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The Real Cost of Your Commute

While reading the news today, I came across a link to this nifty propagandistic tool output by none other than the bureacracy is most benefits, the Metro King County transit authority (see here for why this is expected). Well, I immediately spied some problems with the skewed perspective that this little web application delivers. However, I will be lenient – for it is hard to accurately model the cost of sitting enxt to stinky people, not being able to listen to your own radio, change the temperature, roll down the windows, or otherwise control your environment. However, they also left out some very-easy-to-calculate costs. The most obvious example here is, the value of a person’s time.

So, to calculate the real costs of the commute, first head to Metro’s Commute Calculator, and enter the numbers applicable to you. While at MapQuest looking up the trip miles, also take note of the estimated trip time. Then (in another tab, if you are a cool user of Firefox), head over to Metro’s Trip Planner, and find out how long it would take, leaving about the time you normally leave wherever it is you leave. Finally, multiply your hourly wage (or approximate hourly wage if salaried) by the difference in time between the MapQuest time (or the real time you usually encounter, if you prefer) and the time it would take on the bus. Multiply this number by 2 (for the round trip), add the cost of the bus fare ($2.50 usually), and multiply by the number of commuting days you used in the Metro planner. That is the real cost of the commute, unless you find public transportation an ideal work environment.

I used that analysis on my schedule, and came up with the following:

My house to Work to BCC and back is a little less than 50 miles. I rounded up to 50, because I wanted to give the bus system a fighting chance. My truck gets an impressive 17mpg city/21mpg highway. I used 17mpg, once again, to help out that bus system. I go to work about 20 times a month. With these numbers, Metro tells me that my monthly cost for commuting alone is a whopping $147.06. Whoa. Makes me think that busses are worth looking into, right?

Well….. On the other hand, if I took Metro (which doesn’t coincidentally, come to my house, or anywhere within walking distance for that matter – but thats another one that I’ll donate to the bus system as a gimmie), I would spend about an hour and a half each way (to the nearest Park and Ride, that is). I would have the distinct pleasure of transfering twice. Ok, thats another gimme. Anyway, the ride normally takes me 35 minutes at the most – maybe 45 if I go during the abosolute peak rush hour and there’s an accident along the way blocking one lane. But usally I get there in somewhere about 25-30 minutes. But I’ll say 45, just to help out Metro’s cause. So, take the difference – 45 minutes (3/4 hour) – and multiply by my hourly wage – $15 – and we get $11.25. Multiply that by 2 (for round trip) to get $22.50 add $2.50 for the bus rides, then multiply by 20 rides per month, and we get a whopping $500 in costs and lost productivity. And this is tilting every assumption in favor of Metro. It is a wildly conservative estimate.

Suddenly, taking the bus doesn’t seem like such a good idea anymore.

There is one more point to concede – it is possbile to get some amount of work done on the bus. Certainly reading is possible, whereas it is not suggested while driving. Nevertheless, I also tend to enjoy driving – when not stuck behind bus – and my normal commute time of one hour round trip still compares favorably, reading or not, to a three hour (plus a drive each way at the beginning and end to get to the Park and Ride) commute.

Given facts like this, it is easy to see why so many people have chosen, now choose, and will continue to choose to drive themselves. Pouring more and more money into public transportation will not significantly change these equations. [Another aside – the bus ride doesn’t really cost $1.25 or $1.50 each way – it actually costs somewhere around ten times that. The rest is paid for by everyone not travelling on the bus – the taxpayers – your neighbors, your mom and dad, your children – bear that cost.]

There are several short-term solutions to this problem. One way it to do it is to follow Kemper Freeman Jr. and initiative 883 and build more roads. The Libertarians promote what I see as both a short-term and a long-term solution: stop-free toll booths. This way, rates can be adjusted to always help maintain optimal traffic flow, and the procedes, helping to even out the traffic flow, the costs would be borne directly by those using the service, and the funds collected could be used to increase capacity in whatever way worked best. Another long-term solution is to let cities grow naturally. Today, people are forced to commute due to insane zoning laws. Ridding communities of these artificial restrictions would allow them to grow in ways that would make commuting less neccesary for many people.

I would like to point out here that all of the problems we see with transportation today are the direct results of government policies. Their monopoly over the transportation system has disabled the free market’s natural reaction to increased demand for transportation, and now we are faced with congestion. Their liberal use of zoning restrictions has created urban sprawl, which they then try to fix by with growth management acts and the like – another perfect example of government trying to fix their own problems with ever more legislation. The solution is, of course, LESS legislation, fewer problems, and more freedom for everyone. That way people pay for what they want, appreciate what they get, and make the most of what they have.

3 Responses to “The Real Cost of Your Commute”

  1. nordsieck Says:

    the core of the problem with the mass transit system is a small point in your post:

    Another aside – the bus ride doesn’t really cost $1.25 or $1.50 each way – it actually costs somewhere around ten times that. The rest is paid for by everyone not travelling on the bus – the taxpayers – your neighbors, your mom and dad, your children – bear that cost.

    I read somewhere that (and this might be a different system than metro in king county) it would be cheaper to rent BMW’s along with insurance and gas and just give them to commuters rather than maintain the public transport system. If the public transit system were forced to operate under normal economic conditions (instead of 90-95% of the cost being borne by the public) it would have to drastically change it’s buissness model or go out of buissness. For one: what’s up with the un-necesarily large busses?!!! Hint to the transit system: buy smaller busses for off peak times/routes.

  2. nordsieck Says:

    Question: why operate stop-free toll booths? This makes no sense. If you want to tax people who use roads, why not add a milage tax to be applied with yearly registration (and car sales, etc.)? Much less new infrastructure… and fewer privacy concerns.

    As far as traffic flow is concerned, this would only help if you had higher rates for peak travel times… but in reality, this would not help much as people are not very price sensitive when it comes to small amounts of money – witness ring tones rented on a weekly basis. The people who this would effect already travel at non-peak times anyhow (well – if you have a study that you can point to, I would be intrigued) as the lost productivity of sitting in a traffic jam is going to be much higher than differential in toll price.

  3. Ryan Says:

    The toll increases during peak times wouldn’t neccesarily be small. That’s what’s great about the price system — it’s infinitely flexible. Prices would rise until the traffic falls to a speed-sustaining level. Maybe you’re equally likely to travel for $1 or $5, but for $20? Thats almost a tank of gas for just one trip. And what if it was $50 at 5:00? Then you really have to want to go somewhere right then, or else you’re finding another road to travel or something other than the commute to do with your time.

    I would also advocate free travel whenever congestion naturally doesn’t exist, so that even the poor could use the road system at these times.

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