Thoughts on Mass Transit

25 Jul 2012

When Mel and I first moved to the D.C. Metro area we were convinced that it would be just fine using mass transit. The WMATA is supposed to be the 2nd largest mass transit authority in the U.S. so we assumed that taking the bus would be fine since many people must also take the bus/metro which should make it more viable(more people == more buses).

I also ran across the AAA Annual “Your Driving Costs” study which states that the average sedan costs about $9,000 a year to operate(maintenance, insurance, gas,…).

Our thoughts were that $9,000/year plus the initial purchase was quite a bit. We had just spent 2 years in Bangkok without any need nor want for a car. Should be able to do the same in another big city, right?

Taking a look at Google Transit + Ride On Bus’s schedules we came up with the following

Going to/from work

  • 5-10 minute walk
  • 18-25 minute bus trip
  • 15-20 minute walk
38-55 minutes total
Not too terrible. When Mel first got here she had a rental car for 3 weeks and used it to drive to work every morning. The drive took her 15 minutes +/- 5 minutes.
Given that a car was going to be a big upfront cost plus almost $9,000 a year the extra time the bus took really didn’t seem to worry us.
Over time this has slowly changed though. I suppose our initial assumption about buses arriving on time was a mistake and could be the root of our issues with the bus system that we now have. Currently we are averaging at least a 5 minute wait once we get to the bus stop. Sometimes this is much much greater and very frustrating. I can’t say for sure, but after overhearing a bus driver state that they cannot be early to a bus stop, I assume that all buses are late and almost never exactly on time. Understandable, but I would expect a less than 10 minute wait for a bus which doesn’t always happen. I estimate that we average 5-10 minutes waiting for the bus at any given stop. This really doesn’t take into account what happens near the end of the day. We don’t always end our day at the same time since sometimes you are in the middle of something when you would normally leave and then you are forced to figure out exactly when you leave based on the bus schedule. We have learned the hard way that you cannot just leave work when you wish, but must be conscience of the bus schedule and how long it takes to walk to the bus stop.

So the argument against Mass Transit for us.

  • Since the schedules are not 100% real time, often it is very hard to tell if the schedule is up to date and if a bus is actually going to arrive at a stop. This is frustrating since you end up waiting 10 minutes before the scheduled stop and up to 15 minutes after the scheduled stop only to find out it is not going to come. There goes 25 minutes wasted.
  • Try going to the grocery store using the bus. Just do it once and buy at least 5 bags of groceries for each person that goes with you. It’s fun…
  • Whoops, just slipped and broke my leg in my apartment. I guess I’ll call and ambulance?
  • It’s raining!
  • Bus vs. Car — The money!!!!!!
  • Let’s say that we are in an ideal world and the bus is never more than 10 minutes late to any given stop.
  • The bus trip itself takes the same amount of time as if we drove a car from the stop we get on the bus to the stop we get off the bus.
  • Another ideal situation your walk to the bus and from the bus is 10 minutes(20 minutes total one way)
  • 20 minutes late + 40 minutes walking = 60 minutes lost per day
  • 52 weeks * 5 days/week * 60 minutes = 15600 minutes lost per year(260 hours)
  • 12 * $45 = $540 / year in bus fare  (Monthly pass is $45 here)

$540 + $7.5/hr * 260 hrs = $2490 / year to take the bus if you value your personal time at minimum wage(which is dumb since you should value your free/personal time at much more than how much you get paid at work)

How about a little more realistic value for your time. I net about $17/hr so lets just use that value for this example. $540 + $17/hr * 260 hrs = $4960 / year to take the bus. Still less than owning a car per year.

Now, the most realistic value I can see is the real value of my time. 3 x $17/hr = $51/hr. $540 + $51/hr * 260 hrs = $13,800. WOW! I might as well have a car.

I realize there are some interesting things with this argument. How can you put a number on how much time is worth? I know some of you are going to dislike putting a value on your time, but really, time is probably the most precious thing we all have. You can’t get it back. It is the sole reason we are paid to work. Somebody is paying you for your time. So I do believe we can use it to measure our bus effectiveness.

There is another thing that isn’t really taken into account in the above math. Mel and I work at the same place which means we can essentially double the final numbers(well actually more than double since her numbers are higher). Meaning that if we apply the same scheme the cost of riding the bus even at our base salary/hourly rate makes taking the bus more expensive than owning a car.

All this math is really under the assumption that you are only taking one bus and not transferring as well. Sometimes we transfer onto another bus that gets us a little closer to work. Probably saves 5 minutes of walking, but we burn at least 10 minutes during the transfer waiting for the next bus.

Let’s not forget that the AAA value we are basing this all on is an Average size sedan. The small sedan is about $6700 per year.

Mel and I will continue to use the bus for now until sometime after the wedding. We will most likely be in the car market within the next year.

Just some food for thought on this. I’d really like to hear what you think about this so please comment away!

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