Chart of the Day: Social vs Individual Mode Costs

Here’s a “chart” of sorts, that attempts to compare the individual and social costs of trips using different modes. It’s part of the “cost of commute” calculator in Vancouver, British Columbia. Obviously this is a really complicated thing to do, but at least they’re trying!


Here’s a quote from the engineer who made the calculator:

“Although these costs are easy to overlook, that doesn’t make them any less real,” says George Poulos, a transportation engineer and planner who analyzed the data behind the Cost of Commute Calculator. “Sometimes we pay them upfront, other times indirectly. But, at the end of the day, we still pay them, so we should consider them in our calculus when making big decisions.”

At least they’re honest about the complexity! I’d like to see more externalities included in our decisions.

23 thoughts on “Chart of the Day: Social vs Individual Mode Costs

  1. AL Genaro

    there is a lot of subjective, complex, complicated work behind this… depends heavily on area and takes so much into account and still not enough… I don’t always think “trying” is the best because it leads to misinformation…

    1. Adam MillerAdam Miller

      Precision is difficult, but I don’t think there’s anything difficult to get right about the general direction.

      No matter how you slice it, it’s difficult to see large externalities from walking and biking, and easy to see the those from driving will dwarf those from riding the bus.

    2. Theo

      Trying is definitely worthwhile, and I think the conventional ‘wisdom’ is more a form of misinformation than this simulator could ever be.

      At least in trying to break down and calculate costs and include externalities, we are getting closer to a true understanding of what it costs all of us to be such a car-dependent society. The canards about mass transit and bicycling costing too much and not paying for themselves have nothing to back them up but they are repeatedly tossed into debates because they are assumptions that make some people comfortable.

  2. Doug TrummDoug Trumm

    The status quo depends on misinformation. I doubt location would significantly alter the general pattern this chart illustrates. Whether urban, suburban or rural supporting the single occupancy vehicle lifestyle is an expensive endeavor. In some ways it is complicated. In other ways it’s pretty obvious that building wider roads and more parking spots is extremely costly.

  3. Jillian W

    Improving bike lane infrastructure actually messes this calculation up, though, doesn’t it? Once we’ve got properly segregated bike lanes, they become something society has paid for and pays to maintain specially, just like the roads which are so much of the cost of driving.

    1. Greg

      Horseradish. Bikes place so much less wear & tear on roads than motor vehicles that I’m impressed this guy managed to quantify it.

    2. Novacek

      But bike lanes are cheap.

      Roads are incredibly expensive, and have to keep being rebuilt. Bike lanes don’t get damaged nearly as much (damage to roads is something like the weight of the vehicle to the _fourth_ power).

      Plus, most of that listed cost is the externalities. Bikes, even on separated lanes/paths, don’t have the emissions problems of cars. They don’t have the public health drawbacks (contributing to sedentary lifestyles) and deaths in accidents.

    3. JLinMPLS

      I agree with you, Jillian. Many people may say bikes do not place as much wear and tear, but in MN, we have completely tore up streets to reconfigure them to have bike lanes either go down the side or middle. These strips in the street may not get as much wear and tear, but when they go to resurface or replace the roadway- they are not going to leave a strip undone, it will be the entire area that need resurfacing.

      I’m not saying the bikes are not good – they are awesome. But there is a lot more cost involved for a system where they get their own lane, instead of riding with the flow of traffic. I for one am for the newer way, as I hate driving in the lane with traffic.

      1. Rosa

        wait, where have roads been torn up to reconfigure them for bikes?

        Some of the bike stuff costs money – the little traffic circles on 17th Ave must have – but as far as I know they were all put in when roads were due to be refigured or resurfaced anyway.

        1. JLinMPLS

          Rosa – In googling I could find no definitive list, but it looks like Sheridan, Bryant, and about 5 or 6 other streets were turned into “Bike Avenues.” They put speed bumps, special markers, and signage all the way from about 50th in the south to downtown. (I don’t know north very well, but I’m sure there should be some on that side of town. There are also streets like 1st Ave and a few others downtown that may not have been resurfaced but had major reconfiguration to move lanes, add bike lanes, add physical barriers (some are simple little plastic posts, others are more solid.)

          Again – I think these are great ideas and I tend to utilize them instead of regular streets. But, it is more than just painting stripes on existing roads or something like the greenway which is bike only and should last a lot longer than a shared surface. I’m not saying the cost is a lot, but it does affect the calculations above.

