Public transit: is it worth the time & money?
I’m writing this post on my way to work. With 25 miles between my bed and my office, I don’t have the frugal options of walking to work or riding a bike. If I drive and the highway conditions are good, my commute is roughly an hour per day, which is twice as long as the average American’s time on the road. Many days the highway conditions aren’t that great: accidents happen, the weather changes, and of course sporting events and concerts bring a mob of drivers to slow down traffic.
Since I love where I live and I’m happy where I work, my commute is just a part of life. Instead of spending that time behind the wheel, though, I’ve been spending the past three years riding the bus and taking light rail. There are so many perks to using public transportation, though it isn’t for everyone. Where you live, whether you have a car, how flexible your schedule is, and your region’s fare structure will ultimately determine whether it is a viable option for you.
To help decide whether it’s worth your time, money, and effort, I’ve put together a list of Pros and Cons that I’ve noticed while riding with the crowds:
- No stress from road rage. No more worries about people tailgating you to speed up, people cutting you off, or dealing with angry drivers who are running late. It wasn’t until I had been taking the bus for a few weeks and then drove to work again that I realized how tense I am while driving in traffic. Stress makes us sick and being sick costs us money. I can’t put a dollar amount on this, but I’m sure being relaxed on my commute has saved me money in medical bills.
- Safety. Some people argue that they need an SUV because it’s safer to be in a bigger vehicle. Well my bus is much bigger than your SUV! It’s probably inspected more often and has better traction in rain and snow too. One of my friends had two accidents this winter while driving to work and sliding on icy roads. That probably cost him a few hundred dollars to fix and his insurance has likely increased. When you take the bus or train, you’re letting someone else worry about winter tires, bad weather, and the like.
- Time to yourself. Without having to pay attention to the road, there are so many things you can do with your time, especially when it comes to personal finance. A good part of my financial rebound occurred while riding the bus – that’s when I read Your Money or Your Life, figured out a budget that works for me, checked out finance blogs like Queercents and The Simple Dollar, listened to podcasts, and brainstormed different ways to cut expenses and reduce my debt. If you have a laptop, you can even make money while traveling. You can do offline tasks like writing or, with wireless broadband, you can check your e-mail, do research, and work on collaborative projects. I installed a bunch of music software on my laptop so I can continue working on new songs and remixes during my commute. So even though your travel time does increase, it can be spent much more productively.
- Traffic. This is where buses and trains are very different. When traffic gets bad, everyone on the highway is delayed. It’s much less stressful to be riding a bus than driving a car in traffic. If you’re on the train, chances are you won’t be delayed at all. In a major snow storm a few years ago, my bus ride home took 9 hours (many drivers gave up and abandoned their cars on the highway). Jonathan (my husband) took the train as usual and was home in 30 minutes.
- Lower auto insurance and maintenance. If you have a car, you can lower your auto insurance since it’s no longer a commuter vehicle. Jonathan actually sold his last year and we get along fine with just one. The wear & tear on it is also reduced, making it last longer.
- Fresh air and exercise. Taking the bus & train gives me at least 30 minutes a day of walking outside. I love it. If I don’t feel like taking the train, I can walk another 15-20 minutes. That walking really helps bring up my energy. It’s a nice little boost and another health benefit. If I want to be productive during that time, I can listen to podcasts or continue brainstorming ideas.
- Student, senior, and employer benefits. If you’re a student or senior citizen, your fares are discounted. If you’re taking college courses, your student ID card may act as a free pass during the semester (I’m currently taking advantage of this). Also, many companies see the benefits of public transportation and either provide free passes or allow pre-tax purchases of passes as an employee incentive. Maybe the only thing between you and a free commute is a talk with your employer!
- No need to park. One of my friends used to pay $20 a day just to park because his company didn’t offer free parking for its employees. Depending how far away you live, you could save at least half of those costs. Same goes for airport parking. Some airports charge you $12-18 per day to park there. If you’ll be gone for a week, try leaving your car at home.
- Go to major events (and drink). If you’re going to a major event that draws a few thousand people, there’s often a special shuttle that will drop you off at the venue. This saves you the hassle of getting there, parking, getting out, and you can even have a few drinks and not worry about it.
- Rejuvenate. When I’m juggling work, music, school, finances, chores, and all that… I get very sleep-deprived. Taking the bus helps me juggle some of those things, but it can also be my time to relax and recover. Whether I fall asleep for a few minutes at a time or listen to a guided meditation on my iPod, the world is probably a better place without me behind the wheel.
- Environmental benefits. This one is obvious: you’ve reduced your carbon footprint. Good job!
- More time spent overall. Unless you’re flying past heavy traffic on a commuter train, you’ll most likely be spending more time in transit than you would be driving. For me, it means three hours a day instead of one, and my alarm goes off earlier in the morning.
- Exposure to weather. Depending where you live, you’ll need some more rugged outerwear to handle the elements. I always keep a compact umbrella in my work bag and I make use of my ski mask and long underwear on cold winter days. It’s also good to keep a set of tissues handy when the wind makes your eyes water and your nose run.
- Less flexibility. The transit system here in Denver has a Call-n-Ride bus that allows you to call an hour ahead for custom pick-ups and drop-offs in certain areas. Other than that, you’re limited to the standard stops and you’re on foot or bike to finish your trip. You’re also limited to their schedules, which are different on the weekends versus during the week, and you may have to wait a while to transfer from one route to another.
- Limited access to the suburbs. The meandering roads, cul-de-sacs, and gated communities of the suburbs are designed to have less traffic and more privacy. If you’re lucky enough to have a bus stop near the entrance of your community, you might have to walk a while to get there and the bus probably doesn’t show up very often. You’d be better off driving to a Park-n-Ride near a major highway and riding from there.
- Cost. Last year when gas was $4 a gallon, many people were switching to public transit. Fares increased in 2009 to cover the expensive ’08 prices, but now gas is much cheaper. If the cost of gas is your only concern and you won’t appreciate the other perks, then transit probably isn’t for you.
- Car payments. If you have a relatively new car with large monthly payments, riding the bus will be an added expense. Take the time to figure out what the savings would be and then weigh your options.
- Annoying people. In the past three years, I’ve only had a handful of days when people were loud and disrespectful to the point that it irritated me. All the same, you are out in public and you will find people that rub you the wrong way. For the most part, though, people keep to themselves.
- Transporting packages. My 30 minutes of walking can become an intense workout if I’m carrying a 50 lb. package. Consider buying a collapsible shopping cart or finding a different way to transport your heavier items.
- No bathrooms. Major transit hubs have restrooms but that’s about it, so be careful how much coffee or water you drink before boarding!
- No morning workouts. Taking the bus requires leaving home at 6:30 am to get to work by 8. There is no way I will get up any earlier to hit the gym. I’m fine going after work, though.
That’s about all I can think of – feel free to add other Pros and Cons to the comments section. Do you take public transit? Have you tried? What was your experience?
In addition to writing about finance, James Roy also likes to work on his fun music career while riding public transit.
Photo credit: stock.xchng