One thing I hear all the time is “I don’t take Metro because it’s too expensive; that’s why I drive.”
Let’s unpack this, using my former coworker’s commute as an example.
She lived in a suburb outside Washington DC, a twenty minute Metro ride to our downtown office from her park and ride station. Parking at the station costs $5.20 for the full day, and the ride itself costs $4.85 one-way during rush hour. Parking at our work was free.
Her taking Metro to work would cost $14.95 each day. That’s $3,725 each year.
That $3,725 is a bargain compared to the average yearly cost of owning a car, which AAA’s most recent report found to be $8,698. But on top of owning a car? Transit is expensive.
My coworker owned a car because she lived in an environment designed for car ownership: the suburbs. She commuted to downtown DC by car both because she already owned one and because parking at our office was free. (Free parking is one of the biggest reasons why people drive alone to work).
So the problem isn’t that transit is expensive: the problem is that owning a car and using transit (specifically commuter rail, which is always more expensive and basically what distant Metro stations are) together is expensive.
We shouldn’t get mad at people for choosing to drive over taking public transportation. Because the unfortunate truth of the matter is, when you own a car and live near a park and ride station – not a transit-oriented station – driving downtown is probably cheaper than hopping on that commuter rail.
Is driving faster? Probably not. More enjoyable? Depends on the person. But cheaper? If you already own a car, likely.
What we should do is give people more transportation options so they don’t default to driving alone, and hence car ownership. And we should institute congestion pricing in our downtowns and encourage employers to replace free parking with transit subsidies. (And, of course, invest in public transportation so that it’s cheaper than $4,000 each year to ride.)
Another thing we should do: shed light on the hidden costs of owning a car.
Often times people perceive transit to be expensive because its costs are upfront and plain: you see the amount you’re charged on the fare reader every time you tap in or out. But with cars, those costs are hidden: it’s the price per gallon, the monthly car payments, insurance payments, maintenance – it goes on. You never have to face those costs when you get in your car, unlike transit.
Photo by Sam Kittner for Mobility Lab