Household Deficit Reduction: Transit Saves People Almost $10K a Year

With gas prices at their highest level since October 2008, the American Public Transportation Association’s monthly Transit Savings Report estimates that transit riders save, on average, $9,656 a year.

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Of course, not everyone has equal access to these massive savings. According to APTA’s numbers, which are based on gas prices ($3.08 per gallon last week) and the national unreserved monthly parking rate, big city residents save the most by giving up their wheels. But what about residents of transit-poor areas? For them, car dependency is like a mandate to spend $805 more per month – the equivalent of a second rent check. With no other way to get around, how are they to access the savings available to transit riders?

With the House of Representatives seemingly prepared to skimp on transportation budgets and reorient spending toward highways, it may soon get tougher to extend the savings provided by transit to more Americans.

According to APTA’s figures, New Yorkers see the biggest savings from riding transit, topping out at $14,159 a year. San Francisco is number three, saving $12,738 by taking the train. Washington, DC is way down at number 14, but we Washingtonians still save $9,709 a year riding transit. (These numbers assume that big city residents drive the same number of miles as anyone else, which they almost never do, so the real-life savings may not be quite as high as APTA indicates.)

Still, the huge savings for transit riders almost make those fare hikes a little easier to swallow, don’t they? Even paying more for transit service, riders are saving a bundle. But will Congress make sure these savings are available to more Americans? Or will we hang on to a system that gives a relatively small number of us the option to spend less on transportation?

  • Clutch J

    Choices and opportunities are mutually reinforcing. My willingness to cut back on car ownership and operation by walking more and by using bicycles and transit allows me to spend more on housing. My choice to live in one our region’s more transit- and bike-friendly neighborhoods enables me to cut back on car expenses.

    Our family’s reduction in car-related expenses empowers us to direct more of our money towards wealth-producing investments in housing, education and retirement.

  • garyg

    People living in transit-poor areas are free to use the political process to create more transit, and to move to areas where there is more transit. The fact that there is so little of this activity demonstrates how much people prefer to get around by car, despite its higher costs.

  • Doug

    The counter argument is that transit (in reality, both systems) are subsidized: how much are you saving when you consider the higher state, local, and federal taxes you pay to fund road and transit? It’s disingenuous to say that Congress is cutting aid to transit agencies, without considering that somewhere down the line you may pay less to the federal government for that aid.

  • Doug

    Garyg: The transportation environment is just one part of a decision on where to live. Social ties, property ownership, and job opportunities (specifically, do you have one?) are much bigger parts of that equation, I should think. Furthermore, incurring huge personal cost in the form of moving yourself or spending time and money on advocacy balance the equation to make “preference” for car-dependence quite dubious.

  • garyg

    Yes, of course other factors also influence people’s choices about where to live. People who aren’t willing to move for better transit can use the political process to create better transit where they already live. That doesn’t seem to be happening much, either. Good transit just isn’t a priority for most people. They like their cars.

  • Kenney

    Agree with Doug against garyg’s comment. I would add that people all over the nation ARE using the political process to try and get the types of transportation services they want and need. There is so much I could link to to prove this, but here is a good start: http://www.transportationequity.org/.

    The sad thing is that, while people are, as you said, “free to use the political process to create more transit,” that doesn’t mean elected officials at the local/state/federal level are being particularly responsive. The US Congress in particular is way behind the public’s thinking on these issues. Many in Congress would rather use straw man arguments and the like to create fear around livability issues, in order to perpetuate the types of infrastructure projects that fill their campaign coffers and are easy to brag about, and the type of built environment overall that perpetuates the types of lives (consumerism, etc.) the want people to lead. Long story short, livability = freedom.

  • garyg

    Given all the transit service cuts and the loss of ridership, people who are using the political process to try and sustain or grow the transit system don’t seem to be having much success, do they?

    And I’d like to see your evidence that “the US Congress in particular is way behind the public’s thinking on these issues.” If people wanted a lot more transit, their behavior as consumers and voters would reflect that preference. It doesn’t, because that’s not what they want. Some people want it, but not enough to really matter.

  • J:Lai

    garyg – the counterargument is that transit rich cities and metropolitan areas have the highest property values in the country. Although we can not isolate the impact of transit from the other desirable qualities of these areas, It would not be unreasonable to say that people will pay a premium to live in an area with good transit.

