Old School VW Van
Old school VW van, photo by Metrix X

Krist Novoselic of Nirvana fame had a post on his Seattle Weekly blog some time back where he discussed driving and mass transit, I find this section particularly interesting:

Before Nirvana became popular, my individual transportation was what you would expect of a nearly broke bass player: Volkswagens from the 1960s. These well-built cars get great gas mileage and are easy to fix. I once bought a 1965 VW bus that didn’t run for $100. I put another cheap used engine in it and drove it all over! Eventually I drove it from Tacoma to Los Angeles for the session at which Nirvana recorded Nevermind. Instead of driving it back, I sold it for $400. (Check out the prices an old VW bus is getting today.) Back in those days, I didn’t even have a credit card, the state didn’t mandate car insurance, and gas was around a dollar a gallon. My personal transportation costs were very small.

The costs of driving have risen really dramatically in the past few decades, and if you’re a regular reader here, you’ll know that mass transit has become increasingly popular the same time frame. In the last couple of years, vehicle miles traveled by car has decreased. In 1990, you could buy a car for $100, fix it yourself and pay $1 a gallon to drive it. Today, you need insurance, registration fees have increased, parking costs have gone way up, and gas is much more expensive. New cars are so complicated and computerized, that the majority of people can’t change their own oil anymore, much less replace the engine in their car. Obviously cars are a lot safer and have better features, but they have also become much more costly to maintain.

I think this highlights something a lot of highway proponents are missing. They often argue that you increase highway capacity and reduce congestion and everything will be dandy. Beyond the fact we know that building new highways doesn’t reduce congestion, congestion isn’t the only thing that has made driving less attractive: it’s also become much less affordable. So a lot of people are naturally switching to transit. Over the coming decades, these trends are going to continue: cars going to get ever more complicated, gas is going to become more expensive again, and as governments scramble to raise funds to pay for road construction, tolls are going to become more common and other fees are likely to appear. Even if we could somehow build our way out of congestion, not likely, we’re still going to need more and better transit options, along with better bike lanes and carpool services, just to keep commutes affordable.

48 Replies to “Costs of Driving”

  1. And you are only mentioning the $$$$ costs.

    What about the current Iraq War? How many dead? How many maimed?

    The first Gulf war?

    The well-adjusted young men from oil-rich Saudi Arabia who visited the USA from 2000-2001, culminating with some one-way trips out of Boston, Newark and Dulles early that September?

    Exxon Valdez?

    Amoco Cadiz?

    The January 28, 1969 blow-out on Union Oil’s Platform A off Santa Barbara

    I could go on and on and…but I think you get my point.

    1. You are confusing the cost of driving vs the cost of burning oil/gasoline/diesel to drive. They aren’t necessarily the same.

      Even with a decent mass transit system, unless it becomes a rapid transit system and can compete with a personal transit system, people will still prefer to go when and where they want with who they want vs having to wait and share their space.

      We all make the trade off on a daily basis. The winner? The car and driving by 97% to 3%. (total trips) It’s not even close. And no amount of whining, oh you didn’t judge these two things fairly changes that. Does that mean we should give up? No, it just shows how far we have to go to beat the alternative.

  2. It’s easy to ‘con oneself’ into thinking our driving costs are pretty low, compared to everyone else. You know the routine, … the cars paid for, I just carry the minimum insurance and what the heck, it gets 20 miles to the gallon, so I’m only out a couple a bucks a day, because my employer has free parking!
    The IRS allows 50.5 cents a mile deduction for business travel, so they say the trip is more like $10 bucks a day.
    Some think tanks figure twice that when all the external costs are accounted for, as Erik has properly pointed out.

    That seems to be the basic hurdle. How do we, as a society, admit we’ve conned ourselves into this mess, and will have to claw our way out of it?

