Reason #3 Americans Don’t Ride Transit
It’s Expensive

The transit industry claims that transit saves people money. But the truth is that, for most people, it costs a lot less to drive than to ride transit.

Public transit is the most heavily subsidized form of transportation in the United States, with subsidies per passenger mile that are 50 to 100 times greater than subsidies to driving. But people who use transit are only dimly aware of the subsidies. Even without counting the subsidies, most people don’t ride transit partly because the alternatives, including driving, cost so much less.

The 2015 National Transit Database shows that people pay an average of 28 cents per passenger mile to ride transit. To compare this cost with driving, the American Public Transportation Association uses American Automobile Association calculations of the cost of driving, which show an average cost of about 57 cents a mile for medium-sized cars. So it seems like a no-brainer to conclude that transit saves money.

AAA, however, assumes that everyone buys cars when they are brand new, pays full financing charges, and then replaces their cars every five years. That may be the way some people buy cars, but most cars last far longer than five years. According to the latest data, the average age of cars on the road is 11.6 years, which means cars last an average of 23 years. The AAA numbers fail to account for 78 percent of a car’s lifespan, during which time monthly payments and finance charges may be irrelevant.

If you have a car, no matter how old it is, you only pay the variable cost whenever you drive it on any particular trip. According to the AAA data, that variable cost–fuel, maintenance, and tires–averages less than 15 cents a mile, and would be even lower if you had a more fuel-efficient car. So right there you are saving at least 13 cents a mile over transit.

If you don’t live alone, you probably often drive with a passenger. That cuts your cost per passenger mile in half. Transit makes no sense if you and one or more other people in your household regularly travel together.

If you don’t have a car and live alone, transit might cost less than buying a brand-new car. But what about buying a used car? If you spend, say, $5,000 on a used car instead of $25,000 on a new one, then your depreciation is less than $1,000 a year instead of the $3,759 calculated by AAA. Insurance on a used car costs a lot less than a new one. If you pay cash for it, you save the $683 in annual finance charges calculated by AAA. AAA also estimates taxes, license, and registration fees of $687 a year; in Oregon, which has no sales tax, it’s only about $40. But not everyone lives in Oregon.

Counting the higher number for taxes and fees, but lower numbers for insurance and depreciation, annual fixed costs might be around $2,500 a year. If you drive 15,000 miles a year, that’s less than 17 cents a mile. Add the fixed costs of 15 cents a mile and the cost of driving your car each mile is slightly more than the cost of riding transit. But you could have saved money by buying a more fuel-efficient car, an older model that costs less than $5,000, getting basic insurance instead of full comprehensive coverage, or any of a number of other ways. Most importantly, if you have a passenger in your car at least some of the time, the cost per passenger mile quickly drops below the cost of riding transit.

Bottom line: If you already have a car, the variable cost of taking your car on any particular trip will be far less than the cost of riding transit. If you don’t already have a car, it is easy to find ways to buy a car so that, even including the fixed costs, driving costs less than transit–which explains why 92 percent of American households have cars.

Many people buy their first car because they need it to do something that transit can’t do. But, once they own it, the variable cost of driving is so low that they use it on trips that could have been taken by transit. That’s the basic story of transit decline in the 20th century.

This doesn’t even consider the alternative of cycling, which costs less than either driving or transit, but in many cases is faster than taking transit (and sometimes faster than driving). Driving is still the mode of choice for the vast majority of Americans, but the low cost of cycling helps explain why the American Community Survey found that the number of people cycling to work grew by more than 21 percent between 2010 and 2015, but the number of people taking transit grew by less than 15 percent. Cycling and walking, not transit, are fast becoming the modes of choice for people without cars.


15 thoughts on “Reason #3 Americans Don’t Ride Transit
It’s Expensive

  1. OFP2003

    Yes, but what about parking? Downtown parking can run $25/day. I think $164/month is the going rate for where I work. Parking should definitely be part of the equation.

  2. Agammamon

    Why? What percentage of people live or work ‘downtown’ or have to pay for parking routinely anyway?

    Most of us live outside the center and commute to a workplace outside the center. I have never had to pay for parking at work and only for shopping in a tiny handful of cases when I considered it worthwhile to head to an artificially created shopping zone (through heavy tax and zoning incentives by the city government). But there wasn’t really anything there that couldn’t have been gotten elsewhere – just a lot of bars close together.

