Transit 101: Is It Cheaper to Take Public Transit Or Drive a Car?

Cars and trains cross the Williamsburg Bridge
Cars and trains cross the Williamsburg Bridge. (Siegfried Layda/Getty Images)

As much as some hate to admit, driving a car has certain advantages over taking transit, most notably the ability to (usually) get to your destination faster. However, one oft-repeated falsehood about transit is that it is expensive. Left unsaid, but often inferred, is the idea that driving a car will end up being cheaper than taking transit.

The above sentence is completely wrong.  It is even more wrong if you drive so much the car industry thinks you need two cars.

If there is one thing that can be imparted to the readers of this site who are not affiliated with the transit industry, let it be that the low cost of transit is the primary benefit of taking transit, and when accompanied with the absence of automobile ownership, is allowing many people to live in better housing, eat better food, and even take vacations that would not be possible if they owned a car.

The Cost of Taking Transit

It is true that, in some cases, taking transit could be viewed as expensive. For example, a weekly pass on Metro North Railway from Ansonia, CT to Grand Central Station is $125. However, this situation is quite unusual—Ansonia, CT to Grand Central Station is 144 miles round-trip, which makes it more like an intercity trip than a normal transit one. Certainly, Amtrak does not offer a convenient monthly pass for trips between places like Los Angeles and San Diego.

More transit-like is a 30-day pass good on all New York City Subway and Bus Routes for $121, or $1452 per year (yes, I know that by going from a monthly pass to a 30-day pass New York MTA, like other transit agencies who have done the same thing, have made the pass a worse value).

New York MTA has one of the most expensive monthly passes in the nation; in contrast, it only costs $100 for a 30-day pass or $1200 per year on Los Angeles Metro.

In sum, if you are an adult, then it will likely cost you around $1000 per year to ride on transit, about the same as you would probably pay for a smart phone or cable.

The cost will be a little more in places with excellent transit systems and horrible driving conditions, such as New York, and it will be a little less in places with poor transit systems and excellent driving conditions, such as Indianapolis ($60 for a 31-day pass or $706 per year).

The Cost of Driving

How much does it cost to drive a car? I know that you scoff at AAA reports that driving a car costs $11,000 per year, a figure that includes depreciation of a new car. As a savvy consumer, you purchase instead a used car which will have lower depreciation, or even drive a ten-year-old car that has depreciated as much as it ever will. Because it is unnecessary to my argument, we will exclude depreciation and the replacement cost of purchasing a new car from calculations.

  • Gasoline – If you drive 12,000 miles per year in a car that gets twenty-six miles per gallon and you pay $3.50 for a gallon of gas, you will spend $1615 per year on gasoline. Alone, the cost of gasoline exceeds the annual cost of purchasing a transit pass.
  • Insurance – Even if you drive a clunker and, therefore, do not need collision or comprehensive insurance, you are still going to spend at least $700 a year on insurance with an excellent driving record, because you will not be foolish to risk bankruptcy due to hospital or property damage costs and therefore maintain a $100,000/$300,000 hospital limit and a $50,000 property damage limit.
  • Maintenance – You are knowledgeable enough to realize that a car does not need to have its oil changed every 3,000 miles, so you will change it every 4,000 miles or 3 times per year. Suppose those oil changes cost you $75 per year. But there is more—every 30,000 miles your car needs a major maintenance that will cost about $500 and every 60,000 miles, in addition to the major maintenance, your car will need new brakes and tires, which will cost another $1,000. As a result, you need to add an annualized cost of $200 (for the service every 30,000 miles) and $200 (for the brakes and tires) for a total of at least $475 per year for maintenance. Of course, this assumes that nothing on your car will break—an assumption that becomes more dubious the older the car gets.

Even without adding a cost for unscheduled maintenance or depreciation, you come up with an annual cost of owning a car of $2790, which is $1427 more than you would pay for unlimited transit rides in the city of New York and $2084 more than you would pay in Indianapolis.

Would it not be nice to have that extra money in your pocket?

Impact on Low-Income People

We are by no means implying that even $706 per year is a small amount of money to pay for the many people in poverty. In fact, one of the worst aspects of the monthly pass is that the low-income people that would most benefit by purchasing it cannot come up with the $60+ more to purchase it. The advent of smart fare cards will help to fix this situation by allowing for capped fare deductions (i.e. money is only taken off the card to the tune of $5 per day, $20 per week, $60 per month, etc.). However, imagine if $706 per year is expensive, then how much more expensive will keeping even the junkiest used car cost?

Overall

Clearly, it is beyond question that owning an automobile is far more expensive than taking transit, and that people who find transit to be expensive probably do not know that much about either transit or how much it costs them to drive. Let this article finally put this argument to rest.