What would it take to get me out of my car?
I mean that as a serious question, not a rhetorical one. Unique among my colleagues, I’m a car commuter. Well, really, I carpool. My wife and I both work in downtown Seattle, and we’ve chosen to put our two daughters in a daycare that’s close to our offices. So, even though bus commuting is definitely an option in my neighborhood—it’s what we did before we had kids—we’ve become pretty habituated to commuting by car.
I’m under no illusion that carpooling makes our commute benign. Each year, the family commute adds more than a ton and a half of climate-warming CO2 emissions to the atmosphere. It also pollutes the region’s air with carbon monoxide and smog-forming compounds; congests the streets, increasing the public pressure for new highways; imposes extra crash risk on ourselves, as well as the people who share the roads with us; and saps hundreds of dollars a year from our family budget to pay for oil imports.
So Alan’s experiment in car-free living, plus the realization that downtown Seattle will probably need a major transit boost in the coming years, has gotten me wondering: what would it take to coax our family onto the bus?
Even though we like to think of ourselves as environmentally conscious, our family’s decision will probably come down to three basic factors: time, money, and convenience.
First, let’s talk about the money.
Find this article interesting? Support more research like this with a gift!
Working through the numbers a bit, I find that if we commuted by bus instead of the car, we’d save about $7 per day. A bus commute for two adults and two kids costs $6 per day ($1.50 per adult each way). Our carpool commute costs about $13, after adding up parking, gas, and a low-end estimate for repairs and depreciation.
So if we switched to commuting by bus, we’d save about $1,750 per year. Not a princely sum, but certainly a nice addition to the kids’ college savings.
Time is a bigger deal, though. Our morning car commute, from our front door to the front door of the girls’ daycare, takes less than 20 minutes. (If the carpool lanes are clear, we sometimes spend as little as 12 minutes actually driving.) The afternoon commute—again, door to door—takes about 25 minutes.
In a bus, however, the door-to-door times are closer to 40 minutes in the morning and at least 45 in the evening. So taking the car instead of the bus saves us each about 40 minutes a day, or a total of two hours and forty minutes between the four of us.
Over the course of a full year, that means that car commuting gives our family of four nearly one full month of extra free time. We feel strapped for time as is; bus commuting would only make that worse.
Then there’s convenience. The buses run pretty frequently in our neighborhood. Usually, we wait for no more than 5 minutes before a downtown bus comes. On rare occasions, though, it’s longer, and that can mean keeping two squirming, cold kids in our arms waiting for the bus for up to 10 minutes. Plus it can be hard to find two seats next to each other during rush hour, and 4 adjacent seats are virtually unheard of.
And while the girls really do seem to enjoy the bus—“bus” is one of my younger daughter’s favorite words, after all—my experience is that the last 10 minutes of a slow bus ride home at the end of the day are pretty tough. The kids are hungry and fried from a long day; so they start to squirm, stand on the seats, try to pull the bus cord, or just plain melt down. I’ve definitely dealt with my share of tantrums on the bus, and it’s just not fun.
So here’s the score: as things look right now, switching from a car commute to a bus commute would save our family of 4 nearly $2,000 per year. It would increase our daily commuting time by 40 minutes per person, which shaves off a whopping 670 hours of family free time per year. And it would make commuting—particularly the afternoon commute—a little more trying on many days, and a lot more taxing on a few days.
So back to the original question: what would it take to get my family out of our car and back onto transit?
First and foremost, the time difference between driving and transit would have to narrow. Transit doesn’t have to be every bit as fast as driving a car. But for it to make sense for our family, taking the bus can’t take twice as long as driving a car. So that could mean giving some special priority to bus trips, so that they’re faster than they are right now.
Second, it would help if the bus trip itself could be a little more pleasant. That could simply mean adding a few more buses to the route, so that we’d be more likely to get adjacent seats and less likely to wait in the rain or cold.
And third, it would help if the cost difference between buses and cars got wider. If rush hour bus fare were cheaper, or gas and parking more expensive, then the savings might be worth the extra time and inconvenience.
But most of all, as I run through this list, I realize that we’re not quite as good candidates for bus commuting as many families are. For us, carpooling really makes a lot of sense; with two young kids and not a lot of spare time, the bus doesn’t look so hot.
So I think we’ll have to wait a few years—until the kids are a little older, perhaps—before we’ll give car-free commuting a serious shot.