    As pointed out the other day, most transit is downtown oriented – and it can’t make money because there are simply not enough people who could use it to make it cost effective.

    Parking may be a major cost for you when calculating whether to own a car or not – but for the vast majority of us all we’re going to do is put a $0 in the parking column.

  3. LazyReader

    Parking is expensive….in the city.
    It’s worth noting the businesses that are catering for your patronage offer parking for free. Cities have always had love/hate relations with parking, on one hand it’s good revenue if they can stick you on the price. On the other hand, it’s traffic and land devoted to parking. One solution has been to stack parking. Parking structures have been the solution to lack of parking. And cities hate them cause they’re ugly. And cities to attract have to meet aesthetic criteria. One of my ways of dealing with long boring conversations is to click on the computer and peruse aerial views of American cities. Alas, in contrast to the picturesque historic cores of most European cities….
    many of our urban hubs consist of a scattering of tall banks and office buildings grounded with acres of surface parking lots.
    If there was ever another Soviet style cultural purge rather than go after capitalists, Jews, writers or artists…instead I’d wish to gather all the modern architects of recent memory; the Frank Gehry’s the Thom Mayne’s, the Fox Pedersons, Skidmore schools and hang them from the tallest buildings they’ve ever designed. Architecture is a dying profession practiced by fame obsessed simpletons with the drafting talents equivalent to a 4 year old’s refrigerator doodles.

    Fred Kent said “If you plan cities for cars and traffic, you get cars and traffic. If you plan for places and people, you GET PLACES AND PEOPLE”. Regardless, cars are here to stay as they’re far too convenient and parking is here to stay. Parking decks are a necessity, and there is no reason why they can’t be made visually interesting or even handsome.
    Instead of being detractors to urban vibrancy, garages and automobiles can be the urban revitalizers of urban visuals. Just like the great railway stations and trains of the 20th century. There’s no reason why cars and cities cant be….civil.

  4. paul

    I agree that the cost of parking should be included. It also needs to be included for public transit. In many cases the same people who decry subsidized parking for businesses then want subsidized parking for transit. The cost of parking has to be included in the cost of transit.

  5. paul

    I agree with the Antiplanner’s cost analysis and that walking and biking are in many places cheaper and faster than transit. I have driven used cars for the last 40 years and they are significantly cheaper per mile than a new car and faster then transit. When I worked for a public agency I would have had to pay $124 per month to park. I agree with this as I don’t see why tax payers should subsidize parking for public employees. If a private business wants to subsidize their employees or customers parking that is their decision and cost. I therefore parked a mile away from where I worked on a residential street with plenty of unused parking and road a folding bike into work.

    When having the cars serviced 2.3 miles from where I worked I tried taking the bus which required a change from one bus line to another. By schedules this took 32 minutes but after having to wait for a bus that frequently wasn’t on time, I had to allow 45 minutes for a 90% chance of getting each way on time before the mechanic closed at 5:30.. It turned out I could walk the distance reliably in 40 minutes. So, literally, don’t have time to take the bus, will have to walk. Eventually I put my bike on a bike rack on the back of my car and rode the distance reliably in 15 minutes.

  6. Ohai

    According to the latest data, the average age of cars on the road is 11.6 years, which means cars last an average of 23 years.

    No it doesn’t mean that. That’s not how averages work.

  7. LazyReader

    If cities are inherently anti automobile. They do a heck of a job discouraging cars. Just kidding they don’t. More often than not they subsidize parking for new neighborhoods. The Antiplanner has documented extensively the use of Tax Increment financing for new developments on his website for years, if I had the time I’d assemble all of them right here and filter the ones that clearly subsidize parking. Liberal cities in Europe have tried to ban automobiles for years, Paris is attempting to do it now; I’m confident that measure will probably fail.
    Not being able to drive through the beautiful city of Paris will no doubt alienate residents and tourists, piss off the taxi industry. And generate far too much negative publicity.

