“Just Buy Them Cars”

I’m sure you’ve read this one. Maybe the thought has even crossed your mind when contemplating one of the several 9-digit cost increases on a local light rail line. I won’t judge.

The notion that we could, as a society, choose to buy vehicles for those who need to get to school, jobs, or other opportunities requires simplifying the goals of urban transit down to “providing transportation for people without cars.” This isn’t particularly helpful; transit is a tool that can accomplish many other things if designed and operated well, from efficiently utilizing scarce urban public space to reducing per-person carbon emissions to enabling healthier lifestyles thanks to an increase in walking or biking trip shares (the jury is maybe out on how well transit does for societal safety).

Midtown Greenway Streetcar Proposal

Just look at how many modes there are in this picture.

But, let’s assume public transit – be it a new light rail line, a new BRT line, upgrades to existing bus routes, or simply operating the existing fleet of buses – is only useful as far as transportation goes (accessibility, mobility, etc). Is the Twin Cities region better off handing the keys to the Met Council to build and operate transit infrastructure, or should we just buy folks cars?

Breaking Down the Costs

I’m going to make a lot of assumptions here. Perhaps the biggest is how many cars we’d need to buy in the 7-county metro area to make sure every adult can drive wherever they want, whenever they want. According to 2013 American Community Survey Table C08203: “Number of Workers in Household by Vehicles Available,” there are about 155,000 fewer cars than workers in the Twin Cities. Of course, many people without access to a car still travel by car to work (28% drive alone, with another 11% carpooling) according to ACS data. This shouldn’t be any more surprising than the fact that people with cars still take transit for many local (including work) journeys.

But let’s run with that number. Let’s say we buy 155,000 cars for the working adults without one in their home every ten years at a price of $10,000 starting in 2015. That buys a decent used car in today’s market, likely a smaller sedan with 30-60k miles. Some other assumptions:

  • Every person drives 10,000 miles a year on the car
  • Average mileage is 25 mpg
  • Gas is $3.00/gallon
  • The car fully depreciates in 10 years
  • Government pays:
    • Insurance at $100/month
    • Repair/Maintenance at $700/year
    • License fees/taxes at $100/year (including up-front motor vehicle sales tax)
    • All gas purchases
  • All costs inflate at 2.5% per year through 2044

To fully fund this program over a 30-year horizon, the State of Minnesota (or, the Met Council), would spend $27.7 billion.

But cars have to drive on roads. A while back, I was curious how much MnDOT spends by district on truck highways and did a data request. 2014 spending in the Metro District (which includes Chisago County) was $606 million. MnDOT also spends money in the metro area on Municipal State Aid Streets and County State Aid Highways, totaling $104 million and $117 million, respectively. Households where workers outweigh cars account for about 12% of the region’s total households, so only allocating 30 years of highway/MSAS/CSAH spending brings the total societal cost up to $32.4 billion.

This is the 30-year price tag to abolish transit by giving every worker a car who doesn’t own one today (ignoring whether they could afford one or not; my family has one car and two working adults, though we could probably afford a second car). This ignores any extra capacity costs necessary to serve former transit users. It also ignores the local share of road spending done by counties and cities that make millions of daily auto trips possible.

Which, in MN cities and counties is typically well above 50% of total spend (source).

Which, in MN cities and counties is typically well above 50% of total spend (source).

…and Transit?

Okay, that $32 billion is a big number. Let’s put it in context. 2013 was a pretty big year for Metro Transit expenses. In addition to running (and regular capital upgrades for) its buses, single LRT line, and boondoggle of a commuter rail, Metro Transit pumped a ton of money into building (part of) the Green Line. The National Transit Database says total operating and capital expenses for 2013 were $595 million in 2013.

If you extrapolate this out over 30 years, you could assume we’d be building a new Green Line-equivalent light rail line every 3 years. Maybe that’s not quite the same investment as the Met Council Transportation Policy Plan outlines, but it’s close enough. Using the same 2.5% inflation, total costs from 2015-2044 come to $27.4 billion. For those keeping score at home, this is less than $32 billion.


Like I said, this is a pretty simple model. In addition to the direct public costs not included in the 2015 Car Super Sweepstakes, I don’t evaluate things like pollution, safety, parking costs, job accessibility, resulting user fees (in my scenario, transit users still pay fares while drivers get everything, including gas taxes, paid for by the government), or a world of alternatives (What if we gave everyone two bicycles instead? What if the government just buys the vehicles every ten years but users pay to maintain and operate them?*). What happens as vehicles become autonomous?

Job accessibility may be the best argument in favor of giving away cars. For 18% more total spending, residents currently riding (or relying on) transit could see a big boost in the number of jobs accessible within the same amount of time, anywhere from 2-10x as many even for folks living in core cities:


That’s the thing, though. This whole discussion can take so many turns. What are we prioritizing? What are society’s goals? Do they differ by zip code? If giving cars away was such a good idea for the very anti-transit right in Minnesota, why hasn’t a credible movement (let alone proposed legislation) to actually do it gained traction? The reality is that operating fixed-route transit, including expansion, remains a crucial part of our land-use + transportation system. We just need to do a better job identifying the right projects and investments.

* This option would cost the region considerably less, about $10.6 billion including allocated road costs. But families would take on about $3,200 a year per car, much more than an annual transit pass. Debate merits if you wish.

Alex Cecchini

About Alex Cecchini

Alex likes cities. He lives with his wife, two kids, and two poorly behaved dogs just south of Uptown (Minneapolis). Tweets found here: @alexcecchini and occasional personal blog posts at fremontavenueexperience.wordpress.com.