Public Transportation’s Real Costs

I just read Jay’s Nov. 25 post on this topic and you should too. The reason most people don’t take buses or trains to work is that they are rational. The time cost of public transportation is exorbitant unless your time isn’t worth much. (Never mind the financial cost, which tends to be exorbitant too, if you take into account, as you should, all of the costs and not just nominal ticket prices.)

And we aren’t even considering the valuable flexibility gained from using automobiles. It’s difficult to run an errand or visit someone on the way home from work when you’re taking the train.

UPDATE: I should have made clear that my comment about financial cost was directed at the newer mass-transit systems in places like DC, Miami and LA. The old systems in places like Chicago and New York are in a different financial category, their fixed costs having mostly been amortized. (The old systems are also probably much more useful to commuters.)

15 thoughts on “Public Transportation’s Real Costs”

  1. IMHO, the good professor errors in treating all driving costs as variable, unless of course his solution is for everyone to give up their cars totally. For example, I consider insurance (until recently [see below] my second largest expense) to be a fixed expense for most people.

    I recently did a similar exercise for inter-city commuting. I now work in Vancouver, WA (a suburb of Portland), while my family continues to live in a northern Seattle suburb. My weekly ‘commute’ is ~400 miles RT. I would love to take the train (Amtrak Cascades), but since it’s terminus is in Seattle, either it requires someone to pick me up (a 1-1/2 hr RT) or a bus ride that doubles the time to 6-1/2 hours each way. With proper timing, I can drive the trip in 3-1/2 hours, and maintain control of my schedule. My time is more valuable.

  2. that is so true. I took Metra into downtown to ‘save time’. Ha! It was a 3+ hour commute. I drive now.. @ 12 minutes each way, and loving it.

  3. I sometimes need to drive from home into Chicago, which is not a problem provided I leave before 6 a.m. The return trip in the afternoon ranges from 45 to 90 minutes. This versus the commuter train which takes 23 minutes at a dollar cost of $4.50 round-trip, and I can do half of my morning prep work or finish a paper. A time and place for everything.

  4. City buses are oh so much more useful in places like San Francisco, where major arterial streets are on a 2.5-3 minute frequency during busy periods. Most major arteries in Tucson are lucky to see 15 minute frequency at busy times, with most running every half hour. That’s just insane (trust me, I haven’t had a car the last couple of years I’ve lived here, it is maddness).

  5. I’m with Andy. It is not the case that you can generically say that public transportation is less desirable than a car. In Chicago, for many suburbanites, for the home-work-home commute, it makes far more sense to walk or drive to a train station then go by rail downtown. I drive from time to time, but only when I know I’ll be working late and will be able to pass off the astronomical parking costs which are billable ot the client for late night work.

  6. Lex,

    I think it’s important not to make the mistake that many mass-transit advocates make, which is to confuse the direct price paid by users with the actual cost of the service. For example, the DC Metro system is inexpensive and a pleasure to use, but its total cost per ride, when you consider capital costs, and construction and operating subsidies from various governments, is a large multiple of the fare. (I once read that the cost per ride is around $20. I don’t know how accurate that figure was or if it still holds, but there’s no question that costs exceed revenues by a huge amount.)

    That said, I don’t deny that some mass-tran systems are useful for commuters. But AFAIK these are either old systems, like the ones in NYC and Chicago, whose construction and capital costs have largely been amortized, or they are new systems where tickets are priced much below cost. The new systems that are seen as useful are seen that way precisely because users don’t bear the actual cost of their rides. What would people think about the DC Metro if tickets cost $20? Obviously they wouldn’t buy many. Taxi cabs are competitive at that price and don’t require huge new infrastructure projects.

    Mass-transit proponents typically argue that trains are useful in NYC and other densely populated old cities, so they must be a good idea for ______ as well. (These arguments are always supported by ridership projections that inevitably turn out to be grossly optimistic.) They also treat federal and other subsidies as free money.

    But the costs of train rights-of-way, particularly underground, are enormous, and there is no way to make such systems come even close to breaking even in most places (LA, Phoenix, Miami — ridiculous!). The financial costs are real even if taxpayers somewhere else are paying for them.

    And in most places the time costs are high, too. You are fortunate to live in a place where it’s convenient to take the train. In less dense areas, taking even the most convenient public transportation is a waste of most people’s time. Even in DC, in my experience, you are usually better off driving to suburban destinations if they are more than a few stops away.

    People who don’t want to drive but have money can bypass the inconveniences of mass-transit by taking cabs or hiring limos. A hired car can make sense if your time is valuable. But most other people who can’t or won’t drive must take the train or bus, which is often inconvenient and time consuming.

    One clue as to how people would cope in the absence of big-money mass-tran is that jitney services tend to be established where they are permitted. That’s an excellent form of public transportation: it’s cheap, flexible and doesn’t require expensive new infrastructure or government programs. But it also provides few of the opportunities for graft, vote buying, activist politics and bureaucratic empire-building that conventional public-transportation projects do. Political and ideological (another topic) considerations, rather than cost or convenience, drive mass-transit projects. They are a lot like subsidized baseball stadiums, except that in places like Miami probably more people watch ball games than use the Metro.

  7. I think that Metra (part of the Northern Illinois/Chicago Regional Transportation Authority) is unusual in at least two ways. Much of the service is contracted out to private railroads including the BN and the UP and service, particularly on the contracted routes, is very good. I don’t think this is a coincidence.