    And second Paris tried this before in the 60’s they didn’t ban cars…. but they did ban parking along the most popular streets and the adjacent retail all but died. It wasn’t until Pompidou reversed the order, the parking was reestablished that restaurants and shops along those avenues could revive.
    The street tree has only four important functions, none of which has anything to do with the environment 1) to denote and mark the pedestrian realm from the vehicular realm 2) to protect the people from the movement or possible entanglement of oncoming carriages (an obsolete concept as horse drawn and motorized carriages gave way to cars) 3) to Filter the incoming sunlight onto the sidewalk in summer and permit it to infiltrate the sidewalk to easily melt snow in the winter (hence the reason they prefer deciduous to conifers) 4) and finally to break up the geometric monotony of urban construction and soften up the hardscape.

    The virtues of the automobile….cars on the street serve multiple functions that benefit cities besides as a means of transportation, One they fill the city with sense of occupation and make it feel like it’s full of people even as they retreat indoors. Second they act as a safety barrier, a layer of dead metal that buffers the street and side walk for your benefit. Just like trees. They’re a showcase especially to global cities of it’s socio-economic status.
    And most of all of course personal status symbols and pop culture icons.

  8. Sandy Teal

    In the real world, not having a car saves you a great deal of money because transit is such a hassle and takes so long that you don’t go anywhere or do anything, thus saving a lot of money.

  9. Sandy Teal

    It is so cute how parking is considered “subsidized”.

    Walmart with no parking
    Save $1 million in land
    Lose $1 million in sales each day — lose $100k in profits — lose $50k in sales tax and $100 k in wage taxes

    Walmart with parking lot
    Cost $1 million more in land
    Make $1million more in sales each day — make $100k in profits — pay $50k in sales tax each day and $100k in wage taxes

    Where is the subsidy?

  10. The Antiplanner Post author

    Yes, parking downtown can be expensive. But, remember, 92.5 percent of jobs aren’t downtown. Nor are most shopping areas, restaurants, recreation areas, homes of your friends, churches, or other destinations that you may want to reach by car or transit.

  11. CapitalistRoader

    AAA also estimates taxes, license, and registration fees of $687 a year; in Oregon, which has no sales tax, it’s only about $40. But not everyone lives in Oregon.

    That’s for a fairly new car. In Colorado the ownership tax goes from 2.1% the first year ($375 on a $25K car) all the way down to 0.45% in the fifth year ($113/year.) Total annual registration & license fees for my 17-year-old truck is about $60/year. Insurance is ~$500/year. Maintenance and repairs average less than $500. It’s pretty easy to spend less than $2K/year on fixed costs for a reliable car. Tens of millions of people do every year.

    Which is 13¢/mile. Add 8¢/mile for gas and you’re riding for 21¢/mile. The average commute is, what, 20 or so miles, so 20*21=$4.20 each way. About the same as a bus express trip on RTD.

    But like you say, anywhere else you travel–the store, the kid’s soccer practice, over the hill and through the woods to grandmother’s house–is gravy. You’re just spending probably 10¢/mile on gas and tire wear. Beats the hell out of standing in the snow waiting for a bus.

    I can’t remember the last time I paid for parking. If I need to go downtown I ride my bike.

  12. Frank

    “in Oregon, which has no sales tax, it’s only about $40. But not everyone lives in Oregon”

    Hahahahaha. I just brought a one-year-old financed car into Oregon and it costs HUNDREDS to register and it will take MONTHS to get the tags.

    Lesson: If you don’t live in Oregon and you want to bring your financed vehicle into the state, prepare to wait months and pay hundreds and wait months to get license plates and tags.

    Short version: GTFO. Oregon bureaucracy sucks just as bad as any other state bureaucracy. Anyone who pretends otherwise is not a libertarian.

  13. ed415p

    Using a Walmart parking lot as an example is twice as cute 🙂

    Who pays for the installation and maintenance of parking metered? Who pays parking enforcement salaries? Who pays for the upkeep of parking structures? Who pays the tow truck driver that towed your car from a red zone?
    Who pays for the ticket paper and envelopes left on your windshield? Who pays for the cashier that receives your ticket payment? Shall I continue?

    Subsidized: to aid or promote with public money (tax payer).

    And just for the hell of it without you the Walmart customer spending money in their stores they wouldn’t be able to afford the $1mil tax deductible parking lot.

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