“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.

25 thoughts on ““Just Buy Them Cars”

  1. fIEtser

    I’ve recently heard this argument come up several times recently as the Southern California Association of Governments works on their next Regional Transport Plan. The hindsight armchair quarterbacks are all very much in favor of this “we should just buy everyone cars” concept. But on a realistic level, do we really believe that a plan to buy other people cars would ever gain support, especially given the state of affairs that surround most other social programs? I highly doubt it.

    1. Bill LindekeBill Lindeke

      Here’s an idea: Make large agencies in every state that build and maintain roads using general tax revenue from both the state and Federal governments, and give billions in tax breaks to oil companies to ensure low prices on gasoline.

      The best thing is, I think we could implement this very quickly!

      1. Wayne

        Too late, I already took this idea back in my time machine and got it put in place. Didn’t work too well.

    2. Jaron McNamara

      So instead of building, maintaining, and expanding mass transit they just want to buy everyone cars, in SoCal??!! If they actually went that route they could save a ton of money and just by everyone a cushy upholstered recliner instead, They’re just going to be sitting still in traffic congestion anyways…

  2. Joe ScottJoe Scott

    I think when people say “just buy them cars” it’s more of a roundabout way of saying that LRT is ridiculously expensive, which I think this post confirms, given that LRT vs. buying everyone cars (within these arbitrary parameters) would both cost about 30 billion dollars. Obviously buying everyone cars is a terrible idea, but doesn’t it seem like transit should be less expensive?

    1. Mike Hicks

      I’ve tried doing some calculations like this before, and typically used a value around $30,000 for each car (new rather than used), and a depreciation period of 12 years (the average age of a car). That widens the gap significantly. The initial purchase price is probably inflated by the small number of people who buy cars that are many tens of thousands to hundreds of thousands of dollars, though. I’m not sure how to weight that properly.

      Transit vehicles and infrastructure are meant to be pretty robust, though. Buses often last 8-12 years, but many of them are driven for many hours per day and can put on many more miles than a private car owned for the same period of time. Rail vehicles often last multiple decades, though they do need a lot of maintenance over their lifetimes.

      Each transit vehicle is usually making many trips through the day (or at least a few long ones), and ferrying dozens of people on each one. This allows transit systems to conserve a lot of space relative to cars. Metro Transit has some pretty huge facilities for their buses and trains, but they’re dwarfed by the amount of space that would be needed for 280,000 car trips each day.

    2. Nathanael

      If you have to buy people limo drivers too, “just buy them cars” starts to look astronomically expensive.

      Remember, a lot of people *cannot drive* — for instance, people with poor eyesight. Or drunk people!

      Right now, many places just let these people drive anyway, and they go around massacreing people on the road. But that’s not acceptable.

  3. Matt SteeleMatt Steele

    “Just buy them cars” is an awfully elitist and exclusionary proposition, and not just for economic reasons. Anyone who says “just buy them cars” should think about if they ever had a child with a condition that may prevent them from ever being able to drive a car when they grow up. What then?

    1. Nick SortlandNick Sortland

      ‘Pay for the commoners transportation??’ Let them drive carriages!’

      It’s really: ‘Let them eat cake!’

      That’s how I usually read people who don’t support public transit. Also I would be shocked if they ever wanted to have a socialized car service in the metro too, lol

      1. Joseph TottenJoseph Totten

        My train of thought going through your comment was “Actually, that’s just because the meaning of ‘cake’ has changed.” And then I realized they just don’t care/want to deal with the issue, not that they can’t see the infeasability of their propsal, AND IT WORKS BOTH WAYS! Thank you for maybe the best way of using that quote.

        1. Nick SortlandNick sortland

          You are right, they don’t really care or even barely understand the disconnect between the suburban countryside life style, with all their little villas VS someone who can’t afford to own a horseless carriage. And don’t get me started on:
          “We demand free urban storage of our carriages!”

