day.  Just to avoid having to take the shuttle, I willingly paid the money for gas and depreciation and repairs on my vehicle to drive myself.  Because even the cost of all that still felt low compared to the cost of riding the bus.

Now, I never did the sums in my head.  I never figured out precisely what the cost of driving was.  And I can’t measure or quantify how many pounds of frustration or miles or inconvenience I felt in taking the public transportation option. 

But all the same, I eventually gravitated toward driving, and ultimately changed my own habits.  Without really being outwardly aware of it, the economics of my transportation situation altered my behavior.

No city has an entire population living at the same point, going to the same point, at the same time.  Therefore, no matter how cheap the fare, there’s ALWAYS some unavoidable costs associated with taking public transportation.

An experiment…

Use the calculator below to compare the price of traveling by car vs public transit.  Play around with the numbers!  You might be surprised at what you find...

For example – my car gets about 25 MPG, and gas costs me $3.90 a gallon. The city bus charges $1.75 to ride. At that rate, looks like I’d have to travel 11 miles before bus travel’s price per mile equals that of driving (16ish cents per mile).  That's just about the entire length of the city.

*NOTE - That "Cents" box is asking literally how many cents.  So if you want "90 cents" (ie, $0.90), enter "90" in the "Cents" box. If you want just "9 cents" (ie, $0.09), enter "9" in the "Cents" box.*

The price of driving yourself...

Price of gas
Dollars and Cents

Driving Yourself, Price per Mile = $

...versus the price of public transportation.
Price of Fare
Dollars and Cents

Miles traveled

Public Transportation, Price per Mile = $

1 comment:

  1. That's why I ride my bike rather than drive OR take the bus. I leave when I want to; I can ride on the street or the sidewalk, thus avoiding traffic jams and many red lights; and now that I've got panniers, I can carry about as much stuff as I'm willing to pack into a car. And I get my workout in for the day. Yes, I am rather snobbish about it.