Economía del transporte publico: ¿cuál es más eficiente, buses o automóviles?

Origen: Urban kchoze: Economics of transit: which is more efficient, buses or cars?

Recientemente, me he topado con algunas personas que argumentan que el transporte publico, es de hecho, ineficiente y un desperdicio de dinero. Su razonamiento es el siguiente: el número de pasajeros por automóvil es de 1,6, la AAA (American Automobile Association) dice que conducir un automóvil cuesta 60 centavos de dolar por milla, por lo que el costo de los automóviles por pasajero-milla es de 37,5. centavos. Mientras que, el transporte publico cuesta en promedio alrededor de 1 dólar por pasajero-milla. El transporte publico es, por tanto, completamente ineficiente.
Ahora bien, esto podría responderse de manera simple: si el transporte publico es económicamente ineficiente, ¿por qué ciudades del tercer mundo están dominadas por el transporte publico y no por los autos personales? ¿Por qué los japoneses pagan 10% de sus ingresos en transporte contra 20% para estadounidenses y canadienses? Los ejemplos empíricos prueban que este argumento está equivocado, pero permítanme desglosarlo en detalle.

Ocupacion por Vehiculo

Primeramente, los 1,6 pasajeros por vehículo, hay que olvidarlos. ¿Por qué? Bueno porque, antes que nada, es incorrecto, el promedio real es 1,2-1,3 pasajeros por auto. Pero más que eso, la ocupación en automóvil no puede compararse con la ocupación en transporte publico. Cuando tienes un bús con 9 pasajeros y una persona adicional quiere utilizar el transporte, esta se sube y el bús ahora tiene 10 pasajeros. Cuando en una carretera hay 9 autos viajando, cada uno con 1 pasajero y alguien mas quiere hacer el viaje en auto por la misma carretera, no puede simplemente subirse a uno de los autos, debe buscarse un viaje de aventón o conducir por si mismo. Realmente compartir auto  y conducir solo deben analizarse por separado, ya que son dos modos de viaje muy distintos. Conducir solo es muy flexible, compartir auto no es para nada flexible, las personas deben acordar un origen y un destino común y los horarios de salida y llegada. El Auto Compartido es mucho menos flexible que el transporte publico.
Entonces, la comparación correcta es entre conducir solo y el transporte publico, porque esa es la posición real en la que se encuentra la mayoría de las personas.

Why transit is still a winner in some cases even with these numbers

Even considering the comparison to be an apt one, in fact, transit would still be more efficient for many people. Why? Because supposing car travel costs a fixed amount per mile without differentiating anything is wrong, it’s highly dependent on annual mileage, since cars have such high fixed costs. The 61 cents figure is for a car driven 15 000 miles per year. That’s an average of more than 40 miles per day. In fact, if you drive 10 000 miles, the cost increases to 78 cents per mile, but that’s still a mileage associated with suburbs, not cities. How far do city drivers drive per year on average? Well, in Montréal, that’s about 7 500 km per year, less than 5 000 miles.
The AAA didn’t provide costs for so low a mileage, but I can extrapolate the data. I also made this extrapolation with Canada’s CAA which provides similar data, because Canadian drivers are a bit less subsidized than American drivers (I assumed 1 Canadian dollar = 0,92 American dollar)
Cost in cents per mile per annual mileage, in blue the AAA, in red the CAA

At 5 000 miles driven per year, the cost of a car is a whopping 1,30$ per mile according to the AAA, 1,50$ per mile for the CAA. That’s still the equivalent of nearly 14 miles per day. So residents of dense areas who can work, shop and go out in their neighborhood or nearby still would find transit cheaper than cars, even when we accept the numbers as presented.

What do the costs include?

This is a big issue here. The AAA numbers do not include any externalities (pollution, congestion, etc…), only direct costs to the owner, and since highways and roads are quite subsidized in the United States, it biases the comparison. Not only that, but it clearly excludes parking costs, which are quite significant (estimates of parking subsidies range from 150 to 200 billions per year in the US). Congestion is estimated to cost 121 billion dollars in the US too. Meanwhile, the cost of transit includes everything: the cost of buses, of maintenance, the driver’s income, the transit administration, the parking garages and depots the transit operator operates, etc…
The main difference that makes car travel seem cheap is without a doubt the labor component. In a car, the driver is free, because you are driving. In transit, you need to pay the driver, who alone represents about 40% of transit costs, at least in buses. Take away the driver’s labor and buses, even the inefficient bus system in the United States, becomes as efficient, if not more so, than cars. Going by the STM’s budget, around 70% of the cost of transit is labor, so an analysis of the actual resource use (vehicle, fuel, components, etc…) should point out that transit, even the inefficient North American kind, has a cost, excluding labor, of at most 30 cents per passenger-mile.
The argument pushed by the people in favor of cars tends to be one from society’s point of view, they make the argument that car driving is cheaper and more efficient as a whole, not just in terms of costs for the user. So they have no excuse for disregarding externalities and parking subsidies, because these are costs that society ends up paying even if the driver doesn’t pay them directly.

