The Real Lesson from The Source’s “Why You Ride” Series: People Have No Idea How Much Their Car is Costing Them

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Abogo says the "average" cost of transportation for this household is a lot higher than the Source's survey respondent

(Note: I’m not using names in this piece because the people filling out The Source’s survey didn’t sign up to be critiqued elsewhere.  If you’re really curious, you can certainly get the names to go with the story.)

Last week, DC Streetsblog ran an excellent story on how people don’t realize how much their car actually costs them in terms of dollars and cents.  I couldn’t help but think of this study as I paged through the The Source’s series on why people do, and don’t, ride transit.   The one thing that stuck out to me was that just like the family in the DC Streetsblog piece, many people have no idea how much they spend on their car every month.

Take the case of a software engineer in Marina del Rey.  He tells the Source that he drives to Hollywood every work day and who knows how often on weekends.  Yet, he estimates that he spends between $50-$100 on transportation every month.  I’m guessing he was just thinking of the cost of gas when he did his calculation.  But, unless his parking, insurance, repairs and the car itself are paid for by someone else; he’s paying far more than $50 for gasoline.

Almost all of the rest of the people who don’t ride transit that answered the Source’s survey guesstimated their personal cost somewhere between $100-$300, which is probably low but at least is reality based.  Only one person estimated that their transportation cost was $500 a month.

Well, maybe not all of them are reality-based.  A freelance photographer from Duarte, who’s family owns four vehicles, estimated his monthly transportation costs at “between $100 and $300” a month.  In truth, the cost of owning four cars plus insurance probably costs his family over a thousand dollars every month, and that’s before any of the cars even leave their parking spaces.

But this is how it often works.  When someone is asked a question that has an answer that would cause said person to have to re-examine a choice; their mind provides an answer that allows them to avoid that conclusion.  Nowhere is that more true than when someone is asked how much money they spend on their car.

For fairness sake, I’m filling out the survey myself, after the jump.  Since I ride transit about once a month since we moved, I’ll take the “Why I don’t ride transit” option.:

How often do you drive and for what purpose?

Once, maybe twice a week

Where are you typically traveling from and going to?

Sammy has a baby class across town.  My legs don’t take him on trips more than five miles, so into the car we go.

How many vehicles do you or your family have?

We have many vehicles.  Most of them are people powered.  One is not.

How long does your commute typically take?

I work from home unless I have a meeting.  However, I do often have to go to a meeting Downtown or somewhere else.  I almost never take a car to those meetings.

Briefly, how would you describe your typical driving experience? Love it, deal with it, or hate it?

There are few things I dislike more.

On average, what do you spend each month on transportation?

$100-$300 (I’m basically taking our family car costs and halving them) plus bike expenses and transit tickets

Do you use any forms of alternative transportation?

There’s some Jane’s Addiction on my riding mix.  (I use mini-speakers, not headphones…)

Why do you drive?

Asked and answered.

Why can’t/don’t you take transit?

I find the timing of buses too frustrating and there’s no rail where I live.  I tell people I would rather take an hour and a half to bike somewhere, and know going in it’s going to take me that long than take a bus and get there in an hour and fifteen minutes 90% of the time and more than that the rest.

Have you tried to use transit before? What was your experience?

Usually, the experience is good.

What could local transit agencies do to encourage you to take transit more often?

Finish the Expo Line.

How do you feel about buses?

I like buses when I have confidence in their schedule.  For example, I’m more likely to hop on the BBB than on a Metro bus.

How do you feel about rail?

I have more confidence in rail’s ability to follow a schedule, so I am much more likely to take transit if rail is a large portion of the trip.

Given limited funds, how would you address L.A.’s transportation issues?

I’m going to take a pass on this one…

  • Carter R

    I sent the guys at the Source a long email about this. I get the impression they’re planning to touch on the subject soon, but we’ll see. It’s so obviously in Metro’s interest to make light of the personal cost of only using one’s car for transpiration.

