Sunday, January 27, 2013

The Death Valley of Commute Options

On Friday I observed how for a trip from New York to Washington, DC, there are a variety of transit options, from Chinatown bus up to chartered limo or helicopter. This variety allows you to pick an option to match your budget. A small increase or decrease in your spending power translates into a small change in your comfort and/or convenience. Tune in to this week's Thinking Allowed for a fascinating history of this phenomenon on the London Underground.



Now let's contrast this with commuting from the Bronx to East Midtown. You can have a nearly free commute by bike, or a cheap commute by subway or local bus. But let's say you're a little better off, and you can afford the express bus or Metro-North train, where you almost always get a seat.

Now you get a small windfall, and you can afford a little nicer commute. There's nothing that's a "little nicer." You can take taxis, but you'll probably blow all that windfall in a couple of months. Your windfall isn't enough to get across the "Death Valley of Commute Options."



Suppose on the other hand that you get a promotion, and you know you're going to have a bigger salary for years. You can afford a down payment on a car, and get to work that way. Congratulations, you've made it across Death Valley!

But then the economy tanks, you get laid off, and you have to take a lower salary. You can't afford to pay for gas or park the car in Manhattan any more. You could take taxis, but you're probably better off saving that money for something else. You have to trek back across Death Valley and ride the express bus again.

Now imagine that you live in a part of Brooklyn, Queens or Staten Island, or even Manhattan, where there are no express buses or commuter rail stations. Your choices are subway or car, with nothing in between. The valley is even bigger.

9 comments:

Christopher Parker said...

The problem with your analysis is that you are using the full IRS measured cost of driving while the public uses its perception of the cost which is gasoline only. All other costs just get rolling into "the cost of doing business." Driving choices are made on the basis of perception, not actual costs.

Cap'n Transit said...

When did I say anything about the IRS?

Joel Davis said...

I'm also curious to know where the cost data came from

Cap'n Transit said...

For the cost of driving, I simply added the cost of a day's parking ($29) to the cost of a taxi ($40). Thinking about it, I should have only added half the cost of parking, because all this is on a one-way basis. And Christopher is probably right that people are only thinking about gas plus parking as a cost. Even if you take it as $1.32 + $14.50 = $15.82, it's still three times the cost of the express bus.

Alon said...

Some people get free parking as a job benefit. I know a city judge who drives to work because he gets free parking at City Hall, whereas at home he'd have to find someone to move his car for alternate side parking.

Cap'n Transit said...

Yes, Alon, I was saving that detail for a future post, but feel free to blog about it if you've got the time.

Adirondacker12800 said...

Not everything is about cost either. Try to drive in or out of East Midtown during most of the day and you can spend an hour going 20 blocks. The subway is faster.
Ridership on the subway and the commuter trains, the buses even, keeps increasing. Many of the people who use them could afford cars. Many of them already own cars. It's faster to take mass transit.

Cap'n Transit said...

Of course it's not entirely about cost, Adirondacker. It's about value, and cost is only one component of value.

Adirondacker12800 said...

Everybody else seems to be focusing on cost.
I'd hazard a guess that for car owning people in Metro New York cost is the third or fourth consideration they take into account when they are deciding whether or not to drive into Manhattan. Congestion and parking are higher on the list and then cost. If it's going to be faster to take the bus or the train - at rush hour for instance - they'll take mass transit....except for the people who insist on driving everywhere all the time. Tolls, parking, congestion or a combination would have to be very very high to have them change modes.