The personal blog of Frank Lesko. Award-winning writer. Non-profit entrepreneur. Activist. Religious professional. Foodie. Musician. All around curious soul and Renaissance man.

See also my professional blog: The Traveling Ecumenist.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Public Transportation Catch-22

I am toying with the idea of getting rid of my car. Thanks to Sarah, who you may have seen commenting on this site from time to time, I have started thinking about doing this. I have some ideas, but there are major obstacles.

The Situation

It is amazing how much I spend to own and maintain a car:

$200/month - Car payment
$200 - Gas
$100 - Insurance, license fees, oil changes

Already that is $500/month, and that does not even count repairs and pesky things like speeding tickets. Right now, repairs are minimal, but they usually start creeping in just as soon as cay payments start winding down.

Conservatively estimated, that's six thousands dollars a year! And this is a much cheaper automobile than what a lot of other folks are driving who have higher car payments and poorer gas mileage.

Growing up in a small town in the Midwest, we consider cars a necessity and rarely give a serious thought to getting rid of them. But this is some serious cash we are talking about. Giving up a car would be like giving myself nearly a 10 grand raise, when you consider the pre-tax money it equates to. It would also cut down on my carbon footprint and may encourage greater physical fitness.

(As a point of comparison for folks who aren't familiar with Ohio cost of living rates, my apartment is only $525/month. So having a vehicle is a virtually equal expense!)

Some Possibilities

Now I live in the city of Columbus, only live 10 miles from work via direct, city roads (slightly longer for freeway). That is a do-able bike ride. It would involve getting up earlier than normal, packing clothes and freshening up at work, but that isn't so bad. The bike is a worthy means of transportation the majority of the time here in Columbus, but there are days of blizzards and downpours. Maintaining a bike can involve some cost--helmet, decent rain gear, repairs. But all that doesn't seem too bad.

I could rent a car when I need to take weekend trips to visit my family in northeast Ohio.

So far, so good.

Now Here's the Downside

I live in the city, in the midst of bus service. I could get a monthly bus pass for $45. The COTA bus service that runs through town estimates my commute to work at approx. 1.5 hours. This is quite a shock. I can drive there in 25 minutes. From what I hear, this is not unusual for folks who take the bus. Even more shocking, the bus lines I would have to take are astonishingly simple--a ride down High St, then another west on Broad St (the two primary roads in the city). This is not a complicated route! It also has buses coming with greater frequency than on some of the other routes.

I realize a bus isn't going to match a personal car. You can get in your car whenever you want, take the roads you want, only stopping when you want to. It would be unreasonable to expect a bus service to match that. So I'm okay with incurring some time lag. But 3 times??

I am environmentally minded. I am fitness minded. I am loving the idea of saving a bundle of money. I am centrally located in a city near bus lines and close to work. And yet even with all of these factors, the thought of spending 2 extra hours each a day in commute or slogging my bike through snow and sleet on a regular basis gives me serious, serious pause. I consider myself one of the more likely candidates for getting rid of a car, yet it would still be hard. If I were to move to the other side of town, then the bus would be essential.

I suppose I could bike regularly and take the bus only in case of extreme weather. We also have the advantage of going half-and-half in Columbus: The bus service will porter you and your bicycle, so I could essentially take the bus for one convenient leg, then bike myself the rest of the way rather than wait to catch the second leg.

If someone who is as fitness and environmentally minded as I am really takes a long pause before considering such a lifestyle change, what hope do we have for a significant chunk of America to adopt these kinds of changes? Even if I take the leap, it is hard to imagine many of my peers following suit. It is not an attractive package.

I have heard about obnoxiously long commutes in New York City and Washington D.C. I always assumed that people just lived further away from their work than I do. Is the public transportation making their commute so long, or is it the distance of travel? How do cities such as Seattle and San Francisco (as well as European ones) encourage public transportation, walking and biking? Columbus is a rather compact, centralized city by Midwestern standards. And yet, these alternative means of transportation are not very user-friendly.

This gives some insight into the massive changes in lifestyle and infrastructure that we are up against. My goal is to promote changes that are actually do-able for a large swath of the population. I don't see how to sell public transportation in Columbus, OH, to people who already have automobiles.

The answer might be a combination of factors: People would live closer to their working and shopping areas, such as a quick one-leg bus ride away. Cities need to be planned with this in mind. You can't expect to live in the suburbs and have a smooth commute. However, it would be difficult for married couples to live in an area that is convenient for both of their places of employment.