  • I have a family of four (soon to be five) and we have one family car. We live in Santa Clarita (keep your opinions to yourself because chances are my feelings about living there are far more negative than yours) and I work in Burbank. So here is an honest estimate of my monthly transportation cost:
    Metrolink ticket: $183.50
    Car payment: $330.00
    Insurance: $80.00
    Gasoline: $120.00
    Car cleaning (I have kids): $15.00
    Maintenance: $50.00
    Bikes (at a rate of one new bike every 3 years): $8.00
    Monthly subsidy from my employer for taking transit: -$90.00
    Total: $696.50
    So thats the price of a “car-light” family in suburban hell. Even if we didn’t live in suburban hell, it would probably remain about the same (gas would go down some but bike would go up). I do not drive to work ever, there is no way that someone that drives to work daily has a transportation cost of $100-$300. The simple truth is that it is hard to be objective about ones personal choices.

  • @Damien —
    I am so glad you “filled out” the survey, as I enjoyed reading your response.

    People definitely underestimate the true cost of car ownership.

    My parents sure do. They fulfilled the so-called American dream of leaving the city, owning a suburban tract house, and the ownership of four cars for two people.

    “But what if you or your sister come home one day and need a car?” my dad actually once told me.

    Well, I actually did come back home (from living car-free in DC) and I never reclaimed the car. Instead, I share a vehicle with my sig-o (which we drive seldomly) and reap the perks of my employer’s discounted transit passes, combined with my Xootr Scooter. My sister, on the other hand, continues to live car-free in Philly, probably quite happily, I might add.

    If carsharing were a bit more convenient to us in Santa Monica, I would be inclined not to replace our car when it goes kaput (after 186,000+ unknown miles — odometer stopped working — this is inevitable). As it is, I try to take advantage of the Zipcar fleet in Westwood whenever I can (employer pays for the first 8 hours each month, all in the pursuit of cutting down solo driving trips.)

    @Cory — Reading your comment made me smile. Hope to see you soon!

  • Winston

    I think that the guy who lives in Marina del Rey may be better in his cost estimates than most streetsblog posters give him credit for. If you live in Marina del Rey, owning a car is pretty much part of the cost of admission. Regardless of how you commute, you will pay for insurance, the time based portions of depreciation and maintenance and so on. For him, the relevant part of the cost of commuting by car is the marginal cost of his commute. Assuming he drives a reasonable efficient car, for a 25 mile round trip, we’re looking at $0.10/mile for gas, $0.06/mile for depreciation and $0.06/mile for maintenance. This comes out to $5.50 for a round trip or about $110/month.

    The key here is that once you have made the decision to own a car, it makes sense to get as much benefit out of it as you can by forgoing the expense of a transit pas and avoiding the waste of time that comes from taking transit. If you really want people to commute by public transit then the focus needs to be on making the places where people live and shop pedestrian friendly enough that going without a car is not a significant sacrifice. If you don’t do this then transit is competing against the (low) marginal cost of owning a car rather than the full cost of owning a car.

  • KDW

    Interesting point, but as one of the “Why I Don’t Ride” responders, I actually did the math before completing the survey.

    I used actual costs where I had them (gas, insurance, registration) and online cost estimates for wear & tear, and then rounded up. My answer – between $100 and $300. My actual costs – $187.

    Even if I commuted to work & back on transit I’d still need a car, so except for gas and wear & tear, the costs remain the same. It would still cost me more per month to take public transportation (which is to say, I agree with Winston).

  • I find it slightly amusing but mostly annoying that they assume that if you’re not taking transit, you must be driving. I don’t fit into their boxes.

  • One person wrote that they spent less than $50 a month on transportation but owned two cars and had a 45 minute car commute. Folks are completely and utterly delusional about the costs of car ownership.

  • wanderer

    The fact that in many places the car is seen as part of “the price of admission” is part of the point. It feels like a sunk cost. But the survey didn’t ask what do you spend on your commute, it asked, perhaps a bit ambiguously, what do you spend on transportation.

