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Driving decisions (but not overthinking them)

Is it always rational to take the bus?

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.

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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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