This is a great question, tackled honestly, Clark.My thinking is we’re going to need to compensate people for the time difference between car and transit travel time. (I currently can get $20/month for biking 50% of the time, through the State Commute Trip Reduction Act.)I think a bold proposal would be to enact the 35 hour week (with 40 hours of pay) county-wide (like the French work week.) That extra 5 hours is about what the extra commute time would be.Business is booming in Seattle. Corporations here could afford it. (Look at all the people/companies moving here.)We have to take global warming seriously. Waiting a few years for the kids to grow up is not an option. We need some serious incentives/proposals to get us out of our cars.
I think Clark misses a point that Alan perhaps didn’t make strong enough: although public transport takes more time, it is a different kind of time.Driving demands your attention. Even a cell phone is judged too distracting by many. Certainly, reading a book or watching a video is out of the question!Consider that commuting time as a benefit, rather than a liability! It’s time you don’t spend cursing at the stupidity of your fellow driver. It’s catch-up on paperwork time. It’s relax with a trashy novel time. Depending on routes and schedules, it may even be quality time with family members!Granted, you can do some of these things 3/4ths of the time if you’re car-pooling (assuming three others you trade off driving with), but the atmosphere just isn’t the same. Within the tight social space of a packed passenger vehicle, with people you know and see every day, you feel anti-social if you bury yourself in a book. But because public transit is, well, “public”, you feel no similar guilt at using that time as you see fit, rather than entertaining your fellow travelers.So Clark, quit making excuses! Wreck the Volvo if you have to (not really), but try following Alan’s lead before coming up with all the reasons you cannot!
Hey there, Jan. I admit I’m making excuses here. But believe me, it’s very hard to think of a 15-minute wrestling match with a screaming, flailing 2-year-old as a “benefit” of bus commuting. Especially when you’re trying not to bother the people around you—who are (rightfully) trying to use their bus time to their benefit.In the car, we read to the kids, listen to music, talk with them about their day, give them snacks without worrying about the mess, etc. On the bus all of that his harder – even reading, because we often find adjacent seats in the back of the bus where it’s awfully loud.For a solo commute, as long as I can get a seat I *vastly* prefer the bus. It’s a no-brainer. But with an almost-2 year old, it’s much, much tougher.And believe me, I’m speaking from experience. For 5 months I commuted 3 days a week on the bus with my older daughter (3 at the time), while my wife was on maternity leave. It worked ok, especially at first. But by month 2—after the novelty had worn off—I often ended the day with a tired, hungry, grumpy little girl who wanted nothing to do with my lap. Other commuters were patient & generous, but it still wasn’t fun. But the time/cost ratio made more sense: bus fare was $3 per day vs. $13 for car, for 80 minutes total delay. And my older girl was much more willing than her little sister to sit still for long periods. The little one cracks after 20 minutes—so when I do commute with her on the bus, I’m constantly pulling her back onto the seat, trying to keep her from standing/jumping/climbing, etc. I don’t know if it’s justified, really, but I’m far more worried for her safety in the bus than in the car.So I do think of bus time and car time as different—with little kids, bus time is much more stressful. Sigh.I wonder if light rail might change this? The northbound route goes close enough to my house that it might be worth trying. Of course, by then my kids will be in school during the day, and the question will be moot.
It’s an interesting question – the hidden benefits of bus time (for some people). Unlike Clark, I’m a solo commuter who, when not riding my bike to work, rides the bus. For me, bustime is MY time. No phone calls, no meetings, no email, no deadlines, no dinner to figure out or straightening up to do. I can read, I can doze off, I can space out. My only obligation is to get off at the right stop. It’s all anonymous, and there’s zero guilt for not being productive during that 30 minutes. How’s that for the basis of an ad campaign to get people on the bus?
Aside from the undeniable reduction in congestion, we should consider how much pollution a bus causes. Aren’t these buses relatively noxious? We should have Clark add his family’s marginal increase in bus emissions to the ledger. Right now of course it is zero, since the bus will run with or without them. But over time his family’s ridership may contribute to the addition of additional buses on that route.
What I’d like to see happen is that drive times become so ridiculous that nobody in their right mind would do it. Reducing bus time is great, but to really make an impact, driving has to be a huge hassle, and vastly more expensive. I think if we had BRT that took lanes away from cars, that would be great.
MH-Funny you should ask. Todd Litman of the Virctoria Transport Policy Institute has already done the work.See this page, and scroll down to “table 29″http://www.vtpi.org/tdm/tdm62.htm.Playing with the numbers a bit, it looks like, based on the average ridership for “urban peak” buses, even a full car with 4 people has about twice the “external costs” for “air pollution” per passenger mile as a bus carrying 25 passengers.Todd tends to be pretty thorough, but we should still treat these as rough numbers. Still, it looks like a reasonably full bus beats a reasonably full car, in terms of external air pollution costs.
