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Wasted Time on Transit? Think Again

July 12, 2010 By Conrad deFiebre, Transportation Fellow
For years, transportation improvement advocates (I'm one of 'em) have pointed to the heavy costs of traffic congestion on commuters and businesses. As calculated by authorities such as the Texas Transportation Institute, the economic drains come mainly in wasted fuel and time stuck in backups.

In the Twin Cities, TTI estimated that wasted time, fuel and business inefficiencies cost more than $1 billion a year. From 1982 to 2005 congestion rose from 6 hours of delay per rush-hour commuter to 43 hours.

Now Steven Polzin, a mobility expert at the University of South Florida, has applied a similar time-is-money test to travel by transit, arguing that slow overall speeds of buses and trains rob U.S. riders of $44 billion a year. That's more than two-thirds the annual time cost of road congestion for many millions more drivers nationwide, as derived by TTI. 

This got me thinking about the conceptual underpinnings of that sort of analysis, which is based on the difference between automobile travel times in free-flowing traffic on one hand and in congested conditions on the other, or, in Polzin's case, average speeds on roadways compared with those on transit. It gets pretty complicated, but a few numbers should make the picture clearer:

  • 12.2 miles per hour. That's the average door-to-door speed of transit travel, according to the 2009 National Household Travel Survey quoted by Polzin.
  • 33 miles per hour. Again per Polzin, the average roadway speed reported by the National Household Travel Survey.
  • 56 billion passenger miles. Annual transit travel in the 439 biggest U.S. urban areas, according to TTI.
  • $15.47 per hour. TTI's rate for determining personal costs of traffic delays, also used by Polzin to calculate a cost of nearly 3 billion annual person-hours of travel time on transit that he assumes would be saved by driving.

While one often hears about the 'cost of congestion,' there is virtually no one talking about the 'cost of using slower modes of travel,' " Polzin wrote on Planetizen "Is it fair to talk about the cost of using transit as $44 billion in lost productivity? And what is the time cost of walking and biking versus alternative modes?"

As you might expect on a website devoted to "urban planning, design and development," more than a few Planetizen readers begged to differ. "Lighten up, please," wrote one commenter. "Slowing down is not a 'cost' to society - it is a measurable benefit to life quality." Others saw in Polzin's work rationales for faster yet transportation modes from personal rapid transit to "on-demand personal air travel" between "pocket airports" (shades of George Jetson!).

I'll reject those dreamy perspectives as unrealistically romantic or futuristic. I'll buy into points made by some others: that transit riders can be more productive than drivers, thanks to communications technology that's dangerous to use behind the wheel; that walking and biking provide valuable health benefits not found on the freeway; that the national average speed for driving is faster than on the busy roads in most areas served by transit; that external costs of driving from pollution to crashes to "free" parking nullify its direct relative advantages.

Here's my own view: Polzin's analysis relies on the all-too-common autocentric fallacy that the private car is the measure of all things transportational, and its bogus corollary assumption that the capacity of the pavement network is, or ever can be, infinite. The reality of chronic congestion debunks that idea, but it doesn't keep some conservatives from proposing buying cars for the poor as an alternative to subsidizing public transit - or experts suggesting that transit riders and society as a whole would be better off financially if they all just switched to driving.

In fact, Polzin completely ignores a much more real economic difference between transit and driving than the cost of the time spent on either mode. That's the out-of-pocket cost gap, which you don't need an economics degree or fancy number-crunching to understand.

According to a new study on the website Bundle the average cost of operating a car in Minnesota is $506 a month, ninth highest in the nation. An unlimited monthly pass on Metro Transit goes for $76 or less. The difference pays for nearly 28 hours of "wasted" time on transit, so maybe it's not such a waste after all.

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