The cost of commuting

It is about 45 miles (70 km) from Baltimore to the NIH campus in Bethesda, MD.  If I were to travel the entire distance using public transit it would cost over 20 dollars for a return trip (one way bus fare in Baltimore is $1.60, commuter rail (Marc train) fare is $7.00, and Metro fare in DC is $3.65 ($3.85 during peak hours)).  That amounts to over $100 per week and $5000 per year.  If I bought a  monthly rail pass, then I could cut the cost down by 75% or so.  Now if instead I were to drive everyday,  ninety miles per day is equivalent to 22,500 miles per year.  A car that could travel 30 miles per gallon of gasoline would use 750 gallons a year.  At the current price of $3 per gallon, this would be $2250 per year.  If I drive my car for ten years and it cost twenty thousand dollars then that is an additional $2000 per year.  Insurance, fees, maintenance and repairs probably costs another $2000 per year so driving would cost about $6000 per year.  If I drove a cheaper and more efficient car then I could bring this cost down to $5000 per year.  Thus, driving is economically competitive with public transit.  Add in the fact that I would own a car anyway even if I didn’t use it to commute to work and driving is the less expensive choice.

How is this possible?  Well one cost that I didn’t account for is parking.  The NIH happens to have a large campus where parking is nominally free.  Although if I chose not to drive, I could receive a public transit subsidy of  up to $110 per month or $1320 per year.  If the NIH were located in downtown Washington DC, parking could cost over $400 per month or $5000 per year.  So the real reason driving is competitive with public transit is because parking is subsidized.  If I  worked in an urban center  where parking is expensive then driving would be much more expensive than public transit.  Driving is further subsidized because roads and highways are funded by tax dollars while the cost of maintaining transit stations and tracks are only partially funded by taxes.  If transportation infrastructure were publically funded or if subsidies for roads and parking did not exist then public transit would be the prohibitive cost effective option.




3 thoughts on “The cost of commuting

  1. Well, in Manhattan the cost of parking is ~ $30/day, and having a parking space for a car is equivalent to renting an apartment in other cities. Not to mention that they took out multiple lanes on major avenues recently to put in bike lanes, so driving is far slower than public transit if you’re coming from outside the city, esp. if it happens to be summertime and they close down an additional two avenues for biking. So definitely ditching the car is a pretty good idea if you live in Manhattan proper.

    Time-wise: cross-town at rush hour: fastest option is to bike/run – even walking can be faster than taking a bus or taxi due to frequent stop lights. Taxi is pretty economical with 4 people. Train is better for long distance but the stations can be a bit far. When you add in the time for parking the car definitely loses. I’ve had good experiences with car-sharing, though – parking, gas, and insurance is included with the hourly fees.

    The best thing about Manhattan is that things are walking distance apart so it’s actually convenient to walk everywhere. You can live without a car in DC but things are spaced for driving, not walking (think 15 minutes to cross a huge parking lot to get to the store).

    The reason I don’t think public transportation will work in the US is because it’s too big physically. Europe has a small densely packed area, so it’s practical to make public transit work. There are very few places where one can easily live without a car and I don’t know that we could ever build enough infrastructure to make it practical. DC is actually very good public transportation wise for the US but it’s just not very convenient for most places outside the very dense core. Public transportation only really works well in super-dense urban areas…

    Hence, I live in one and am happily car-free. The only problem is that I’ve actually had more run-ins with the insane bike messengers here than cars… they run red lights and ride the wrong way up one-way streets, and I forget that I have to look for them too when I cross the street.


  2. The whole equation is really screwed up by subsidies. On the one hand, gas taxes are probably $1 too low and parking is oversupplied thanks to oppressive land use regimes in place throughout the united states, resulting in its undervaluation. On the other hand, commuter rail is subsidized a ridiculous amount. People overall just pay much less for transportation than they should. Additionally, everyone needs to do more transportation, because urban zoning restrictions ban densification and walkable communities.

    For whatever foolish reason though I give up all those subsidies, bite the bullet by overpaying for my apartment, and walk to work (I live in the East Village in New York).


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