Globally, people rarely use public transportation because of morality; they use it because it is cheap. The reason it’s cheaper to take the bus than to drive in Russia, for example, is not because the government there cares about reducing emissions. It’s because transit utilizes resources more efficiently, and frees up resources to be used on other projects, like war.
The data demonstrates that this rule applies to Americans. When factoring in maintenance, car payments, fuel and insurance, owning and operating a car costs roughly $10,000 per year in the United States on average. Let’s compare a daily commute from the suburb of Kent to Seattle, with driving vs transit. A regional monthly transit pass costs $144 and covers every form of transit: all busses, light rail, commuter rail, water taxis, monorail, everything, plus or minus a dollar here or there for the occasional trip off the beaten path. The result is roughly $1,500 a year versus $10,000 a year. By switching to transit, the average American would give themselves an $8,500 raise.
Motorists may protest and claim their expenses are lower based on careful driving habits and short trips. They are wrong. A commuter from Kent who used their car exclusively to drive 20 miles to work in central Seattle, never paid for parking, made absolutely no other trips, performed absolutely no maintenance, got their car for free, didn’t register their vehicle, never paid for insurance, and avoided all accidents while driving a vehicle with the average mpg of 27.5 would still come out $200 ahead by switching to transit and avoiding the price of fuel alone.
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Because it is ubiquitous across industries, capitalist institutions often blame labor exclusively for cost-push inflation, but there is another culprit nearly as prevalent in keeping the economy chugging along: fuel. Oil prices underpin all transactions, whether directly at the pump or indirectly through logistics costs.
Switching from personal vehicles to public transportation increases the efficiency of human movement by increasing the amount of people moved per unit of fuel. Avoiding the waste associated with driving a car, especially along routes where busses and trains have empty seats, increases the supply of fuel available for material logistics. This increased supply decreases operating costs, in turn decreasing the pressure on firms to raise prices.
Whether large profit-driven corporations will respond by lowering prices is irrelevant, because decreased operating costs allows smaller enterprises, such as co-ops, to lower their own prices to compete more effectively with larger profit-driven institutions. The result is better quality goods available at cheaper prices to consumers looking to spend the $8,500 they’d saved by switching to transit in the first place.
Fuel is not the only commodity which affects inflation: steel, copper, plastic, and electronic components are all essential industrial materials wasted on cars. These same materials can be used to build value-producing and compounding structures: housing, factories, schools, and hospitals. These are but a few opportunity costs sacrificed to car manufacturing. These projects all represent some form of investment—an asset which holds, produces, and/or gains value over time—the fiscal opposite of a car. Not only that, an increased supply of these assets, most notably housing, would decrease demand-pull inflation. In contrast, cars lose the majority of their value upon initial sale.
To borrow capitalist economic ideas: increases in productivity can decrease inflation by decreasing the scarcity of goods and services. Every resource producing to its maximum potential means less waste, less scarcity, and decreased prices. For example, a single desktop or laptop computer utilizes electronics extremely efficiently. In a single day those electronics, if used in a computer, can facilitate instant communication with colleagues, create architectural blueprints for the housing projects mentioned earlier, and play movies or games after those updated plans have been sent off to construction workers. Logistical, labor, and recreational value can all be produced by a single item in a short period of time. Conversely, automotive electronics produce absolutely no value beyond their immediate use. In direct individual material terms: the average American would be financially better off by abandoning their cars in favor of public transportation and using the $8,500 they’d gain to purchase an extremely powerful computer.
As gamblers assume they won’t fall prey to the house’s odds, motorists believe they won’t suffer injury or death in a car wreck. The absolutely dismal safety of private motor vehicles—12,000% deadlier than transit in the United States, using the most conservative estimates—represent an astronomic material waste in lifetimes of labor, not to mention insurance payouts, which exert upward pressure on monthly insurance premiums. Factor in increased road maintenance, medical facility usage, auto repairs, and demand for the materials to manufacture replacement cars, and the wasted resources weighs heavily on inflation.
Oceans of waste could be drained if people chose a safer form of transportation than cars. The marginal increases in automotive safety over time pale in comparison to the impeccable safety record of public transportation in the United States: since 1975, with all the increased safety regulations and manufacturing techniques, cars have become 35% less deadly while remaining 12,000% deadlier than transit. This means driving produces 12,000% more economic waste and 12,000% more demand on scarce resources. Like gamblers venturing back into the casino after extending their credit to pay off previous debts, drivers feed the cycle of pain, suffering, death, and worst of all inflation by choosing to get back on the road after an accident. However, gambling and driving possess one vital difference: switching to transit is easier than fighting addiction.
By choosing public transportation, we help society function more efficiently. We can combat inflation and the climate crisis while increasing our general well-being if we make economically wiser choices. The resources are there, they’re just being wasted.