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.

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  • 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.