  4. Doug TrummDoug Trumm

    One huge hole in the “Buy Everyone Cars” scenario is that congestion would get much worse with that many more motorists on the road. That congestion would cause people to spend more time commuting, causing a drag on productivity. That’s harder to quantify but something that definitely has an impact. Plus, we’d have to find parking for that many more people.

    1. Joe

      This is actually a bigger issue than at first glance. A large percentage of people who take buses actually own cars. So they wouldn’t count in that 155,000 number, and all of those people would be driving now. So you’d likely have another 300,000+ cars on the road regularly.

  5. James WardenJames Warden

    Alex wrote: “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).”

    This is why I like David Levinson’s idea to run transportation systems as public utilities (see: http://www.citylab.com/commute/2014/06/how-to-make-mass-transit-financially-sustainable-once-and-for-all/372209/). One argument in that proposal is that we shouldn’t subsidize transit or other modes in order to help the poor. If we want to help the poor, we should give money or transportation vouchers directly to them.

    Separating transportation networks from low-income assistance lets us design our networks to be really good at whatever we deem to be their primary goal — whether efficient land use, convenience, emissions reduction or whatever. Because these systems would be self-sustaining, cost would be less of a concern as long as ridership remains on target.

    Meanwhile, the poor would still get assistance through transportation vouchers or direct payments. This assistance would be more efficient because it would go just to those in need instead of being diluted by spreading it across all income levels, as our current system does. A biennial appropriation for transportation vouchers would also allow us to be deliberate about our subsidy policy. Right now, there’s really no way to say how much we’re subsidizing low income riders. We may know the overall subsidy of a system (although even that’s debatable), but we don’t know how much is directed to help low-income families and how much is meant for other goals. That prevents us from directing scarce resources to where they make the most difference.

    The caveat is that we’d have to have a self-sustaining system for roads as well as transit, otherwise we’d just be incentivizing people to drive. I’d love to see us move in that direction. Maybe Levinson can jump in and add more.

  6. The Overhead Wire

    You even said yourself that we’re ignoring a whole lot of other societal issues. The question is not whether you should buy cars for those already using transit, but what if you bought transit for those already using cars. What if we didn’t have to build massive parking garages downtown? What if apartment complexes didn’t have to build parking? What if pollution was significantly reduced? What if all the money spent on gasoline that goes out of the region was able to stay put locally?

    Fun exercise, needs a better frame.

  7. Pingback: Deadbeat Chris Christie Sticks It to New Jersey Transit Riders, Again | Streetsblog.net

  8. Matt EckholmMatt Eckholm

    We could buy everyone in America a bag of cotton candy for the cost of SWLRT! Does that mean anything? No!

    The people saying these things would be the first to cry ‘socialism!’ if someone seriously proposed buying cars for everyone.

  9. Rosa

    One serious benefit of transit is that it is an evenly distributed, predictable cost. Cars are like ticking time bombs of cost when you are dependent on them – it’s possible to predict and budget for th average cost of upkeep for a car, but most people treat large car repairs as outside of their budget unexpected happenings, because that is how they are experienced – nothing nothing nothing BOOM hundreds of dollars one week.

  10. David MarkleDavid Markle

    Quite a few years ago the Wall Street Journal published an article containing research on the high cost of municipal bus transit service in a sample of major cities. As I recall, the authors found, given the existing numbers of users, that it would be cheaper to provide “free” taxicab service. Of course with the adoption of muncipal taxi transit the numbers would soon change and probably look less practical !

    Those findings may seem particularly absurd to Twin Cities residents, but it’s long been very costly to operate taxi services here, compared to various major cities such as Washington D.C. where for many years taking a cab seemed especially convenient and reasonable (can’t speak to present conditions there).

    1. David MarkleDavid Markle

      More precisely, the Journal’s conclusion was that providing cab fare would be cheaper than running the bus lines.

      1. Rosa

        …until you add in the new costs of expanding the taxi services. Expansion costs money. Just like with transit.

    2. Nathanael

      “Quite a few years ago” is the key point here. Basically, buses and trains need to run at least half-full on average; there was a period of very low ridership. That is over.

Comments are closed.