Why would anyone want to take public transportation if they didn’t have to?


A reader commented over on the discussion of the changes on Division St. in my neighborhood of Portland, OR:

“Why would anyone want to take public transportation if they didn’t have to?”

Now, it’s not possible to tell if this was just meant to be incendiary, but even if so, I feel like it’s a question that’s certainly worth taking seriously.

Because really, why would anyone take public transit if they didn’t have to?

I heart transit

First of all, as many readers know, I’m a huge fan of public transit. I’ve been enamored with public transit ever since I was a teenager taking the train into Philadelphia. My friends and I would hang out on South Street, go for pizza at Lorenzo’s, flip through the records at Noise Pollution, and and other wholesome teenage pursuits.

Later on, when I got older, I would take the commuter rail to and from New York City, both as a way to get in, and later as a way to get out!

In all of these cases, public transit gave me an incredible sense of freedom. I wasn’t a well-off kid, and these trains and buses enabled me to get places that I wouldn’t have otherwise have been able to go.

But the above are examples of going places where I had no other choice. And the question raised was whether I would have done the same if I had had another option.

With this, I present “four C’s” of transit:


According to a Consumer Reports study from 2012, the average car costs the owner between $5,000 and $8,000 per year. This includes insurance, fuel, and maintenance, as well as depreciation. (USA Today put the figure at nearly $10,000.)

Now let’s compare this to transit. If we assume that New York City is the high end for a city pass at $117 per month, that turns into $1,400 per year. But that only includes subway and buses. If we assume that someone is absolutely out of their mind and wants to commute from all the way up in Dutchess County down into Grand Central, then yes that’s going to be $6,000 a year, but the reality is that most people are going to spend much less.

An apples to oranges comparison? I grant that there are some places that transit doesn’t go, which makes the comparison tricky. But even if we add in a monthly car rental / car share charge of $100/month, and throw a $200 transit dart on the board, we’re looking at $3600 a year to live without owning a car.

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As I’ve said before, transit is not expensive. The difference is psychological: with transit, people pay at the point of use, whereas the car seems free, because you can just get in and drive off.

But then you need a “surprise” $400 repair (new brakes, new tires, etc.). And parking costs. I could go on and on.

Cars feel cheaper than transit, due to the added…


At first blush, convenience would seem to be unassailably in the car category. You just walk out to your driveway, get in your car, drive to wherever you’re going, park in the parking lot, and there you go. What could be more convenient?

But there are assumptions made here. That you have a driveway. That the destination has a parking lot. To name just two.

What’s clear is that you can waste a lot of time in the car. A study in the Atlantic noted that the average commuter spends 38 hours a year stuck in traffic. Which actually feels a bit low to me, actually.

On the flip side, there are plenty of examples where transit would take much longer than driving. And all of this says wonders about how we design our places, and what is important to us.

So I will grant that this cuts both ways. In some cases, transit can be much more convenient, mostly when trips to the city center are involved. (All the more reason not to drive downtown.)

I could make the argument about how the places that are least served by transit are the places hardest hit by the hosting bust and the Great Recession. But instead I will continue with…


Currently, my typical commute is a short walk to a bus stop, a 20 minute bus ride, and then a 10 minute walk.

During the time when I’m on the bus, I have a great many options as to what I can do. I can listen to music, I can read a book, I can do work if I’m so inclined, I can contact a friend (via text at least), and I can even take a 20 minute nap. (The last one is what I typically do.)

If I were to do any of the these things while driving where I was going (music listening excepted), how do you think things would turn out for me? Just saying.

When you’re stuck in a car, this is time you never get back. You may enjoy driving (I know I do, on occasion) but you are limited in what else you can do.

This post is getting long enough, but I would be remiss if I didn’t mention…

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Conscience (or maybe Community)

A huge reason to use transit is to avoid a classic “tragedy of the commons“.

Let’s assume that you throw out every single reason above. You love driving, and there’s nothing you’d rather do, and it’s cheaper too. Bear with me.

Unfortunately, your desire to not use public transit doesn’t scale. If everyone drives, our lives would be nothing but traffic. Roads would have to be widened to the point that they would have to mow down half the places that people were going to.

Robert Caro, in his excellent biography of Robert Moses, The Power Broker, noted that in order for the Long Island Expressway to not be immediately at capacity when it was built, it would need to be sixty lanes.

Now, I’m sure that’s a little bit hyperbolic, but still, in people’s quest to drive everywhere, it’s not exactly news that we often destroy what it is that makes a place worth driving to in the first place.

Don’t believe me? Take a look at these excellent and evocative “before and after” aerial shots of some Midwest cities. The “before” is when they were designed for people, and the “after” is when they were redesigned for cars. Look at how much space is altered. And all so we can zip to our destination in comfort and alone.

Kansas City, 1955. Looks like a city to me. (Photo courtesy of University of Oklahoma)
Kansas City, 1955. Looks like a city to me. (Click to enlarge)
Kansas City, 2014. Looks like a high interchange to me.
Kansas City, 2014. Looks like a highway interchange to me. (Click to enlarge)

Ever lament how so much of your world is filled up with strip-malls and fast food? You have driving (and not-using public transit) at least partially to blame.

Make no mistake, there is a price you pay to use a single-occupancy vehicle. A price in space, a price in infrastructure, a price in place-making. And even a psychic price.

I don’t have to take transit. I have enough money to drive and park downtown everyday if I wanted. But I don’t. If more of us were to do the same, the result would be world-changing, and I believe for the better. Seems worth the price of a fare.

But enough about me. Do you take transit when you don’t “have” to?

Also, thanks to all the good comments over on the original post. The post was shared more widely than usual, and I really appreciate it. Please stick around, as it only gets better from here.


  1. A.J. Wilkes

    Good post. And you didn’t mention the subsidies to make automobile infrastructure happen, or the very cost efficient bicycle commuting. I never understood how cars were considered “freedom machines” when you’re literally powering yourself on a bicycle. The ultimate libertarian symbol!

    • Mike @ Unlikely Radical

      Thanks A.J.! I think you’re right on there. I did consider a few more angles (and see the next post for one that got away), but I was leery of making this post so long that no one would read it! Clearly, there are plenty of good reasons, so feel free to list some more!

      • A.J. Wilkes

        You can never go wrong with the sunk cost fallacy or opportunity cost when it comes to loaning a car from the bank. My favorite calculation there is Commute Time + Hours Worked to Pay for Commute Cost.

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