  3. The U.S. stimulus bill provided USD 30B for roads. None of that money is from highway fuel tax. With that, the auto bailouts and oil wars, can we agree that the private-auto system is dependent on the taxpayer? The city of Philadelphia spends 180M/yr on parking enforcement. It is paid for by tickets. Parking tickets are essentially a business tax (considered a business expense by messenger and delivery companies). The “free market” people should be marching in the streets about this sort of subsidy.

    1. $180 mn on parking? That’s insane, and that’s just tickets, not normal paid parking…

    2. Philadelphia Parking Authority is a strange bird.

      Seems that over time they developed an appetite for government graft but recent scrutiny has led to some belt tightening. Salaries amounted to $42.4 million. That’s generally the biggest chunk of any budget but The Philadelphia Parking Authority is not just meter maids. For example they are responsible for 17,600 parking spaces at the Philadelphia International Airport (the job of the Port here in Seattle). Even as a model of quasi government inefficiency they returned $31.1 million to the city’s general fund and $600,000 to the School District of Philadelphia. Some how it’s expected that will turn into $9M for the School District in 2009.

  4. Absolutely. When we moved to Seattle 5 years ago we decided to go car-free mainly because of the parking costs (we lived in UW’s Commodore-Duchess family housing at first, great building by the way). I’d also experienced the joy of not worrying about car maintenance when I was an exchange student in Japan. At that point it was a small leap to “Why am I paying for this?”

    When we moved after I got my master’s, it would have been pretty easy to go back. We only moved to the northern part of the U-District (to an apt that includes a parking space), but a lot of bus trips take a transfer now because of buses that only come to campus or 45th. I’d have to say that zipcar is probably the main reason it seemed doable. Zipcar gives us the option to drive out to a friend’s birthday party or make a big run to the store with very little hassle. We are also regularly willing to walk farther than “average American” (according to CNU, .5mi)–a lot of our neighborhood services are a mile or more away, though the park and a few shops are very close.

    1. At some point in your future you may decide that having greater mobility is required. For instance if you have kids, and they want to play on a recreational soccer team, there aren’t buses that are going to take you from the North U District to Federal Way on Sunday morning.

      I totally respect that someone would choose a car free life. And we should strive to make that a reasonable choice, it’s just that with a long and full life, it may not always be the most reasonable choice. (To this I add, the rent-a-car when you need it Flex-car system is a good alternative for someone who is nearly car free.)

      1. FWIW, I have two kids (6mo and almost 4yrs). Actually one reason we didn’t want to be totally dependent on a car is the fiasco of crying infants and recalcitrant toddlers!
        Just to cover the bases, another reason we stayed in the U-District is the walkability. As the Congress for the New Urbanism likes to point out, there need to be options for “those who don’t drive – young teenagers, elderly, handicapped, low income people and people who do not seek isolation – empty nesters, singles, hip folks like us.” If I worked in Burien or Federal Way or something we’d want to live somewhere walkable.

        You are correct about the Sunday buses, we can’t even get to Seattle Center until the 30 starts running about 10am, though we can get downtown.

      2. I’m with you man. I think the UD is actually the best place to walk in the city, far ahead of Belltown or First Hill and a some amount ahead of Capitol Hill as well.

      3. You know when I was a kid on capitol hill I played soccer on capitol hill.

        Why exactly are you talking your kids to Federal Way for soccer when there’s perfectly good soccer in the city? I think you’ve choosen to make things difficult for yourself. I take my daughter to check-ups near Northgate from my house in the U-D, it’s a two block walk to the bus, get on, get off, cross the street, bob’s your uncle. Same way home. I do own two cars, so it’s not like I couldn’t drive if I felt like it.

        But anyway, cars on Sunday morning are one thing, driving to Federal Way for work each day is another.

  5. Take out a tape measure and measure your parking space at your office. Now measure your office cubicle. I have noticed that the parking space is larger than a typical office cubicle. And who pays for the property tax on that parking space?