    I don’t necessarily think people are necessarily consciously minimizing their car costs. It’s just that a lot of people don’t think about insurance, repair, and other non-immediate costs unless they stop and go through it. Repairs expecially are a sporadic cost and, if one has a newer car, one can delude oneself that they’re not a recurring cost!

    I don’t agree that it’s logical never to use transit if you own a car. If you drive it less, you have less wear and tear on it. You can repair it less often and/or keep it longer. A Never Use Transit policy also doesn’t deal with the cost of parking in many (should be more) places. But I do agree that the biggest bang for the urban buck will be in places where people can at least go car-light (less than one car per adult) or even car-free.

  • I don’t necessarily think people are necessarily consciously minimizing their car costs. It’s just that a lot of people don’t think about insurance, repair, and other non-immediate costs unless they stop and go through it. Repairs expecially are a sporadic cost and, if one has a newer car, one can delude oneself that they’re not a recurring cost!
    ———–
    That was exactly the point I’m trying to make. Most people think of the cost of driving as the cost of gas. Even the folks that took the time to do the math missed a point…the car itself actually cost something…

  • Eric B

    Winston hit the nail on the head: once you own a car, most of the costs are sunk. The marginal cost of car use, once you already own it, is relatively minor and in some cases really not more than transit. The minute you put a second body in the car, it can become more cost-effective than transit. If I am driving with my girlfriend and parking is free on both ends of the trip, we can drive about 6 miles each way before transit is more cost-effective (assuming $.50 per mile, which is high if you exclude the sunk costs). If the transit trip requires a transfer, than you can double that to 12 miles each way.

    There are many, many good reasons to take transit, but it has its weaknesses too. Financially, the savings come from not owning a car, not necessarily driving it less. The best way to change this is to deal with the economics of parking. I pretty much will not drive to anywhere I have to pay for parking unless I have a full car. Paying anything for parking pretty much outweighs the cost of transit. I would not choose to own a car if parking was unbundled from my apartment rent and my employer charged for it.

    That said, the ability to use transit on a regular basis means I can have a car that better suits my recreational purposes. Since I never sit in traffic, I can get decent mileage out of my SUV, which I primarily use for weekend trips anyway.

  • An LCI once told me if you factor in the amount of time spent working to support your car habit your average speed in a car is 3mph.

  • Damien,
    Thanks for writing on this topic. I’ve been thinking of doing a study once The Source has enough data points. I think the key finding would be that Source readers’ transportation costs are two standard deviations lower than their neighbors. The obvious conclusion would be that reading The Source lowers one’s transportation costs.

    Either that or people have a really difficult time determining how much they spend on things that aren’t billed monthly (like a mortgage or electricity). Ask someone how much they spend eating out per month and they’ll probably underestimate. It’s more of a social commentary on perceived budgets being lower than actual monthly expenditures – one reason why debt loads are so high.

  • @Sirinya Do you know about LAX Car-Share? They have 2 locations in Santa Monica, one in Ocean Park Neighborhood and one at Civic Center. Unlike Zip-Car they are slowly going after markets outside of the big universities.

  • We’re using a “free” car a relative let us have when he left the country. So far it’s cost us several thousand dollars in service and even more in fuel in the two years we’ve had it.

    My bakfiets, with a $3,000 sticker price, has cost me about $200 in maintenance over the three year span I’ve owned it. I can do 80% of what i can do with a car using it, but it only costs a fraction to purchase and maintain.

    If the streets were better design for something other than car capacity, we’d see a lot more people living in urban Los Angeles make the same transition I did.

  • Matthew

    Yeah, that’s been pissing me off for a while, but they don’t allow comments on the source. I sincerely hope they look at your post and write something on their own blog indicating that people are extremely bad at estimating the actual cost of their commute.

  • Matthew

    BTW, I don’t own a car, and ride a $250 bicycle that I’ve owned for a year and a half. Even if it gets trashed or stolen and I have to replace it in the next half year, that would still be about $20 per month in commuting expenses. I’m not counting the food I eat to power the bike, as I would need to exercise anyway.

  • Spokker

    Why does a car cost so much?

    Because it’s worth it.

