Wednesday, July 03, 2013

If I Could Drive...

...would I?
This is a question that occasionally pops up out of my brain and bitch-slaps me around for a while. Because of course I would drive, right? Everyone else does. And people are pretty reluctant to even think about giving their cars up.

You drivers, which is most of you, probably can't comprehend life without a car. Never mind the inherent limits it puts on your career and your ability to shop for anything--those are obvious first-order consequences. Here are some others. You get asked for a driver's license at completely random times, as if your ability to drive a car is correlated to your credit rating or your worthiness to enter a casino.  Trips to see friends and family who don't live in your city are difficult, occasionally impossible, and certainly inconvenient to yourself and your friend or family member, Suppose you have to be somewhere at seven in the morning. Gonna cost you. Cab fare starts at $3.50 and that's just to get in. It goes up fast from there.

The above article suggests that the biggest reason people avoid public transit is that it almost doubles your commute time. I don't think this is the biggest turn-off. I know I'm living in a supposedly time-starved society (in which nearly everyone watches more than 90 minutes of television a day)...but consider: time is a little more elastic on public transit. It's more your own time. No cop's going to bat an eyebrow at you for texting on a moving bus if you're not driving it. You can eat, read a book name it. (I know, you do all that driving your car, because it's all so much more important than that little kid who's about to jump out into traffic...but on a bus it's all legal.)

And I question their methodology. In the "car commute" column, did they include the sixteen trips you make around the block, looking for a parking spot? Did they include the time spent clearing snow off the vehicle in the winter? How about traffic jams? Yes, busses get caught in those too, but anything on rails doesn't.

No, I don't think it's the time. The problem most people have with public transit is other people.

I'll admit it. It's not pleasant. Sometimes it's downright disgusting. You have no control over who's going to get on, where they're going to sit (closeness to you is directly proportional to the amount of time it's been since they bathed), or what they might say to you. Particularly if you're female, this can creep you right out. And it goes without saying that poor people use public transit, which means if you use public transit, everyone around you is going to think you're poor. For some people that's just unacceptable.
I'm not immune to these uncharitable un-neighbourly impulses. I've been known to take a longer route home simply because it's much less crowded, and I've adopted any number of subtle tricks to preserve the vacancy of the seat beside me as long as possible (without, I hope, looking too weird). If you're interested:  reading a thick book is good people repellant. So is slouching in the seat. If you have cargo, don't put it on the seat next to you -- that's just rude -- but instead hold it in your lap and let it "spill" a little: subconsciously, people will think it'll spill on them and stay away. These and other like techniques work for me. Or maybe it's just that people get one look at my ugly phiz and run in the other direction. Maybe I'm the person who makes public transit intolerable for somebody. There's a Debbie Downer of a thought.

But there are advantage to public transit. You've doubtless heard some of them from people trying to guilt you out of your car. You'll save the planet (memo: the planet's fine.) You've heard that it's cheaper...

Well, yes, it is. It's drastically cheaper, in fact, so much cheaper it's actually rather scary for me, a non-driver, to consider where you drivers get the money to fund your habit.  Gas, insurance, repairs, parking, depreciation, to say nothing of the cost of the car itself...
This is particularly true for short intra-city trips, which oddly enough is the majority of many people's driving. A bus pass in this city costs $72. That's the sum total of your costs per month. See how far you can get in a car for $72. Hell, in many of them these days that isn't even a full tank.

Intra-city  is a little more comparable. From downtown Kitchener to downtown Toronto...let's call it a hundred kilometers, it's pretty close to that.  If you travel to Toronto each weekday it'll run you about $500 a month using public transit. Better add in a transit pass at each end, since it's unlikely you live within walking distance of the Kitchener GO station and only slightly more likely you work within walking distance of Union Station in Toronto. That's another $200. $700 a month to travel roughly 4000 km.



The figures  on the car side of the scale are hugely variable. The make and model of your car, how you drive it, and what kind of insurance deal you can wrangle will all have a massive impact, positive or negative. Still, let's get rough and dirty with some figures and try and add things up. Let's assume you have a Honda Civic LX. Civics have been the most popular model in Canada for about ever and one reason is their fuel economy, which is certainly important to you if you're commuting to Toronto each day. I'm using figures from the C.A.A: feel free to check 'em or chuck 'em. 
C.A.A. says if you drive a Civic LX 32,000 km a year--which is three quarters of the driving we're assuming here just for the commute--your annual ownership cost is thirty-five cents a km. Looking at their sliding scale I'm going to guesstimate it's about thirty cents/km for our purposes. Multiply that by the 4,000 km we're putting on per month -- again, just for the commute -- and you've got $1200. Note again this is rough and dirty, back of the envelope stuff. Your mileage, ha-ha, may vary.


I strongly doubt you can knock anything close to five hundred bucks off that monthly cost.

I'm trying to be as fair to cars as I can here--I'm going on twenty work days a month, which is low--once you get over 40 trips a month on GO your travel is free, which obviously isn't true in a Civic.
I've also assumed your employer offers free parking. Not all do.And again, this is counting just the commute. You're obviously going to drive your car to and from other things besides work.

Ah, but Ken, what price my time?

You think you've got me there, don't you? I'm always suggesting in other contexts that people don't value their time near highly enough (say, standing in line to buy the latest iteration of the PlayStation when the one you had yesterday was perfectly fine).  So let's look at that. In rush hour, which is when you're going to be doing this drive, the trip from downtown to downtown is going to average out at about 90 minutes by car. This, again, is variable. You won't be able to do it in much less than 70 minutes without risking the wrath of the law and some days I can assure you that trip will be 120 minutes or even longer. The GO train takes approximately 120 minutes per trip, rain or shine. There are occasional delays, some of which GO will refund you the cost of the trip for. (Try that next time you pull in to a gas station. "Sir, I was caught in a traffic jam which caused to to use considerably more fuel: I believe this tank of gas should be free.")

Besides, as I have said above, your time is your own on public transit. Obviously you're not at home, but these days it seems many people believe home is where their phone is and you can play with your phone to your heart's content on a bus or a train. Rearrange your life a little and that commute can be a pleasurable part of your day, especially given the lack of stress from actually driving the vehicle.

I'm not going to suggest that public transit is perfect. Not even close. Sometimes it sucks. But then again, driving sometimes sucks too. And if I could drive--if I wasn't burdened by just-barely adequate vision and a driving phobia--let's just say I woudn't drive near as much as you'd think.


Anonymous said...

What kills public transit for me is that I have to drive to the nearest station that has the conveyence that will take me (almost) where I need to go. If I have to own a car to get to the bus/train station, I might as well just keep on going.

That's the problem with the cents/km comparisons. The cost of owning/insuring etc. is included. But if I need a car to use transit, then those costs should appear in the per km cost of transit as well.

Ken Breadner said...

You're right, of course--and that's why I don't like the article I linked. It seems to suggest there's no point in expanding public transit, since nobody will use it anyway. Make it more convenient, to the extent you can, and market its weaknesses as strengths, as I have just attempted to, and maybe some people will reconsider.