          1. Janne

            I’ve been tracking this for many years, and know a few of these streets specifically, and more superficially.

            Bryant: the speed bumps were (mostly) there before it became a “bike boulevard.” The main thing they did here was to add sharrows and a few signs. A median was added at Franklin, and two curbs were bumped out to make it easier to cross the one-ways at 26th and 28th. No ripping up of the street in this example.

            1st: this happened not to provide bike infrastructure, but rather because the mayor and possibly council member wanted to turn Hennepin and 1st into two-way streets, which meant removing the single most used bike lane in downtown. It was a poorly-implemented appeasement to the then-non-existent bike advocacy community. Again, no pavement or curb work, just some poorly-executed paint and a couple of signs.

            Frankly, the “physical barriers” you refer to are almost entirely non-existent in Minneapolis today. I can’t think of any that aren’t those simple little plastic posts that are essentially screwed into the pavement.

            A few — like the traffic circle Rosa mentions, and a similar example in NE on 5th — have a couple special things like medians, but I can’t think of a single existing example where there’s been any tearing up of streets to put in bike infrastructure.

            1. Rosa

              (I hate the stupid little traffic circles, fwiw. They do not slow down the cars. All we freaking needed was sharrows and something to make it safe to cross 26th & 28th, which we didn’t get.)

              Was the safety island at Bryant & Franklin added after the bike boulevard designation? I never used to take it before, I just sucked it up and rode on Lyndale until last summer.

              I guess the signage costs some money, too. There are bike boulevard signs on 40th and the new pointer signs (Greenway, downtown, etc) on 24th and some other streets. Though given we put up street signs aimed mostly at cars at every single intersection that seems mean to quibble about.

          2. Adam MillerAdam Miller

            When they do things like add speed bumps that displace cars, they should be greatly extending the life of the street surface (because it won’t carry as many cars and trucks). Also, the cars that are there will be driving slower, and speed makes a big difference to road surface damage too.

            Plastic posts and paint cost next to nothing.

            1. Rosa

              I don’t think they actually displace cars, though. Have there been car counts before and after? 17th at least seems to have more cars now. 40th didn’t have many cars because it’s discontinuous, but both 17th and Bryant are preferred by cars over similarly continous streets, as far as I can tell, because they are less traffic than Lyndale, Bloomington & Cedar, but fewer stop signs than the non-bike-Boulevard streets (and for 17th, the light at Lake, which I assume is why it got chosen as a bike boulevard in the first place.)

              1. Adam MillerAdam Miller

                On the northern end, where the speed bumps are, I don’t think Bryant is preferred, but yeah, it opens up farther south and becomes a pretty decent route to drive.

                I don’t know if they did traffic counts, but the combination of parked cars, narrowness and the bumps seem like they would keep all but local drivers away.

                1. Rosa

                  In any case, whatever keeps most car traffic off (for example) 18th Avenue doesn’t seem to be in force on 17th. So I doubt the bike improvements are extending the life of the street by keeping car traffic low.

          3. Alex CecchiniAlex Cecchini

            In addition to Janne’s comments, should we really ascribe the cost of speed bumps, protective barriers, etc to bikes, or the cars that cause the unsafe conditions in the first place?

            Cars are expensive. Walking/biking is not. Cars weigh 2 tons and are far more likely to kill/injure someone than a bike or pedestrian. Cars pollute, walking/biking do not. Taking those 3 into consideration, we should place the burden of expensive street designs necessary to separate some users from others on the higher-level vehicle, the one that causes the impacts in the first place.

  4. tom

    In that case buses should be free of charge as the government would save money for n the long run…but they are not which speaks for itself….thereare a few cities where buses are free and it works well…imagine if public transport was subsidised in London or New York….bet people would drive less

  5. Bob Gunderson

    But what about THE STUDY?!?! Did you know that some people fall off their bikes and get hurt? These are called “Solo Falls” and they happen when people ride a bike. JUST DONT DO IT!!!

  6. m404

    Germany received an income of 8.50 Billion (!) Euro from car-related Taxes in 2013.
    What this “Study” is trying to say, is that society spent at least (since Taxes are not the only “cost” to Car drivers) 78.2 Billion Euro in car-related (directly and indirectly) expenses …

    Sometimes it’s healthy to doubt numbers that are being “thrown around” in a Study 😉 Just sayin’ …

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