The Catch-22

Public transportation needs to flood the market with way more routes than the current demand would ever require. They need to have buses, streetcars and subways running constantly all around town. If that were the case, I could pick up a line anywhere, anytime, and get to where I need in relative economy of time and cost. Then and only then would folks such as myself give a serious thought to using public transportation. The government needs to subsidize the crap out of this.

I may go ahead and make the change, anyway. There are multiple benefits and the overall package isn't so bad. But before these other means of transportation become widespread, something has to be done to make these methods more attractive to more people.


  1. The 10-mile bike ride sounds like a good idea when the weather permits. Having grown up in the Midwest, I know that bicycling in the winter is probably not much of an option, and it can be pretty miserable to bicycle on hot summer days as well. But overall it is healthy and inexpensive compared to other options. I bicycle myself 7 miles when weather permits (mostly I'm a wimp in my old age about bicycling in the rain). I have public transit options that work as an alternative, though.

    You've encountered the big problem that a lot of people face with public transit, and that is the long time it often takes to get places. I had a similar problem with a previous job and just gave up on the idea and drove instead. But if you can make it work, more power to you.

  2. "The government needs to subsidize the crap out of this."

    Amen, brother!

    A contributing factor to my Atlanta car-free life is that I didn't have a car to begin with, so not only was the lack of an auto in line with my environmental/fitness ideals, it was also the path of least resistance at the time. That said, I'm also terrifed of Atlanta traffic, a problem Columbus does not seem to have. Yet another incentive.

    Have you thought of giving your plan a try for a few weeks before you actually get rid of your car?

  3. You've encountered the big problem that a lot of people face with public transit, and that is the long time it often takes to get places.

    So is this the harsh reality of public transportation? I was hoping it was just because we don't have enough lines running in town.

    Have you thought of giving your plan a try for a few weeks before you actually get rid of your car?

    Oh, I suppose! So far, it has been a fascinating exercise just considering it, as I realize how many issues there are to work out before even starting this--where to rent a car, how to get there, figuring out the bus service (which is not a straightforward thing at all), doing some practice runs, getting some bike equipment.

    The whole time I imagine how feasible this is for Joe American, and I just have to shake my head.

  4. I guess I wasn't being clear. I think it is the harsh reality of public transit as it exists in a lot of US metropolitan areas, because there aren't enough lines, as you noted. Also, rapider services than buses, such as light rail or subways, make a huge difference.

    Another question is whether your bus system has bike racks on the front of the buses. This is helpful for bicyclists who might want to only bike part of the distance or who need to bail out for mechanical reasons.

  5. Also, rapider services than buses, such as light rail or subways, make a huge difference.

    I sure hope so. I can't imagine middle America giving up the use of a car and voluntarily adding 10 hours a week to their commute, even with the health, environmental and cost benefits.

  6. Frank,
    Here is the information in Columbus about how COTA plans to expand routes.

    Their website also offers other information regarding how to ride the bus and cost comparisons to driving to work.

    I do think the issues you outlined are real barriers for folks making the choice to forgo the car scenerio.

    I have told you as well that I think that safe travel ways are not plentiful in Columbus. This presents a problem too.

  7. I do worry about safety on the route I'd have to take. It is one thing to take an occassional ride, but another to ride that twice a day, week after week, dark and night, rain and shine.

  8. You've encountered the big problem that a lot of people face with public transit, and that is the long time it often takes to get places.

    The trick is to turn bus time into productive time. My bus to and from UW looks like a freakin' study hall most days. I read a book and a half on the bus just last week. You can't do that while driving. My boss legitimately counts her commute time as part of her work day (her bus has wireless).

    How much time, on average, do you spend writing a blog post? Maybe you could compose a few on the bus. Or if you're brave... strike up a conversation and make some new friends!

  9. But, Frank! If you get rid of your car, where are you going to sing loudly? ;)

  10. The trick is to turn bus time into productive time.

    When I was trying to learn a foreign language, I would listen to language tapes while on public transportation. Now this can be done via MP3 files, of course. Another way of being "productive" is to listen to audio books.

    When I started bicycling to work, I stopped going to the gym. So there was a little bit of a tradeoff there--I was already taking extra time out of my week to exercise. Now I was killing two birds with one stone, exercising and going to work. That being said, I spent more time in my commute than I spent at the gym. :)

  11. Now I was killing two birds with one stone, exercising and going to work.

    I absolutely love double-dipping like that. That's why this whole idea is so attractive to me: Exercise, environmental concern, financial benefits, all from doing something I have to do anyway.