    1. Opps, hit the wrong key. Anyway, the post is about operating costs, car v. transit. So here’s the question.
      Why are Amtrak, and presumably other Commuter Rail train operating costs so high for LABOR, in comparision to other modes, like Airlines?
      Amtrak budget shows labor cost at 58% of total operating cost, while the ATA reports labor cost as 21% for domestic air carriers. I know pilots earn more than engineers, crew size about the same, conductors make less than flight attendands, and a lot fewer per train. Is railroad retirement and work rules really that out of whack. If so, HSR is in for some real problems if they can’t get costs in line.

      1. I think because fuel is such a huge operating expense for the airlines it is going to be a higher percentage of the operating cost than employee cost. You’d have to normalize costs between the two modes before you could compare them.

      2. Looking at the same data shows FUEL cost for rail as 11% of total operating cost, while airlines are 29%. Airlines are much more effected by rising fuel prices than rail – a good thing, but I’m still struggling with Amtak’s nearly 2/3 of budget goes to LABOR.
        Trackage rights cost Amtrak $3.54 per passenger, or about 1.5 cents per passenger mile last year, so the railroads aren’t gilding the lilly.

      3. I would think that labor would logically be the highest operating cost. Other than that what is there? Fuel (low), track costs, and um that’s about it.

  6. airline employees, like amtrak employees, get paid by the hour/day. you can usually do more trips (at very least you cover a lot more distance with a higher fare) in an airplane than in a low-speed trains.

    HSR as the potential to make the trip much shorter and thus you could get more trips per employee day. Keep in mind that airlines are also highly subsidized.

  7. The problem with folks understanding the cost of driving is that all the costs are typically not seen while in the act of driving. It’s easy to not associate the two together. You’re not seeing a “fare-counter” tick upwards while you drive and you’re not paying tolls and oftentimes not parking either. I think it’s generally that simple.

    I think we all can agree here that you can’t pave your way out of congestion either. Highways are like bandwidth. We have tons more bandwidth now than even 5 years ago. That just means we’ve been able to put more stuff into the pipe, but it’s still as congested as it ever was really.

    That all being said, the one cost that rarely seems to be mentioned here is time. As a (still) employed person I have to weigh the costs of time vs. money. Right now I have more money than time, so I decide to commute by car. It’s still WAAAY shorter for me to commute by car than by mass transit. And yes, I get free parking at work in the ‘burbs, but I also have a free Flexpass. I’m not sure what the per day cost of parking would have to be for me to suck it up and commute >1.5 hours each way instead of my 35 to 45 minutes. It would have to be pretty hefty.

    1. Time is the “convenience” factor. I like to read, and I can read on the bus. I cannot read while driving, even while carpooling (it’s quite rude). back when I was single I liked to chat up girls on the bus and train. Can’t do that while driving!

      1. Fair enough. So that works for you and your situation. For you that is convenient. I will go out on a limb and say for most that is not considered convenient at all, myself included. Just as easy an opposing argument is by saying, it reduces the amount of time I spend with my family, friends and kids. Commute time is often considered part of the workday.

        And who says you can’t flirt with girls while driving. What else are you gonna do while sitting in traffic? That’s why they put horns on cars! j/k

      2. It increases the time I spend with my family because it is actually faster than driving!

        The people for whom transit is not convenient are, by definition, not served by convenient transit. Especially if you have long commutes to far-flung places, it’s difficult to serve that with transit.

        There are places where most people take transit, so you can’t simply pretend that transit si always less convenient, that’s just silly.

  8. In 1990, you could buy a car for $100, fix it yourself and pay $1 a gallon to drive it.

    A dollar in 1990 would be $1.67 today adjusted for inflation.
    In 1991 one zone peak fare went to $1, today it’s $2
    Average price of gas today in the US is $2.15

    The more things change the more they stay the same. Auto maintenance has gotten more complex and expensive but service intervals have been greatly extended, cars are more reliable, get better mileage and last longer. Commute time I think has more to do with increased transit use than the cost of driving.

