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The Joys of Commuting

Published by marco on

As cities in America grow bigger and bigger, with suburbs being surrounded by exurbs and people travelling around, through and between city centers regularly, the question of public transportation arises. It’s only really in the States that large cities look at public transportation as a question rather than as a right. It’s only in the States that trains, subways, light rail and metro commuter lines are discussed in terms of profitability instead of usefulness, environmental friendliness and quality-of-life.

Price controls by Megan McCardle (Asymmetrical Information) cites a driving commuter who calculated how much money he would save and how much extra time he would spend if he took the train instead of drove:

“I can usually drive there in 45-60 minutes during off-peak hours, although it can sometimes take much longer if there’s an accident. I can park in the garage next to my office for the day for $12. Conversely, I can drive 15-20 minutes to a Metro station, pay $4 to park, wait as long as 15 minutes for a train, pay another $2.65 to get two blocks from the office 35-50 minutes later, followed by a 5-10 minute walk to the office.”

The train would save him about $3.00 per day, but cost him anywhere from 30 to 75 minutes. It would also cost him what he terms the “privacy and autonomy I enjoy in my own vehicle”. He does not note the extra risk he has driving so much every day, nor the effects on his health from the extra stress incurred. The decision to drive to work is aided primarily by two things:

  1. The human capacity for getting used to anything; even a torturous commute every day is subsumed into the everyday humdrum and taken as a given after a while. Those hours spent behind the wheel are not considered wasted—they are to be preferred to spending even more time in a train, though one can read or do something useful there.
  2. The subsidization of the driving lifestyle in the States; road maintenance is paid for with gas taxes, but no one ever talks about a the highway system “turning a profit”. Gas prices are so low that the gentleman above even leaves the cost out of the equation because he only uses “a nominal amount of gasoline”.[1]

Clearly the only people using public transportation are those who actually have something better to do than stare at the bumper in front of them for two hours per day. There is no other incentive forcing people to reconsider their decision to work far from their homes or to spend so much of their lives driving. Ms. McArdle suggests to “institute comprehensive road tolls combined with a congestion pricing scheme” and “a carbon tax to compensate for the negative externalities drivers are imposing”. Tolls are not the answer as they congest traffic further; there should be a blanket highway usage fee paid each year (as in some European countries). A carbon tax is a good idea if it’s applied to the price of gasoline. With all the talk of taxing cigarettes as a “sin”, there should be more about taxing gasoline more.

The problem with all of these solutions is that one can only reasonably do them in larger urban areas which actually have decent public transportation, which can handle the extra capacity engendered by droves of people giving up automotive commuting.


One commenter asks “What are our gas taxes paying for, if not the roads?” It’s a decent question, and it’s difficult to say what the subsidies are without hard numbers. Many years ago, the NYC subway fares paid for about 70% of the system whereas the LIRR and Metro-North barely cracked 40% and 50% respectively. It’s hard to imagine that gas taxes pay for the roads in NYC as it costs a tremendous amount of money to build in NYC and everyone buys their gas in Jersey anway.

Another commenter wrote:

“What I would like to see is data on the relative size of subsidies for roads vs. mass transit per user mile expressed in current dollars. I think if you totaled up the amount spent on roads, parking garages, cars, driveways, eminent domain, accidental death and injury, insurance, and added in the cost of the negative externalities, people would be totally freaking shocked.”

Which goes more in the direction of using true-cost economics to come up with a cost for driving: “negative externalities” like congestion, pollution, noise and degraded quality of life because there are cars and roads everywhere. Another poster commented that “[b]efore talking about taxing consumers for gasoline, I think the government should take away all the oil industry’s subsidies, tax credits and deductions”, which touches on another matter: corporate welfare, for which we also pay.

Net Federal Subsidies per Thousand Passenger-Miles by Mode: FY 1990-2002 shows the amount of subsidy per transport mode per thousand passenger miles. This is supposed to show that cars have negative net subsidization, but drawing that conclusion ignores the fact that planes, buses, trains and other public infrastructure have to pay for everything, including the vehicles, whereas drivers shoulder the cost of upkeep and maintenance of their own vehicles. It’s not a subsidy, but it’s a major cost that doesn’t appear in the calculation.

The upshot is that the US stands alone in this discussion about urban areas and personal transportation; much of the rest of the civilized world has decided on cultural urban centers and strict controls on automobiles—and they’re much the better for it.