    It reminds me of eating organic foods: Good for your body but also a boost for sustainability.

  12. I'm totally with you all there as far as the exercise and commute in one idea goes. I loved it when I commuted 2-3 days a week to work (when I lived in Colorado). It was also a great way to get the endorphins going so that when I got to work, I was totally energized for the day... and I looked forward to riding home after work too.

    We had showers at that company, though. That was soooo nice. I'd come in, shower, and get right to work feeling fresh. When I commuted by bike to Twinsburg (in Ohio), I had to wash my hair in the sink and wipe off with a wash rag, which was much less satisfying. But I suppose you do what you gotta do.

    It did take a big chunk out of my day to commute to work by bike, though. But in Colorado, each way was 20 miles, which is about the limit to which it is reasonable to commute to work (thus why I only did it 2-3 days a week... woulda done it more if work were closer).

  13. The showering thing can be an issue. I live in a place that rarely gets that hot (San Francisco), so my example may not apply to places where the summers are really muggy, but what I do is wear bike clothes and take my work clothes in panniers, which I hang off a rear rack on my bike. I also take along a stick of deodorant (but you use an alternative to deodorant, right Frank?) I change my clothes in the restroom and apply the deodorant. As far as I can tell, this takes care of any problems. :) When I started doing this, I bicycled in street clothes but I still brought a change of shirt and did the same thing with deodorant. I found I was more comfortable bicycling in bike clothes when I went long distance, so that is why I switched. Also, having a rear rack is better for bike commuting than wearing a backpack. It more comfortable that way and it also eliminates another cause of sweat in the summer.

  14. Frank,
    Getting rid of a car is a big step! I sold mine because I had a car payment and my car was a lemon. My husband sold his old car because it was falling apart and needed costly repairs. If I had a car that was paid off and not a money pit, I probably would have kept it. I was really nervous when I sold my car, and didn't take the bus much until my car was gone. I was lucky, living in Portland, Oregon which has great public transportation, I worked downtown and lived within a few miles of my job. My husband, however worked 10 miles from where we lived, his commute turned into 90 minutes each way, 2 busses and a 15 minute walk. He adjusted pretty well, and I remember him commenting on how much more reading he got done on the bus (he's a big book worm).

    Heidi's advice is good, try being car-free for awhile, while you still have your car. As far as visiting your parents, I find car rentals to be very affordable. Could you take a train or bus? I would also make sure that you can get to most of the things that you want (friends houses, movies, recreational stuff) on the bus or your bike before taking the leap. I love being car-free, but I also am lucky to live in Seattle. I really think now when I'm going out, like if I'm downtown, I'll hit the post office and drug store and any other errands, making the most of my time. I also order a lot of things online, and I have organic produce delivered (no room for a garden in my apartments). We save bunches of money this way. To get by when we need a car we use zipcar, a city car share, and when a good friend goes out of town we drop her off and pick her up from the airport and use her car while she is gone. I take advantage of these times to go to places that take a long time on the bus (dentist) and do big grocery shopping trips. Good luck making your decision, being car free can be very liberating!

  15. As Mystical Seeker points out, there is a valid reason for bike clothes. You think we like looking like that, with those tight clothes showing every fold of our bodies? No!! It's just that they make the biking experience more comfortable... The bike pants are the most important part, though. They pad you and reduce sore butt problems... You can get away with wearing whatever shirt you want so long as you dont mind it taking longer for some materials to dry.

    I just bought a trunk rack and pannier online today because I havent had one and I was thinking of doing the bike commute thing in my new job. And I needed one anyway for some of my bike touring.

  16. Over here in the UK the government has recently set up a 'bike to work' scheme here: which is just about starting to take off now. Two of my colleagues in my last job joined the scheme and biked over 25 miles to work which took them around an hour and a half. The office is way out of the beaten track when it comes to public transport and here in the UK it's not really possible to take your bike on a bus or train anymore. But kudos to them for doing it - as much as I would like to get rid of my car too, I wouldn't have tried that!

    Other European countries have much better integrated transport systems, Holland and Germany being two which stand out. Of course Holland has the added advantage of being pretty flat too.

  17. Runner Bean,

    Wow, a tax-free bike system is way ahead of us here in the USA. European countries are definitely our model when it comes to finding other ways to travel besides automobile. The hard part is that many of our cities here were built with the automobile in mind, so changing all that infrastructure is going to be difficult. But as you pointed out, there are long commutes in Europe, too, so there are ways to make it work. I agree that 25 miles is a bit long for a bike ride, though!