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The Cost Breakdown Between Driving and Public Transportation Use

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A 2023 study of 12 countries found that Americans are least likely to favor walking, train, metro, and bus travel over driving in a car. The age-old debate between car travel and other modes of transit often hinges on factors like convenience, cost, and environmental impact. While car ownership can offer some conveniences – and may be a necessity in transit deserts – the economic and social benefits of public transit can’t and shouldn’t be overlooked.

According to Walk Score, out of 130 U.S. cities, 90 are considered “car-dependent,” with most daily outings necessitating a car. This may explain the frequent complaints among city drivers of bumper-to-bumper rush hour traffic, but the reality is that it’s an expensive endeavor. From the initial purchase of a car to paying for insurance and gas, the costs of car ownership add up quickly.

Having the chance to navigate my own mobility ecosystem with and without a car, the latter was easily a better experience. While most places I’ve lived and worked required a personal car due to transit accessibility limitations, I was lucky enough to experience a car-free lifestyle in Madrid, Spain during a summer internship, which allowed me to adapt to a public transit-only mindset before spending over five years in Chicago without owning a car. In Chicago, whether I was traveling to/from work or going out with friends on the weekend, I took the “L” or the bus. I didn’t have to worry about parking, scrambling to fit an annual inspection into my schedule, fuel, insurance, the occasional flat tire... and the list goes on. Rarely did I feel like my mobility options were limited and, in retrospect, considering the stresses and costs that car ownership can bring, living car free was quite liberating.

On average, car ownership expenses can hit $1,015 a month, not to mention the hefty prices for parking in urban areas. According to the American Public Transportation Association (APTA), the average household spends 18 cents of every dollar on transportation. About 96 percent of that goes toward buying, maintaining, and driving cars–the largest expenditure after housing. By comparison, public transportation offers a less expensive and less stressful option, cutting down on both financial strain and time spent in traffic.

For example, in Austin, Texas, our partners at CapMetro service dozens of fixed, express, and bus rapid transit routes across region, offering travelers an alternative to dealing with parking and traffic. For trips across the city, Valley Metro offers local bus fares for only $2.50 for a day pass. And, with kids riding for free, transit is significantly more affordable than parking, which can cost up to $45 per day.

MBTA’s 14 Commuter Rail lines serve the greater Boston area, where residents and visitors can get unlimited train travel for just $10.00 on weekends. A popular Commuter Rail weekend trips is to Gray’s Beach Park, a 75-mile roundtrip drive. After factoring in fuel expenses and parking fees (a non-resident parking sticker is $40, with additional pick-up and mailing fees), a weekend getaway via car quickly escalates in cost compared to riding on the Commuter Rail.

And consumers have noticed these economic and convenience benefits. Public transportation ridership has increased by 30% since 1995, a rate more than twice that of population growth. This is not without challenges, though, particularly in suburban and rural areas where accessibility remains limited. Currently, 45% of Americans do not have access to reliable and safe public transportation. Despite these obstacles, there's widespread public support for increased investment in public transportation infrastructure, highlighting its pivotal role in fostering economic prosperity and enhancing mobility options for all. According to a survey conducted by the Mineta Transportation Institute for APTA, 74% of Americans would like to see spending for public transportation increased.

In addition to saving riders time and money, public transit also has environmental and social benefits. By making more trips with public transit, passengers can not only reduce their carbon footprint but also contribute to broader environmental sustainability efforts by decreasing reliance on fossil fuels and alleviating traffic congestion. Importantly, public transit also promotes social equity by providing accessible transportation options for marginalized communities, ensuring equal opportunities for individuals to access education, employment, and other essential services. Safety is also at play, as public transportation is 10 times safer per mile than traveling by car according to the American Public Transportation Association.

Despite public support for increased public transit funding, agencies across North America are facing economic constraints, underscoring the need for sustainable financial support. Historically, budget pressures have forced some agencies to make difficult decisions, such as implementing service cuts to balance budgets, exacerbating the "death spiral" phenomenon. This cycle, wherein agencies struggle to attract new riders while simultaneously reducing service, poses a significant challenge to the sustainability and effectiveness of popular public transit systems. Further, the pain of these cuts is typically felt most by those who can least afford to lose service or purchase a car. Addressing these challenges requires collaborative efforts to secure adequate funding and implement strategies that prioritize both fiscal responsibility and service expansion, ensuring the long-term viability of public transportation as a vital component of urban mobility.

Further investment in transit is good economic policy. By advocating for increased investment in public transit infrastructure and initiatives aimed at making it more attractive and convenient for everyone, we can pave the way toward a more sustainable and equitable transportation future and put more money back in the pockets of Americans.