Driving decisions (but not overthinking them)

Courtesy of Metro Transit
In some cases, taking the bus means you end up spending more money and more time to make the trip.

I wrote yesterday about driving and my experience of living without a car in Chicago for about five years. Writing for MinnPost, Marlys Harris talks further about the choices people make to remain in their cars:

 I realize that few people in the Twin Cities endure the horrific commute that the typical New Yorker puts up with. Here, a half hour drive to work borders on the onerous. But the quandary — car or not car — comes up at almost every juncture: walk or drive to the supermarket or the dry cleaners, take a bus or drive to school, bike to a nearby restaurant or drive? And, as a metropolitan area, we are planning to spend billions to finance light rail, street cars, bike lanes and bus rapid transit in hopes of prying people out of their cars and encouraging them to use less wasteful transportation.
The researchers aren’t too sanguine that new public transit systems will spring regular drivers from their cars. “Simply providing alternative choices for the individual can be a disappointingly unsuccessful method for reshaping particular behavioral patterns,” they write.
They point out that when analyzing transportation choices people make, city planners and engineers usually weigh rational factors — cost, convenience, length of trip and so on. But neuroscience has shown that humans often fall back on habit. So instead of actively making a choice (driving will cost me $45, and the train only about $20, I choose the train), we rely on regions of the brain that are reflexive. In my case, I was used to driving so I considered it the path of least resistance, only to get on the highway and learn that the car trip was a nightmare.

We’ll set aside the neuroscience for a moment. Of all the other factors listed, convenience is always the number one reason why people choose to use a car instead of relying on public transportation. If you have a car, you can travel when you want to and choose the precise destination you’re attempting to reach. Convenience often has an associated cost and people usually understand the trade-offs involved.

And public transportation isn’t necessarily cheaper than driving. For example, on Saturday I bought lunch for Fearless Maria and myself at a fast food purveyor located near the Quarry shopping center, which is near the junction of 35W, Stinson Boulevard, and Highway 88. The trip from our house is about 4 miles one way and it takes about 5-10 minutes to get there, depending on how the lights work on Highway 88.

Now, we could get there by taking the 25 bus, which travels down Silver Lake Road, then merges onto Highway 88. Doing so would require walking about a half-mile west to Silver Lake Road, then climbing on the bus. The fare for both of us would be $1.75, assuming we could use the 2 1/2 hour transit window to make it a round trip. So for the two of us, that tacks on a cost of about $3.50 to the trip.

Is that cheaper than driving? Maybe, if you factor in vehicle depreciation, but I drive an older vehicle with a fair number of miles on it and 8 miles doesn’t really change the value of a vehicle much. The cost of gas to make the trip is certainly less than $3.50.

Assuming we could time the buses exactly, the 1/2 mile walk would take about ten minutes each way. So by taking the bus, you end up spending more money and more time to make the trip.

Under those circumstances, is it rational to take the bus? Not particularly.

When we lived in Chicago, Mrs. D and I were able to make it work without a car, but it meant that we had to do a lot of up-front planning to get things done. If you wanted to get to Wrigley Field, you had to assume it would take an hour or so, factoring in a transfer in the downtown zone. If we’d had a car, it would probably take a little less time, but the cost of parking near the ballpark was prohibitive, so taking the train made a lot more sense. For most destinations in the Twin Cities, there’s no cost involved to park your vehicle, so the only real cost you pay is gas and vehicle depreciation. And we’re a lot more busy now than we were back in our Chicago days.

Driving is cheaper and easier than relying on public transportation, in many instances. We can build all the light rail we want and that’s not going to change.

This post was written by Mark Heuring and originally published on Mr. Dilettante’s Neighborhood.

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Comments (9)

  1. Submitted by William Lindeke on 05/05/2014 - 10:49 am.

    Parking is a key variable

    You make a good point until you reach your conclusion.

    For example, “free parking” isn’t free just because few people end up paying for it. That cost is subsidized within all our purchases, from every visit to Target or Taco Bell all the way to the cost of your home. Developers and business people know this well when they’re planning buildings, that each parking spot costs (on average) something like $20K to construct, and more on an ongoing maintenance basis.

    Parking is just one example. What we think of as “rational” is a direct result of decisions we have made and policies we have adopted. There are many other hidden costs of driving, from personal health to public health to road construction to environmental degradation.

    You write, “driving is cheaper and easier than relying on public transportation, in many instances. We can build all the light rail we want and that’s not going to change.”

    I’d change this to say that, if we want a healthy society, we need to shift the economic incentives of driving, transit, and land use to reflect our social goals. If we invest in transit while simultaneously un-bundling and un-subsidizing personal auto travel choices, your fatalistic conclusion doesn’t seem so inevitable.

    • Submitted by Dennis Tester on 05/05/2014 - 11:21 am.

      Hidden costs

      Until you can actually quantify those hidden costs they can’t be part of the rational equation. The same goes for your claims that more investment in mass transit will meet our “social goals” for a “healthy society” unless and until they can be quantified. Anything else is pure speculation supported only by someone’s political agenda.

  2. Submitted by Simon Byrd on 05/05/2014 - 01:36 pm.

    Advantages of LR

    They don’t wait for you. They don’t have to sit there while everyone gets on (many obliviously and rudely cutting the line), pays with various means (card, cash, transfer, COINS), have to slowly lower a disabled ramp and raise it again, occasionally have the driver laboriously strap in a wheelchair or scooter with hooks. The LR gives you 30 seconds to get on and off and then it’s GONE.