The issue of passenger-mile

All these comparisons depend on the metric of “passenger-mile”. Passenger-mile is a metric that greatly favors the car. Why? Because cars have a lot of fixed costs: you need to buy the car, to pay insurance, to maintain it whether you use it or not, etc… The more miles you drive, the lower the fixed costs appear to be when you measure the price in passenger-mile.
Transit does have fixed costs, but not nearly as much. As much of its costs are actually labor, buses’ costs at least tend to be linked to hours of service more than distance traveled. Which means that slow, poorly used transit is expensive if measured in cost per passenger-mile, and rapid, highly used transit is cheap. As most transit in the US is the first, slow, poorly used buses, this biases the comparison. Rapid transit that is highly frequented like subways have much better cost efficiency, in Tokyo, the subway system charges as little as 10 cents per km (16 cents per mile) and is profitable, regional train lines charge from 25 to 45 cents per mile and are profitable. Going from the numbers of the STM budget for Montréal, it seems the subway costs about 30 cents per passenger-mile.
The cost of cars also include a lot of long-distance travel, whereas the urban transit cost is strictly urban, short trips in metropolitan areas. Long-distance transit, whether trains or buses (or planes), is much less expensive per passenger-mile because they’re traveling much faster. Amtrak’s costs per passenger-mile on its most used lines vary between 30 and 40 cents per passenger-mile, cheaper than cars. And Amtrak is a relatively inefficient train company, mostly still running on diesel engines, with poor average speeds and forced to pay lots of cash to freight companies for use of their tracks.
But why should passenger-miles be the one number that matters? People do not want to travel farther distances, they want to reach their destinations. So in that regard, the cost that truly matters should be the cost per trip. If I just ran out of milk and need to buy a new pint, I want the cost of getting there to be as low as possible, not the cost per mile to be low. I would prefer paying 1 $ per mile for one mile than 0,50$ per mile for 4 miles. But using the passenger-mile reasoning, I’d conclude the exact opposite: that spending 2$ to travel 4 miles is more economical than spending 1$ to travel 1 mile, with the same objective reached in both cases.

Can cars be synonymous with density? Theoretically, perhaps. But this would require parking to be either elevated or underground. Parking is one of these costs that in fact do not vary by mile traveled. If parking fees are 1$ per 30 minutes and you stay for an hour, it doesn’t matter whether you traveled 1 mile or 10 miles prior to parking there, you still pay 2$ for the parking, in one case, that increases costs per mile by 1$, in the other, by 10 cents per mile.

How far do you HAVE to travel?

Here is the most important factor a mere numerical comparison doesn’t do justice to: transit-oriented areas can be much more compact than car-dependent ones. Cars require a lot of space, roads must be wide, there must be plenty of parking and density can’t be too high otherwise you can get congestion, etc… The result is that car-oriented areas tend to be much less dense and impose much longer distances than transit-oriented ones. Furthermore, in sprawl, commercial uses and offices tend to be located on the outskirts of residential areas rather than the center. Why? Because of congestion. Residential areas’ value would be reduced if there was important car and truck traffic passing through all the time.
The result is that car-dependent areas tend to increase travel distances by 3 or 4 times. Not only is density significantly reduced, especially for commercial areas, but things are placed in areas far from everything but connected by fast roads, which is good for cars but for no one else.
And indeed, one of the main advantages of transit-oriented developments is that they tend to be walkable. Many trips can be very local and done on bike or by foot, both of which have about no cost. In car-dependent areas, it is very rare that trips can be made on foot.
So the combination of shorter distances to travel and the viability of walking in dense areas mean that transit overall is more affordable than car travel.

Where does the money go?

For local communities, transit has another major advantage. Most of the cost of transit is spent on drivers, mechanics and administration. All of these tend to be employees who work and live in the community. In other words, the money spent on transit stays in the community and strengthens it. Meanwhile, most of the cost of car travel leaves the community. There are few car factories, so the cost to purchase cars flee the community, as does the money for the parts and for gas. There are some local businesses that make money off of cars: middle-men like car salesmen, mechanics and gas station owners. Yet, the reality still is that most of the money isn’t spent locally, which weakens a community’s wealth and vitality.

In conclusion

A transit-based community is much more efficient and economical than a car-dependent community. However, transit in sprawl tends to perform poorly and be quite expensive. Sprawl is built to allow fast, efficient car travel, and makes bus travel inefficient and uneconomical. Buses as a whole are pretty expensive in an advanced economy where labor is expensive. Therefore, if possible (when potential ridership is high), it is best to convert to more efficient forms of transit like BRT, LRT or subways, all of which use higher ridership and faster speeds to reduce the cost per passenger of trips. Transit must also be seen not as a replacement of walking and biking but as a way to support active modes of transport which are the most efficient modes of transport one could conceive of. And indeed, in the world, high transit mode share tends to be correlated to high walking mode share, because both feed off of each other.

Acerca de salvolomas

Asociación vecinal, cuyo objeto es preservar la colonia habitacional unifamiliar, sus calles arboladas con aceras caminables, con trafico calmado, seguras para bici, parques, areas verdes, centros de barrio de uso mixto accesibles a pie y oficinas solo en áreas designadas.
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