May 30, 2000
Cliff Slater's Second Opinion
Cliff Slater is a regular columnist whose footnoted columns are at www.lava.net/cslater
(1) To say that we value our time is a truism yet it is rarely taken into account in public transportation studies. We can determine these values by comparing marginal time and money differences for the actual transportation choices we make. For example, let’s say we forego a $150 a month parking space next to our workplace downtown and instead take a $75 space that is a quarter mile away. We will have exchanged an additional six-minute walk for a $75 cash savings monthly. If we value our time at less than $17 an hour, this is a rational decision. Or, say we take a 15-minute detour twice daily to avoid a $3 each-way toll bridge fare. This is also rational if we value our time at less than $12 an hour.
There are innumberable studies of the subject. Some of the more valuable are:
Arnott, Richard and Kenneth Small. The Economics of Traffic Congestion. American Scientist 82 No. 5. September-October 1994. pp. 446-455.
Nelson, James R. The Value of Travel Time in Chase, Samuel B., Jr. Problems in Public Expenditure Analysis. The Brookings Institution. 1966. pp. 78-126. KW:
Moses, Leon N. and Harold F. Williamson, Jr. Value of Time, Choice of Mode, and the Subsidy Issue in Urban Transportation. Journal of Political Economy Vol. LXXI, No. 3. June 1963. pp. 247-64.
(2) For rail speeds see:
Pushkarev, Boris S. and Jeffrey M. Zupan. Public Transportation & Land Use Policy. Indiana University Press. 1977. A wide range of very useful transit data particularly concerning the relationship of various urban densities on transit use.
Pushkarev, Boris S. with Jeffrey M. Zupan and Robert S. Cumella. Urban Rail in America. An Exploration of Criteria for Fixed-Guideway Transit. Indiana Press. 1982.
Pickrell, Don H. Urban Rail Transit Projects: Forecast Versus Actual Ridership and Costs. U.S. Dept. of Transportation. October 1990.
(4) An automobile that gets 20 mpg, wears out a set of tires in 40,000 miles and incurs the usual maintenance costs will only cost the driver an additional 13 cents per mile, or $62 monthly for an 11-mile commute. Doubling the price of gasoline would only add 84¢ and not change the automobile’s advantage.
(5) Journey-To-Work Trends in the United States and its Major Metropolitan Areas, 1960-1990. U.S. Dept. of Transportation. #FHWA-PL-94-012 HPM-40/1-94(10M)P. Final Report. 1993. Section P-58.
(6) Ibid. Section P-56.
(7) Ibid. Section P-34.
(8) The idea that traffic congestion is "intolerable" recalls Yogi Berra’s remark about Coney Island that, "It’s so crowded no one goes there anymore." Today’s traffic congestion is tolerable—not pleasant—but tolerable, otherwise people would not commute that way. They would buy smaller houses in town for the same money, move to the Mainland, change jobs, or change hours. Those commuters who enter the traffic mess at the worst possible time are telling us something; to commute by car even at this time is still preferable to any of the alternatives.
Why we commute by auto
Those who promote public transit have long denounced America's "irrational love affair with the automobile" as the reason so few commuters use the nation’s new rail transit systems.
This is nonsense. Commuters make rational, if intuitive, choices. Where rail proponents err is in simply failing to take into account the key factors that, taken together, result in our rationally choosing to commute by automobile. They are:
We value our time. And we value it at about the same rate as we get paid at our jobs. Our value of it also varies according to how much we individually dislike different aspects of commuting such as walking, waiting or driving. For example, most people value the time spent waiting for a bus twice as costly as actually riding in the bus.(1)
Rapid transit is not rapid. Rail transit may reach speeds of 55 mph but top speeds are irrelevant; only average speed matters. Rail transit typically averages no more than 22 mph because trains have to stop and start at closely spaced stations.(2) And note that the U.S. Dept of Transportation considers freeway speeds of less than 32 mph as "extremely congested." (3)
Auto travel is cheap. Most automobile owners decide whether to commute by auto or public transportation without any thought of giving up their auto. They consider only the additional costs of driving to work. These are the costs over and above ownership costs—such as car payments and insurance—that they will incur anyway. These additional costs—gas, tire wear and maintenance—average only 13¢ per mile, or $62 a month for an 11-mile commute. (4)
We prefer door to door commutes. Walking to our local bus stop, waiting for the bus, walking from the bus stop to the train station and then getting up to the train, waiting for the train, and walking from the train station to the workplace are time consuming and, for most people, unpleasant.
Our cars are secure. It is difficult to get mugged in your car. All else being equal, we are going to prefer our cars because we have the security and comfort of them. We have the choice of radio or CD’s, we can have our breakfast and/or coffee handy and we do not have to risk sitting next to unpleasant people. For some, it can be a rare time of peace and quiet.
When we take all of these factors into account we see why rail transit has turned out to be largely irrelevant. For example, in Portland, only a miniscule one in 700 commuters (you read it right) uses the highly touted MAX rail line to commute.(5) In Sacramento, only one in 400 commuters use rail. (6) And these are better than San Diego where only one in 2,500 commuters uses their light rail to commute.(7) (The U.S. government data sources are on my website).
And this after spending tens of billions of dollars to build and maintain these systems.
We have to face the fact that despite all the "visioning," planners’ wishful thinking and the fancy high-blown rhetoric, rail transit is, in Thomas Huxley’s fine phrase, "A beautiful theory, killed by a nasty, ugly little fact." And that ugly fact is simply that commuters do not use it.(8)