    A Transportation Research Board study, Commuting In America III has some interesting info on commute times and patterns. I wonder if the full edition is available at the library?

    1. MVET hasn’t kept up with the consumer price index thanks to Tim Eyman.

      Also, it would be interesting to see AAA’s 1990 figures for overall car ownership costs; 2008 AAA car cost for a “small sedan” is $0.42/mi, or about $6200 annually. That’s a lot of Zipcar hours!

      1. I searched for “Seattle” and it says SOV commuting
        declined by 1.5% from 1990-2000.

        From the CIAIII report:

        There are five metro areas where drive-alone shares actually declined from 1990, whereas
        there were none in the 1980-1990 period. These five were heavily distributed on the West coast. All of the losses were quite small, under one percentage point, with the exception of Seattle with a decline of about 1.5 percentage points.

        So despite Portland’s early investment in rail we kicked their butt :-P

    2. Gas was more than $4 a gallon last year, and it’s only because the economy has completely collaspe since that time that prices have fallen so much.

      There’s no data to back up the service intervals extension (if actually true) means that car maintanence is cheaper, in fact, this shows that the cost of at least some maintanence has risen very dramatically:

      I could find others but I’m lazy.

      1. From the Commuting in America Facts (data is for 1980-2000):
        The share of transportation spending of total consumer spending has ranged
        between 18% and 19% for 20 years.
        The dominant transportation expenditure, 95%, is concerned with the acquisition,
        use and upkeep of vehicles.
        Vehicle prices have dropped to below the value of 20 weeks average pay, lowest
        in about 25 years
        Driving Alone remains the lowest in average travel time of the major modes;
        Commuter Rail the longest. Average transit travel times remain roughly double
        that of driving alone.

        The two things that will increase transit use are of course time and money. We saw a jump in transit usage when gas prices spiked. Congestion doesn’t seem to have much of an effect because it still takes longer (twice as long) to use transit so for transit to compete it needs to become faster. The only real way to do this is dedicated ROW or at least some form of congestion management like HOT lanes. I don’t know why commuter rail has the longest average travel time but I have to suspect that it’s because of a high average distance traveled. But, it does point out the need to take direct routes, control the number of stops, offer express service, etc. Time is money.

  9. It’s a way overstatement to claim that with a computer controlled engine you can’t change the oil!… It’s just a plug in the drain pan and a screw on filter. It just sounds like a statement from someone who hasn’t actually tried to fix anything themselves.

    The key though is to move towards electric cars, oil changes, spark plugs, tune-ups, mufflers, air filters, radiators & coolant systems become things of the past.

    1. Swapping out the electronics today isn’t so hard either and you can buy the tools to do diagnostics for you – http://www.autotap.com/products.asp

      Diagnosing/fixing a carburetor with Vacuum operated emission controls, or balancing a pair of Weber carburetors; now that’s hard work!

    2. I tried to change the oil on one of my cars and I couldn’t get to the oil tank, it was under all kinds of crap.

      I have, however, been able to change out the radio in a car, but you know, that’s been easy for a long time.

      1. Oil tank? You have a car with a dry sump crankcase? I’ve never seen a car where adding oil wasn’t totally accessible. Drain plugs can be a pain if you don’t have an easy way to get enough clearance to crawl under. Filters can be a royal pain in the ass with some of the early sideways engine cars that were built by adapting older inline designs.

        Spark plugs used to be a 12,000 mile interval. They go over 100,000 now. Extended life antifreeze has bumped changes from 50,000 to 100,000. Synthetic engine oil and other lubricants can more than double the time between changes and increase the life of the drivetrain. Distributor less ignitions have replaced points and condensers and the need to manually set timing and dwell. Since the adoption of Onboard Diagnostics a $100 scanner can tell you as much as a commercial grade engine analyzer system used to.

        Yeah, I remember balancing dual carbs with a carb stick. That was a pain in the butt and carburetors can never deliver the performance over a wide range of conditions that an electronic fuel injections system with mass air sensor can.

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