Air Quality & Emissions, Carfree Lifestyle, Transit Funding

The True Cost of Driving

A post at The Capricious Commuter, a blog that Erik Nelson writes for Inside Bay Area, discusses how although we seem to keep good track of how much it costs to build, improve, and subsidize transit, the mathematics that covers those equivalent costs for automobiles, roads, and parking is far less clearly tabulated. The result is that we arrive at misleading conclusions, including a figure which claims that roughly two-thirds of transportation revenue for the Bay Area is applied to public transit, even though transit share among commuters is a mere 10% across the whole region. That statistic is revealing in one sense; the ostensibly progressive Bay Area is generally supportive of funding transit improvements, perhaps because it shows an environmental awareness to do so — but few are willing to actually change their lifestyle in a way that demonstrates true commitment. The fact that most people in the Bay Area live in suburbs, rather than a dense urban environment that is naturally supportive of transit, only helps to solidify the often incorrect assumption across the region that “transit is not an option.”

However, the statistic is also revealing in a different way. Several costs are required to buy into an auto-centric transportation system — the cost of the vehicle, gasoline, insurance, and upkeep — and in some sense, those private costs can be bundled together and thought of as “driving fare.” Although the two-thirds figure includes the private costs riders must pay for transit fare, it ignores the “driving fare.” After taking into account “driving fare”, Erik adjusts the calculation to find that a mere 8.5% of money in the Bay Area is applied to transit. Even this figure ignores quantifiable costs (like those associated with parking garages), and other costs which are much harder to quantify — the stress associated with long driving commutes, and the health and environmental effects of pollution from cars. More generally, though, the tendency to keep careful tab of transit costs but to neglect to mention crucial auto-related costs indicates the extent to which American society is willing to overlook the fact that maintaining an auto-centric transportation system has hidden costs that may be insufficiently weighed when making policy decisions.

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