  • garyg

    I’m not sure what argument of mine you’re countering. My argument was that transit has very limited political and popular support. That’s why there’s relatively little of it.

    As for the fact that transit-rich cities tend to have high property values, that’s mainly because such cities tend to be dense. Density increases land prices, because more people are competing for each square foot. Higher land prices means more expensive property.

  • Bob Davis

    I wonder how many people actually think, “if I agitate for better transit service to my neighborhood, and Metro provides it, my neighbors and I can save big bucks by riding the train or bus”. Let’s assume that a neighborhood association gets together and lobbies for a new bus line or more frequent service on an existing line. How many people will give up the 24/7 availability and shorter travel time of their cars, and embrace the (dare I say it?) discipline required to use collective transit? How high does the price of gas have to rise before it overrules the “time is money” appeal of the personal vehicle?

  • thielges

    I have a hunch that most people want a transit mode that can take them to all of the destinations they visit on their weekly travels. Of course that means using an automobile for almost every city in this country. Even if some of their destinations are within reach of transit people will drive instead because they desire the flexibility to combine trips. When you combine trips the chances that all destinations are transit friendly really drops.

    The auto based infrastructure has a distinct advantage in that it can be built out in tiny increments. In addition that build-out can be distributed across multiple parties : property developers and different jurisdictions. The distribution goes all the way to individuals investing in vehicles.

    Compare that to transit. You’ll need a BillyBuck in your pocket to consider just about any rail extension. It takes a decade or more from inception to ribbon cutting. And once the rail extension is done it serves only a handful of stations. And this had to be built by a single agency with a large pot of funds. Never mind that this expensive and time consuming project is highly efficient and can carry far more passengers than what could have been done with automobiles in the same space : it was expensive and took a long time to complete.

    People want instant gratification and a seamless transportation system. Those two factors have given auto based transport system the upper hand every time when hard times press for a tradeoff.

    The only way we’re going to get a comprehensive build-out of a transit system is to recognize that the cards are stacked in favor of the auto. We need to purposely divert resources towards transit for long periods (think decades) to create a system that allows people to reach 90-100% of their destinations without a car. Such resolve and determination requires patience and monumental political will.

  • J:Lai

    If you really want to look at this question, you have to consider the level of transit service in a region as given. The incentive for most residents to agitate politically for more transit is low, despite the benefits of transit, given that the amount of time it takes to build out signficant new transit is often measured in decades.

    Property values generally have a strong positive correlation with transit, which could be interpreted as an expressed preference for transit. The limited number of areas with good transit get bid up and filled up, and everyone else has to settle for the next best option.

    There are numerous other factors that make transit-rich areas desirable, and it is hard to isolate the impact of transit alone.
    However, we do know that things like density are directly related to the type of development in an area, and that the development in turn is heavily influenced by the transportation infrastructure.

    Towns and cities with desirable characteristics tend to grow around transit hubs.

    All I am saying is that the assertion that the evidence would seem to indicate that people in fact do value transit highly, and thus there is demand for more transit. If supply is not growing, I would suggest it has more to do with structural inefficiencies of providing transit, rather than a lack of demand.

  • Chris

    The fact that in 2010 67% of transit tax increase measures were passed also supports the argument that people want more transit. I think people also need to recognize transit where it exists. For example, many people think Los Angeles has “no transit.” However, not even including the rail lines, there are over 2,500 buses in Los Angeles County providing more than 400 million annual rides. Just because you think the bus is “icky” doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist.

  • thielges

    Yes, I agree that there are many motorists who would prefer transit. The problem is that their stance is often “I will switch once transit is convenient”.

    Bringing transit up to the level of convenience currently provided to motorists in most cities will require enormous amounts of capital and decades of effort during which the political winds need to steadily blow in the same direction.

    Auto infrastructure on the other hand is easily implemented in bite sized pieces and the public has grown accustomed to providing their silent subsidy. For example how many people realize that they’re paying for their piece of the system in the form of residential parking ?

  • garyg

    I don’t think you can infer anything about how much people value transit from property prices unless you control for the other variables that affect property prices, at least the major ones. Property prices vary dramatically between different areas within the same transit system. Look at New York.

    Almost all newer development in the U.S. is low density and car oriented. That makes it difficult to serve effectively with transit. For transit to be efficient and even remotely competitive with cars on travel times and convenience, you need much higher densities than are typical in American metropolitan areas.

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