Money Saving Monday: the problem with mass transit

By Stew

mass transit

Many people use mass transit to save money. I like mass transit. A couple of years ago, I visited Germany and fell in love with their rail system. Buses, trains, light rail, the subway, the elevated train all make sense as a way to reduce cost and congestion – but not in every circumstance. Make sure that you are actually saving money before making the switch to the bus or train.

Government cost

One of the problems with mass transit in the United States is the cost to our government (us). You might be able to ride the bus to work for only $2.50 a day, but the cost of the ticket does not come close to paying for the bus, bus driver, maintenance, bus stop and road wear. That money comes from taxes and you are taxed for that bus whether you use it or not. If you aren’t taxed for that bus, your employer is being taxed for it.

Many municipalities and states have put in light rail in an effort to curb congestion, but often spend far more in debt and upkeep costs than riders save. I love to ride the Chicago area Metra and Elevated Train, but I always remember that I do so at the expense of the Chicago area tax payer. Amtrak, the federally subsidized railway that serves most of the United States can be a fun and relaxing way to travel, but from a fiscal point of view, every ticket sold is subsidized an average of $100. A New York to Los Angeles ticket comes with a $1,000 taxpayer subsidy.


Mass transit has been a success in Europe, as I mentioned. It has also been a relatively good success in the United States – as long as the area is heavily populated. New York, Chicago, Los Angeles are all cities with a dense population. The urban setting allows for enough ridership to support the rail or bus system.

Cities with smaller populations and a  geographic area that is spread out cannot fill rail cars or buses. Not enough people live close enough to the rail stations on one end or work close enough on the other to make riding the rail practical.

Comfort and Convenience

If you have a driveway at home and a place to park at work, driving is just better. There is more freedom to leave when you like and stop to pick up a carton of milk on the way home. Need other reasons to drive? How about comfortable seats, your own radio, temperature controls and a cupholder. Comfort and convenience need to be a part of the equation. Is it worth an extra $2 a day to avoid sitting at a bus stop when it is twenty-below?


In this age of SARS and swine flu (H1N1), you have to think about this. If you are worried about health costs, you might need to include sick days and doctor visits in the cost of your mass transit. Mass transit system might add to the spread of disease and sickness.

Although for some of us, our cars might be just as dirty as the subway or germy as the bus.

You still need a car

If I lived in Germany, I would not need a car – there are multiple trains every hour that go every place you might need to go and those trains make sense because they are always filled. However, you must remember that Germany has 85 million people in a country with 137,858 square miles or roughly half the size of Texas which has a population of 27 million. In Germany, the train put me within a reasonable walking distance of any place that I wanted to go. The same could be said for large urban areas as I mentioned earlier.

Here is the bottom line when calculating the cost of mass transit versus driving your car: if mass transit allows you to divest yourself of a car, in other words, if mass transit in your area can make you “car free”, then it makes a lot of sense to use mass transit. However, if you need a car to get to the train station every day, you might be better off just making the drive. Once you pay for insurance, gas, maintenance and storage, you will probably not save much money or time by riding the bus.

We like to ride the train for fun – we enjoy riding into the city for a day, but that does not mean it is the most frugal way to get to work. – Article by Stew

Photo by williamedia

15 Responses (including trackbacks) to “Money Saving Monday: the problem with mass transit”

  1. Bible Money Matters Says:

    I live in the Minneapolis area, and a hotly contested issue here is the mass transit light rail that we now have here. The entire system is highly subsidized to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars, and I have a hard time seeing how it’s going to be successful. The few times that I’ve used the light rail it hasn’t been very full, and our area is so spread out that if you don’t live on one of the main lines, it makes it pretty pointless. To make it truly useful they’ll have to add 3-4 more lines at least, and that would never be a good fiscal move. I’m sure they’ll do it at some point though.

  2. Mrs. Micah Says:

    However, if you’re already paying taxes for it, then it’s probably more frugal than paying for it + your own gas + car wear & tear + parking. We have a car, but I commute by metro for peace of mind (commuting into downtown DC & back is hard on the nerves), speed (it takes a more straightforward route even if it has its own slowdowns), and to save on parking.

    It’s a mixed blessing, with all the accidents this year it seems even less like a blessing. But if all of us who commuted by metro started coming in by car, there wouldn’t be enough parking in the city and the road congestion would be even worse.

    Parking is a particularly expensive proposition for DC, since we have limited space, lots of workers and tourists, etc. One can end up paying $8-15 for a day’s parking (and that’s if you’re in before 10 or have a pass, otherwise it can be that much for an hour). So I never drive far into the city if I can help it.

  3. Stew Says:

    Pete and Mrs. Micah, you have illustrated the issue perfectly. When we compare the DC are with the Twin Cities area, we have two vastly different metro areas. The Twin cities metro area has about 3 million people, give or take – and there is simply more space. The DC metro area is almost twice as large and the reality is that it is difficult to determine where DC ends and Baltimore begins. DC/Baltimore/Philly traffic is really unbelievable, trains make sense in that area.