    Overuse is a problem, but a household that owns a car and uses it responsibly finds it to be a great benefit, whether or not the city they live in offers good transit. Advocating for good transit, cycling and pedestrian infrastructure doesn’t mean you have to throw out the car. If you’ve don’t drive much, car sharing programs can fill the gap for 2AM trips to the pharmacy or jaunts to a national park.

    Individuals must decide whether or not owning a car is right for them. My household will always own at least one car. My 98 Honda Civic continues to serve me well.

  • Spokker

    The biggest problem with these “real costs of car ownership” stories is that they assume everybody is purchasing a $15,000 car. The woman in the linked story, Rowena, is irresponsible. She could have gotten along with a nice little used Honda Civic.

    In my case, my personal transportation cost is 31 cents per mile at the moment (I record everything). I probably higher because I don’t drive as much as other people do. In any case, I respect it. I understand it. And I pay for it.

  • Since it has not yet been brought up in the conversation I would like to point out the cost of time, particularly how one spends their time. For me the most value I find in public transit is less about money and more about how I spend my time. On transit I talk to other folks in a face to face setting, I sleep, I listen to music, and I read. I have actually finished more books in the last 12 months than I have in the 12 years prior. It is enriching. When I get home I have not spent an hour in traffic white knuckled to my steering wheel. I am stress free and I could care less about traffic congestion. Coming home stress free is priceless. I can enjoy my time at home with my kids without the burdeon of that drive home. When I ride my bike I am energized, not just because I am exercising but because I am truly seeing and smelling the world around me, it is intoxicating. The monetary price of driving has very little to do with my decision to find another way to get there. I actually refuse to drive to work, I won’t do it, it is just not worth the cost ON me.

  • I own a car (a freaking expensive one!) and my wife does too. But I also take transit. The Source has not published my contribution yet ;)

    I get what Damien is trying to get at… but on a whole I’m a little sick of the constant car bashing around here. I certainly don’t feel guilty that I own 2 cars and I sometime drive 7 miles to my office. Just as I don’t feel smug about taking the 2 buses and walking the rest of the way to accomplish the same thing.

  • “The biggest problem with these ‘real costs of car ownership’ stories is that they assume everybody is purchasing a $15,000 car.”
    —–

    You can definitely get a used car for less than that, but then you’re looking at more repairs because the farther down the line a car gets the more it needs to be repaired. It kind of balances out.

    “I’m a little sick of the constant car bashing”
    —–

    I’m glad somebody’s doing it :) It may make some people a bit uncomfortable, but screw it. If it gets people thinking, it’s worth it. There’s a place for making an argument against cars.

  • I don’t consider this car-bashing, or most things I write. I don’t like the way society is structured around cars, but I don’t try to attack people for making the choices that work for them with the way things are now.

    I will argue, and yes poke fun at, arguments that we need to continue expanding our highway system, road system, car-parking system etc… considering how clear it’s getting that that system is horribly broken.

  • Spokker

    Transit advocates have a tendency of doing the same thing auto advocates do.

    Transit advocates will count only the benefits of transit and only the costs of cars. Auto advocates will do the opposite, count the benefits of autos and highlight the costs of transit. I do this too sometimes.

    Even if society has a habit of driving more than they probably should, we cannot discount the immense benefits that personal vehicles have given society, nor should we ignore the immense costs.

    The proliferation of the personal automobile is, like it or not, the most important development of the 20th century. You could argue that the development of the electric power grid was more important, but the car is up there.

  • Spokker

    The bottom line, as I see it, is this.

    The car has poor economics of scale in relation to transit. The more people you put on a train, for example, the lower your average cost gets, from the point of view of the people operating the train. In dense cities, overuse of the car is a big problem and a good transit system is vital to making the city work. In rural areas, the car will dominate and transit will be nonexistent.

    In the suburbs, the car will continue to dominate but long-distance transport can do wonders for the AM/PM commute (commuter rail, express buses, and even rapid buses depending on density). Outside of these periods, transit *can* work, but frequency will diminish. On-time discipline and good schedules that feature reasonable waits for transfers could help improve efficiency.

