Chart of the Day: Costs of Urban Travel by Mode

Here’s a chart from an wonky, slightly-old, provocative book called Transportation for Liveable Cities by a Pennsylvania transportation professor named Vukan Vuchic. It shows Vuchic’s estimates of the total costs for different travel choices in a dense urban city, showing a peak-hour car trip with tolls and parking, an off-peak car trip without those costs, a typical urban transit trip, and a longer regional commuting transit trip.

Here’s the chart:


In the book, Vuchic describes the chart and makes the following sequential conclusions:

The chart chows the total costs for the same four cases. The subsidies for transit include operating subsidies and a certain value for infrastructure investment. The latter amount may vary from none for bus transit on streets, which has virtually no infrastructure, to extensive for rapid transit or busways [….] The four diagrams […] lead to the following important observations.

  1. Travel costs by both car and transit vary considerable with location and time of travel. Total car travel costs are particularly high in large cities during peak hours because of parking, social, and environmental costs.
  2. The direct, out-of-pocket cost of car travel consists mainly of the cost of fuel, which is extremely low, and parking fees and tolls, when these are charged. When parking is subsidized (“free”), which is the case virtually everywhere except in city centers, the direct cost of auto travel is virtually negligible.
  3. Because most people decide how far to travel and which mode to choose on the basis of direct costs only, this cost structure greatly stimulates driving. This follows the fact that underpriced services are overused. The ultimate distortion of pricing in urban travel occurs when people who drive company cars treat their travel as entirely free.
  4. With respect to costs, the low direct cost of driving renders fully priced transit noncompetitive with the car. Thus, underpricing car driving through direct subsidies, and its consequent unrealistic car structure, results in the need to subsidize transit.
  5. The direct costs represent, in most cases, the “tip of the iceberg” of the total costs of car travel. Based on the AAA’s 1995 estimates, on average, direct costs of driving amount to only 13 percent, fixed costs 87 percent, of user costs. Fixed costs consist of depreciation, insurance, repairs, and other costs not directly dependent on individual trips.
  6. Social costs of driving (mostly congestion imposed on other street and highway users, including car and truck drivers, transit riders, and pedestrians) and environmental costs (affecting society at large) are not paid by car users at all.
  7. Environmental costs and the impacts of highway travel are not paid by users either. They represent another major cost element of the “under-the-surface portion of the iceberg.” The total indirect costs, including the user’s fixed costs, subsidies, and unpaid costs absorbed by society and the environment, amount, in the case shown, to more than 92 percent of the total costs.

The whole book goes on like that, and is full of similar charts and analysis. Especially with the price of gas reaching 90s-era levels, I’m not sure that much of Vuchic’s conclusions have changed.

4 thoughts on “Chart of the Day: Costs of Urban Travel by Mode

  1. hokan

    What, nothing about walking or biking? In 1974 Ivan Illich wrote a book, “Energy and Equity” in which he related the cost of various modes in terms of the time it cost the traveler. He though bikes required less total time than any other mode. Here he discusses the time cost of cars:

    The model American male devotes more than 1,600 hours a year to his car. He sits in it while it goes and while it stands idling. He parks it and searches for it. He earns the money to put down on it and to meet the monthly installments. He works to pay for gasoline, tolls, insurance, taxes, and tickets. He spends four of his sixteen waking hours on the road or gathering his resources for it. And this figure does not take into account the time consumed by other activities dictated by transport: time spent in hospitals, traffic courts, and garages; time spent watching automobile commercials or attending consumer education meetings to improve the quality of the next buy. The model American puts in 1,600 hours to get 7,500 miles: less than five miles per hour. In countries deprived of a transportation industry, people manage to do the same, walking wherever they want to go, and they allocate only 3 to 8 per cent of their society’s time budget to traffic instead of 28 per cent. What distinguishes the traffic in rich countries from the traffic in poor countries is not more mileage per hour of life-time for the majority, but more hours of compulsory consumption of high doses of energy, packaged and unequally distributed by the transportation industry.

  2. GlowBoy

    My first thought was “what about walking and biking?” too.

    Still, a good analysis of the costs of the modes it does consider. I do like the iceberg graph style as a way to communicate the hidden costs. Notice that subsidies for driving (with free parking) are about double those of transit.

  3. Dave

    What about opportunity cost in wasted time? A ten minute drive for me turns into a 40 minute bus ride. This gives me an extra 300 minutes a week for something more productive and enjoyable. Electric cars are coming, and I believe that they will help greatly on the environmental side of things..

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