    I personally am very fond of what I like to call mass transit (as opposed to public transit). I ride the eL quite often. I have found that if you make a point of both living and working near the same eL line (not as hard as it sounds) the eL can be convenient. However, if you have to transfer trains or ride buses at all mass transit starts to suck. I should mention a few of things. 1)Under the current circumstances, I view mass transit as a luxury that I enjoy because I don’t like to drive. 2)Service on the eL is in decline and even my best usage scenario is starting to take to long to get to work. 3)Due to this service decline I have begun to drive more often. Having said that, it is still very useful and enjoyable for making short trips downtown, to Lincoln Park or after you have been drinking (and sometimes while). Finally, there is no better way to go to a Cubs game.

    Jim English
    Rogers Park

  8. YMMV. ;)

    A clarification: If I lived in the suburbs of Chicago and worked in the Loop, I wouldn’t drive either. If I lived in the city itself, I’d seriously consider not owning a car at all. But outside of Boston, Chicago, and NYC, there is almost no place else in the US where that makes sense.

    To quantify matters, I would suggest that if you live in a metropolitan area with more than 10 kilometers of limited-access highway per 100,000 population and a density of less than 2,000 persons per square kilometer, use of personal transportation is strongly recommended.

    The actual limits for economic operation of mass transit are probably less than half that much highway and more than twice that many people per unit area. Garreau has something to say about this in Edge City. I’ll have to look it up when I get home.

  9. An aside about not owning cars. Yes, it’s a pain to own a car in the downtown of a big city. However, there are many places that you simply can’t get to without a car. If your interests are exclusively urban there’s no problem. But when I lived near the Chicago Loop I used to go, to pick a trivial example, to shooting ranges way out in the sticks. Mass transit will never go there and it’s too cumbersome to rent a car for each such trip. Automobiles provide a combination of flexibility, speed and range that no other means of transportation can match. You can get by without a car, and some people don’t mind it, but to live that way in most places in the U.S. you either have to be satisfied with a rigid routine or spend a lot of time and effort planning trips on public transportation. An automobile makes most of that effort unnecessary and provides enormous freedom to go places and try things that would otherwise be too much trouble.

    I think that a lot of “get people out of their cars” mass-transit enthusiasts are urbanites who don’t understand or care that, for many Americans, restrictions on driving significantly degrade the quality of life. Choice in personal transportation is one lifestyle choice that “progressives” tend not to favor.

  10. All valid points from the three J’s. Mass transit has very finite limitations. Unfortunately, whether due to irrational environmental concerns, or visions of grandiose public works projects tethered to political ambitions, public bodies keep trying to force the square peg into the round hole.
    Two distinct examples can be found here in Chicago. We have the suburb of Rosemont, a fertile field of political cronyism, which recently had hard plans for a “personal transportation system”. This was to be a light-rail system running small four-person cars which would be “callable” by the users. You ring for the train and it appears in front of your house a certain time later, where it will whisk you to any single destination along the line. Contracts for this fantasy had already been bid out by Raytheon for some multiple in the tens of millions, when finally, it was killed before work had begun. It definitely takes a brighter mind than I possess to imagine how a system such as this would be made cost effective, unless of course you calculate it on a per-union-member-vote basis.
    The other transit folly is the O’Hare airport expansion. Pouring billions into doubling the capacity of a land-locked airfield surrounded by densely populated residential areas could only happen in the cesspools of the Chicago City Council and the Illinois State Legislature. Other major metropolitan areas bite the bullet and truly build for the future, locating new airports at the outskirts of development. The new improved O’Hare is already projected to be a Gordian knot of delays, and work has not even begun on the existing airport proper.

  11. They also have this weird ‘cars are bad’ cult in the UK.

    A truly hilarious TV series exposed the whole thing a few years ago by getting a bunch of volunteers to give up their cars for a week and try to get by on public transport. As the cameras rolled they were of course humiliated, let down, exhausted, etc.

    The funniest were the travelling salesman who had to carry all his samples with him and arrived usually late and often perspiring profusely at each baffled customer’s office, and the mom with two kids, a stroller and three bags of shopping climbing huge staircases to get to the right station platforms.

    The ‘public transportation is nirvana’ crowd were reduced to arguing that, like socialism, it somehow hadn’t been tried properly, had been ‘starved of funds’ (particularly funny in the UK where the opposite is true), etc., etc.

  12. Speaking of examples: Broward County, FL proposed to build a monorail between the Ft. Lauderdale airport and the local sea port, a distance of maybe 2 miles, for use by cruise passengers. The initial cost estimate was — get this — $1 billion (public money or bond revenues, of course). It was quickly pared back to a mere $300 million when its obvious extravagance was questioned. The whole deal was obviously a plot by power-hungry pols and bureaucrats, cruise-ship operators and construction contractors. It didn’t make sense otherwise, since it would have been easy for the cruise operators to achieve the same goal at a tiny fraction of the monorail’s cost by leasing a few dozen buses for the ten-minute trip. But then the only beneficiaries would have been the passengers, so there was no political support for such a rational plan. (I don’t know the current status of the monorail plan.)

  13. I live in Houston, which is hardly a mecca for mass transit. I use the bus almost exclusively for commuting because, as other’s have pointed out, this is not only faster but also easier and allows me extra time to read.

    In this town, people aren’t rationally avoided the bus – the just don’t know about it. most of my fellow Park-and-Riders started riding the Metro because their co-workers convinced them to try or because they had to do it once for some reason, and then discovered how easy and cheap it is.

    Meanwhile, we’re looking a highway “improvements” that will cost about as much as having everyone in Katy ride a limo to and from work for the next 12 years. How is that a good idea?

Comments are closed.