    To give an example, the OCTA attempts to coordinate its bus schedules with Metrolink schedules, but does not do so for Amtrak schedules.

  • I think another thing you have to figure in is the opportunity cost of taking public transit in Los Angeles. The opportunity cost with taking public transit in Los Angeles is very high.

    When you take public transit in Los Angeles you lose time, social opportunities, and money. You lose out on money because you’re always late, you can’t go to anything that’s on the Westside, SFV, South Bay or South LA which includes Leimert Park, Baldwin Hills, and the View Park area. You can’t go out late, which closes off networking opportunities which can lead to potential money.

    Public transit is very awful unless you live in downtown, Koreatown or Hollywood and even if you live in those locations you’re limited on where you can work and have a decent quality of life.

    Now I’m obviously not a person who is pro-car or anti-transit, quite the contrary I don’t like the car, but I’m a realist. Metro LA which is the system that allegedly gets you everywhere does not work. You actually HAVE to supplement it with a bike to make it even sort of minimally acceptable. And I can’t really (sans the self righteous who demonize drivers and Metro employees) suggest that anyone take LA Metro, because it’s good or even a sort of acceptable option. The only reason you should be carFREE in LA is because you have a higher purpose like not wanting to be part of consumer culture or/and you care about the environment, the planet, whatever you want to call it but for me saying you need to get rid of your car because there is an acceptable option out there, in LA there isn’t one.

    I would never suggest anyone be carFREE to save money, because that’s ridiculous unless you’re a college student.

    If you don’t care about the environment, you probably should get a car, because the cycling facilities are a joke, the bus is joke and the train unless you can get a job and an residence off the Red Line or Gold Line, or you’re some kind of masochist, you need a car in Los Angeles, even a $1,000 expense per month for car ownership in LA is worth it for your peace of mind and pocketbook and anyone who says differently either doesn’t use it, is a student, they don’t have a job or they work for Metro.

    Browne

  • I’m not counting the food I eat to power the bike, as I would need to exercise anyway.

  • Nathanael

    Spokker, I really *do* agree with your analysis about scale, about cars being very suitable for rural areas and not for busy urban areas, trains being most suitable in urban areas, and suburban areas usually needing a mix, but you’re way off about this:

    “The proliferation of the personal automobile is, like it or not, the most important development of the 20th century. You could argue that the development of the electric power grid was more important, but the car is up there.”

    The most important development *bar none* is sewage treatment. Sewage treatment plans are a 20th century development, and their value cannot be overestimated; they frequently signify the difference between a developed country and a third-world country.

    The electric grid is most certainly next. I’ll give you autos for #3.

  • Jeff Jacobberger

    Over the past 10 years, we’ve spent $1 trillion on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, pretty much all of which could be attributed to our dependence on imported oil. If I’ve done my math right, that comes out to about $.03 per mile driven (assuming one’s car gets average MPG). I doubt anyone calculated that amount in their transportation costs. I am not sure what price you put on the thousands of dead soldiers and Marines.

  • Kika

    I completed the “Why I Don’t Ride” survey and indicated my costs to be between $100 to $300 a month. Yes we are a multi car family but “I” was the one filling out the survey, not my other family members. We do not have any car payments; they are all paid for. All the drivers in the family receive a “good driver” discount from our insurance among other discounts. We all work and go to school 6 miles or less from home. None of our vehicles require repairs other than routine maintenance every 6 months or so. So, I CAN say that my monthy costs for the vehicle I drive are between $100 and $300 a month. Not all of us in vehicles have ridiculous car payments, bad driving records that hike insurance fees or have clunkers that are in constant need of repair!

  • Marcotico

    Here is an interesting web tool sent to me by a colleague, developed by the Center for Neighborhood Technology (CNT): abogo.cnt.org.

    They develop interesting web based planning tools to encourage livable environments.

  • Marcotico

    Oop, I meant to mention what the tool does. It calculates average transportation costs based on your address. Like Walkscore it has a page that describes how they arrive at those costs: Abogo – How it Works

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