    There are other considerations to also take into account – if you have children, if they need rides to school and other activities, etc. The bottom line is that if you have to own a car in the first place, mass transit is not going to save you much money. If you can get by without a car, you will probably save money.

    As far as the “if we are paying taxes, we might as well use it” theory . . . I think that leads to government bankruptcy, corruption, dependency, inflation and depression, but I hope I’m wrong :) We’ll see!

  4. Credit Card Chaser Says:

    The one hidden cost to people that use mass transit is the value of your time that you waste by having to wait, go out of your way, etc.

  5. Matr Says:

    Isn’t the use of a car also subsidized? I mean, keeping alive the big three now and in the decades by building a car centric country and car factory centric cities, keeping alive some wars and doing intelligence work to keep gas prices low, these things go with taxpayers’ money.
    Use a bycicle or a horse, if you don’t want to use subsidized way of transportation! :)
    I cannot see anything evil in the mass transit, at the end it will preserve the place where we live better than a mass of cars with no passengers after the driver.
    And if as christians should love the next one as much as ourselves, thinking the next ones are our children or grandchildren, it might be also good if we try to use the mass transit more, enjoying the ride reading or chatting or writing blog posts along the way :)

  6. Stew Says:

    Whoa! No one said mass transit was evil. :) It is true that most types of travel are subsidized. It’s too bad.

  7. MITBeta @ Don't Feed The Alligators Says:

    It sure would be nice if you had used some examples here instead of just, maybe this would save you, maybe it wouldn’t. There are plenty of examples of saving money using mass transit while simultaneously owning a car.

    Backing up some of your conjecture with facts would have been nice too. Are you actually more likely to get sick riding the train, or are you just speculating?

    This post smells to me like a thinly veiled jab at government spending rather than sound personal finance advice.

  8. Stew Says:

    MITBeta, it is true that I am not a fan of overnment spending, are you? Every situation is different – as illustrated by MM and Peter. My main point is that mass transit is not always cheaper. You have to evaluate your situation using all of the facts. I have certainly taken the train on many occasions and most of the time saved a little money.

  9. Lew321 Says:

    If I may add something here. Here in Iowa City which is not urban territory of course, a one way ride is 75 cents. But we offer a variety of passes to encourage more ridership. A frequent passenger may purchase an all day pass for $1.50. If he’s doing this every day, we offer a 31 day pass for $25.00. If he’s going to college, he can save more money by buying a Semester Pass for $68.00 which runs from late August to the end of December. And if he’s employed by the university, that employer picks up half the monthly cost reducing the employee’s cost to $12.50 per month. And those passes are good for unlimited rides, meaning that he can use the passes to go shopping, go to appointments, etc.

    I am a bus driver. There are some routes that are under-utilized, few riders. But the route I drive is almost always full with every trip, even in the middle of the day. Not just college students, but low income people that can’t afford cars ride my bus. They’re either out looking for work, running errands such as grocery shopping, getting food stamps, post office, etc. Also disabled people, the elderly, young children that cannot drive are on board.

    Oh, the elderly (60 and over) ride for half fare, 35 cents. The pre-registered disabled passengers carry a disability pass that admit’s them for free during “off peak” hours, meaning outside rush hour which is early morning and late afternoon. But, on my route, that’s almost meaningless. I can’t tell where one ends and the next begins when you drive full trips all day.

  10. Zella Says:

    My company will charge me for parking, or give me a bus pass + monthly bonus for riding… therefore, I ride. Well, hating driving helps tip the balance too :)

  11. Mrs. Micah Says:

    @CreditCardChaser, but you have to factor in that you wouldn’t get much done in the car. (Unless you’re a dangerous driver who puts others at risk, or in a carpool that lets you get things done.) On mass transit, you can use a laptop or read or craft or talk with friends and fellow passengers. Half the commuters seem to be reading something. For some, it’s productive time. For others, like me, it’s time spent relaxing and enjoying things that I spend my free time on anyway.

    It’s actually faster for me to metro, but even if it weren’t I’d consider the time I spend in the metro as time well spent, vs. time spent in traffic.

    So you have to consider the quality of the time you spend. I wouldn’t take a 35 minute bus-ride to my old job 10 driving minutes away because tripling the time wasn’t worth the better quality. However, sometimes a little more time is worth a lot less driving stress (again, I live in a horrible horrible area for driving) and a chance to put that time to use. That way I arrive at work without already having been put through the wringer.

    @Stew, do you use taxpayer-funded roads? Or the USPS with its cheaper postage than UPS or FedEx? Not everything the government funds is necessarily a bad idea…though metro certainly has its problems.

  12. Kayla Sonergoran Says:

    Its a myth to say you won’t get much done in a car vs. a bus or train. It is true that while driving I could not read a book or play a game on my iPod. But if driving saves me time, then who needs to? If PT takes an hour but my car can get me home in 15 minutes, I think I’d rather take 15 minutes of having to focus on the road over an hour of playing with my iPod on the bus.

    Only people who mismanage their time need a bus to find the time to read a book. I can get home by car while you are still on the bus and do stuff I truly want to do as opposed to things that just kill time.