    Trains can be crowded, but even then, it’s a different feeling than when a bus is SRO. This is my worst nightmare on a rush hour bus, being so crowded you literally cannot squeeze through to get OUT! (until way past your stop)

    Trains are relatively smooth, but buses can and will throw you around possibly to the point of injury.

    No, you should thank your lucky stars you have a car and pay whatever it takes to avoid the bus. But if light rail is convenient, go for it.

  3. Submitted by Todd Piltingsrud on 05/05/2014 - 03:44 pm.

    Do the complete math

    “The cost of gas to make the trip is certainly less than $3.50.”

    That’s certainly true, but your math assumes the car is a given. Total cost of ownership is helpful to know here. For example, here’s a stab at TCO on a 2009 Toyota Camry:


    At somewhere between $6000 and $7000 a year, that short drive is far more expensive than taking the bus. And consider what you could do with an extra $6000/year.

    Here’s another handy tool for calculating household transportation & housing costs:


    In my corner of Minneapolis, transportation is estimated at $12k per household. We’re paying a little more than half that by my calculations, having sold one of our cars last year in favor of a MetroPass.

    • Submitted by Karen Sandness on 05/06/2014 - 11:25 pm.

      Yes, I once “debriefed” some students who had spent a

      semester in Japan. One of them complained, referring to the extensive transit system in the Tokyo-Yokohama area, “In Japan, you have to pay to go anywhere.”

      I asked him if he thought cars were free, and I told him that if I didn’t own a car (I lived in a small town at the time, so it was pretty much required), I could spend all of every summer traveling.

      He had never thought of it that way, being a college student who occasionally borrowed a parental car.

  4. Submitted by Mark Fox on 05/05/2014 - 08:44 pm.

    Marginal Cost

    People make decisions based on marginal cost, not total cost. If I already have a car for “socially legitimate” reasons, an extra short trip to the co-op costs almost nothing.

    Similarly, while it is true that the cost of free parking is wrapped into property costs and distributed by prices to all consumers, the marginal cost to each consumer is trivial. Also note that my local co-op (for example) is starved for parking. Even those “socially legitimate” business recognize that to do enough volume to make their businesses work, they need to provide parking. Nobody walks home carrying 10 pounds of organic potatoes and a pint on non-dairy ice cream.

    The cost of time rules over the dollar cost in nearly all cases. And where time isn’t the clear winner, convenience steps in.

  5. Submitted by Todd Hintz on 05/06/2014 - 12:26 pm.


    I’m sure the calculation in the article would change dramatically if parking at the fast food joint wasn’t free. Where I work it costs $74 per month to park, a significant addition to the overall costs if you want to drive. Factor in gas, depreciation, and higher insurance costs because the car is being used more and it runs me about $10 per day to drive to work. By contrast, it costs $6.00 per day to take the express bus in, plus I get a fifteen minute walk to and from the bus stop. And given Americans’ waistline, including my own, that isn’t a bad thing.

    My preferred mode of transportation though is the bike as that drives down the cost even farther. Not to mention it’s generally faster than driving. It typically takes twenty-eight minutes to bike home as opposed to thirty to forty-five to drive.

    I’m not pretending that taking the bus, bike, or LRT is the be-all for everyone. Sometimes schedules are inconvenient, the route doesn’t take you to your destination, or you just don’t have the time to wait for the next bus or train to come along. That’s fine if the fish doesn’t fit in your bill.

    But at the same time let’s not pretend that cars are the be-all either. Some people are too young or too old to drive. Others have impaired eyesight or their license has been revoked. And still more choose not to have a car due to the large expense, such as the $6000 – $12,000 Mr. Piltingsrud detailed above. Not to mention the many visitors to our cities who may not want the hassle of dealing with our unfamiliar freeways and traffic laws.

    How about cutting all those people a little slack? Should they all be forced into the expense of buying or renting a car? Or could we build bus, rail, and bike systems that are at least remotely comparable to our road system so they can get around too?

    Let’s get a little equity here.

  6. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 05/10/2014 - 11:21 am.

    Well, again

    I don’t understand these efforts to compare a bad transit system to cars? Obviously if the transit system were more convenient and had the community developed with transit in mind, you’d have better choices and more people would be using it.

    Beyond that, people, including Marlys, seemed to have missed the point of the study they’re sighting here. The point was that people can make transit choices based on habit, not that people like cars better. Were transit to become habit is would be just as durable as cars, and you see that in places where transit is heavily used by a population.

    The fact that habitual behavior is durable and resistant to change is neither a remarkable or new research finding, it’s more of a mundane observation fleshed out with some research data.

  7. Submitted by Sam Rockwell on 05/19/2014 - 11:25 am.

    RE Dennis Tester

    You state “The same goes for your claims that more investment in mass transit will meet our “social goals” for a “healthy society” unless and until they can be quantified. Anything else is pure speculation supported only by someone’s political agenda.”

    There are a number of studies that link transit and health. For example, from the American Journal of Preventative Medicine” via the CDC website: http://www.cdc.gov/healthyplaces/articles/besser_dannenberg.pdf (also available on the NIH’s website).

    For the record, this was the first result on a Google search for “transit and health.” Not exactly hard to find….

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