Clark, I think you are one of the cases where a car trip makes sense, especially with kids. Unless you are absoutly loony about your devotion to the bus, no one would want to take young kids on long busrides often. I would revisit the issue again in 5 years or so and then re evaluate your use of transit with children! Don’t feel guilty now though.
Clark, I apologize for attempting you to make you feel guilty. As someone with no kids, I often miss that beat.Wouldn’t it be wonderful if public transportation were more amenable to children! But it’s “catch-22”: because people with kids eschew public transport, they have to pressure to better support kids.Keep up the self examination!
I agree with Colin. When you calculate the real time spent on an “8-hour” workday—adding an unpaid lunch hour and 30-60 minutes of commute time—it swiftly becomes a 10- or 11-hour workday. And while we can try to use our lunch and commute hours on ourselves, the fact remains that those hours of our day are fixed by someone else. So if you figure on 8 hours of sleep, you’re down to 6 hours to wake up, shower, prepare and eat food, clean the house, hang out with the kids and, if possible, have some time alone, with your partner, or work on a hobby. I love to commute by bike and bus, but it only works when I’m not working full-time. A paid 40-hour week at 35-hours of work would be nice, but I’d settle for more decent jobs offered at half or three-quarters time at the regular amount of pay. (Of course, that probably works better down here in Olympia, where you can live more cheaply than in Seattle.) Our dependence on cars is caused by many factors, but the ever-increasing pace of our lives is certainly an important reason why so many people don’t want to commute by bike or bus. Slowing things down is an important part of creating a more sustainable life.
It happens that this is something I wrote about last year in my own blog, Rubilding Place in the Urban Space. While it focuses on subway transit, the concepts are extendable to other forms of transit. From the blog entry (slightly edited), The Six Reasons Why People Don’t Ride Metro, are:- It doesn’t go where they need to go from where they are;- It’s not time-efficient;- It’s not cost-efficient to take public transportation compared to driving [note that a lot of the time this happens when parking is free];- It goes where they need to go, and they would ride, if they could get to the station somewhat efficiently. Otherwise, it’s easier or faster to drive. (This is related to but subtlely different from );- It can’t be counted on; service interruptions mean it is no longer reliable when planning time-sensitive trips, and therefore another mode is chosen [this refers to the subway and train breakdowns, but it’s true of bus transportation as well]; and- It’s not conducive to the requirements of the trip (parent with children, transporting something big and bulky, etc.).It’s important to think about these issues systematically, in order to address transit marketing and usage issues.
Clark, et al-The single most helpful strategy for reducing car time and increasing walk/bike/bus time, I think, is to live close to where you work. That means moving or changing your place of employment, but it works. It’s been eight years now that we have been committed to living within bike commute distance of work (three cities, three jobs in those eight years), and that has made it easy to have just one car. We still have one because I work at other people’s homes and have quite a lot of equipment to bring. For the last four years I have not taken any work that is more than 9 miles from home though. With the next move, we plan to be able to eliminate the one car and work within an even smaller radius.
It’s bothersome to me that all of these family sustainability stories are from people who live within the downtown city limits. If you live outside those boundaries at any reasonable distance, your mass transit options (including carpool) dwindle demonstrably.I’d love to take the bus. Unfortunately, due to urban sprawl, and a horribly undersupported transit system (and undermotivated transit expansion), the bus will take me over 2 hours to do a commute that takes me 50 minutes by car on average. And that’s assuming I don’t miss a connecting bus. This simply isn’t acceptable.To become one of these families means to change your entire family life. And it can mean a serious change in financial ability. What you may save from mass transit (up until gas was $3/gal, I would have actually lost money on the bus, and high gas will probably lead to higher bus fares eventually) you will lose in increased housing expenses and time. (Your inability to work overtime, due to poor time coverage on many commuter bus routes or time-dependent carpool arrangements, could affect what sort of employment, and therefore income, you can achieve, hurting you even more.)The economic and social structure of America simply is not conducive to sustainable living for the very wide majority of the population. It is the very lucky family that can do this and make it *truly* sustainable—not just sustaining the world, but sustaining yourself and your family as well.
i agree clark, at my perspective people should take the bus as long as they add more buues to the route
Hi Clark -I think you’re somewhat misrepresenting the time-cost of riding the bus when you say that “It would increase our daily commuting time by 40 minutes per person, which shaves off a whopping 670 hours of family free time per year.”You actually mean that is saves 670 person-hours per year. 40 minutes * 4 people * 5 days per week * 52 weeks per year / 60 minutes in an hour = 693 person-hours per year.If you want to state that as “family time” you have to divide that number by your “4 person per family” family. This gives 173 family-hours per year, or about 1 family-week per year.Cheers!