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The Opportunity Costs of Personal Transit

The Opportunity Costs of Personal Transit

It can be extremely hard to get around for some people relying on public transportation. Some cities have fantastic systems that almost never fail; buses that are always on time and subway trains that never hold at stations. Sadly, this is not always the case and most families that either live or work outside of a main city (or its metro area) will often choose to drive, rather than wait for a bus that may not run frequently and make a few more bus connections along the way to get to their final destination. In regards to rail transportation (which is most often faster than a bus network), the US has one of the lowest high-speed rail (HSR) to population ratios of a developed nation, with .1km of HSR per million persons and only 28 HSR lines that are either under construction or in service (Luk). These issues that are embedded into our transit infrastructure are no coincidence. Americans are obsessed with cars, stemming from the idea of freedom for all. This personal transit obsession is what has led to the degradation of our bus and train systems (whereas trains and streetcars used to rule the roost), but it has one inherent flaw making those who drive less productive.

Picture for a minute, the modern day parent; trying to juggle their career, family, and social life. The image that comes to mind is probably one of a stressed out individual in their 30s, stuck in gridlock traffic drinking and coffee. Now imagine that same parent taking the subway, streetcar, bus, or ferry to work. Both images are probably seen as stressful, with commuting just being a hassle in general. Public transportation infrastructure depends on the city, with older cities being less organized, but that does not change the fact that trains and busses have rush hours, too, and some municipalities do not have the resources on standby to accommodate these rushes.

Every person in every city should have the same level of access to transportation, that is basic equality. That is not to say that rural Kansas should start their own New York MTA-style transit system, but it should be relatively just as easy (in terms of costs relative to personal income and time alloted to waiting and travel time itself) for someone to get downtown in one city or state as it is for someone else halfway across the country. The inequality we have with our current system is not only related to ability to go anywhere easily, but what somebody is giving up to get there, known as their opportunity cost.

Economists measure what an individual sacrifices for a specific endeavor, or the next best alternative to a given choice, as an "opportunity cost". When considering the option to drive instead of taking public transportation, a person must consider the opportunity costs she may face. When driving, this person will spend their commute staring out of a windshield thinking about all of the things she might have to face later on in the day. However, if she opted to ride on a bus or subway train to work, she could spend that time studying, making dinner plans, catching up on emails or reviewing a presentation for the day, etc. In this scenario, assuming the costs of the trips are equal, the opportunity cost of the woman driving herself to work is the time and benefits she misses by not being able to study and plan ahead like the mother riding a bus or a train. And opportunity cost is not always purely economic. If driving costs more than taking the bus, the opportunity cost of driving takes into account the extra money spent on gas or parking that could have been spent on that babysitter, the ingredients for dinner that night, or tuition.

One activity that is a beneficial use of extra time is meditation. The Harvard Business School and INSEAD (a top European business institution) have found meditation to be one of the most effective business tools today. Meditation and mindfulness are proven to increase work productivity, and decrease illness and time needed off work (Mueller). Together, these benefits can increase the likelihood of a promotion, a pay raise, or even just peace of mind at home by not needing to worry about work. These benefits derived from the opportunity to meditate during a commute on public transit rather than in one’s own car is a great example of an opportunity cost incurred while sitting in traffic. Meditation is not an easy skill to nail down, and being on a bumpy, noisy, crowded bus can make concentrating even more difficult. But meditation is not about blocking out the surrounding world, it’s about noticing it more carefully. Maybe one day our fictitious commuter focuses only on road signs she sees, or the feeling of the road or rails beneath her. Maybe she wears headphones to drown out her surroundings and focuses on her breaths. No matter how she chooses to meditate, the act of focusing on a feeling or sense and analyzing it deeply for just five minutes a day can help our commuter immensely in all aspects of her life.

According to a 2011 paper, it was found that driving commuting by oneself is most commonly high in monetary costs while relatively low in time used (which can then be related to lower opportunity cost.) Meanwhile, the same paper mentions using public transportation (either by walking or driving to a station) is more costly in terms of time spent commuting due to transfers and frequent stopping, but often less costly in a monetary sense since the cost of the fare is less expensive than paying for gas and wear-and-tear per mile travelled. Car-pooling was noted as having slightly longer time consumed than driving alone due to time meeting up, but still faster and less expensive than public transportation. However, the authors note that the benefits obtained by each mode varies per person based on individual tastes and preferences (Deloach & Tiemann).

Of course, the 2011 paper by Deloach and Tiemann looks at the aggregate - how trends in the entire United States average out. Each city, commute, and even day is different. For example, someone traversing from one side to the other of Chicago or New York will be better off in the subway than a commuter opting to take a rural bus route across town to decrease their carbon footprint. These individual discrepancies are what makes it impossible to create a blanket statement regarding costs and benefits without providing individuals with the tools necessary to do the calculations on their own.

Essentially, taking public transportation is an opportunity to reclaim your commute and use that time efficiently. Although taking the bus, train, or subway might be more expensive depending on your commute (although it often is less expensive), the ways that you use your commute may end up earning you more money in the long run, whether it is by reducing overall monetary costs of commuting, or by decreasing opportunity costs by being more productive.

Works Cited

Deloach, S. B., & Tiemann, T. K. (2012). Not driving alone? american commuting in the twenty-first century. Transportation, 39(3), 521-537. doi:http://dx.doi.org/10.1007/s11116-011-9374-5

Luk, G. (Mar. 11, 2017). Why doesn’t the United States have high-speed bullet trains like Europe and Asia? Retrieved from: https://www.forbes.com/sites/quora/2017/03/11/why-doesnt-the-united-states-have-high-speed-bullet-trains-like-europe-and-asia/

Mueller, E. 5 ways meditation can benefit business. Retrieved from: https://chopra.com/articles/5-ways-meditation-can-benefit-businesses

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