Friday, January 13, 2012

Popping the Hood, Checking the Bucks

Vancouver transit riders have been able to breathe easy for a while when it comes to fare hikes - after all, there haven't been any since 2010. It's a much preferable situation to the one which prevails in Toronto, where fares have gone up twice in the last two years, most recently from $3 to $3.10, because fare increases aren't irritating enough on their own without throwing dimes into the mix. Still, even though the fares have held pat, the costs of living and operating haven't, and so earlier this week TransLink applied to raise transit fares in Metro Vancouver in 2013, subject to approval. If approved, a one-zone fare will go from $2.50 to $2.75, while two- and three-zones would be increased to $4.25 and $5.50, respectively.

2013 is a ways away yet, but there's already grumbling in the comment threads. I noticed one person for whom this increase was the last straw, that thanks to TransLink they'd be putting their car back on the road and nuts to them. It's not an unexpected result. One thing Toronto papers repeat time and again as TTC fare increases loom is that each increase will drive a certain percentage of riders back to their cars. Fair enough; everyone has their breaking point, and some people only merely tolerate transit. I know that my view of it certainly isn't universal. Encountering comments like that, though, of people fulminating against a few more quarters every day, made me wonder about the economics of getting around with four wheels instead of on the train - whether a car would make economic sense for me, so that I can have a better understanding of the people who do use them.

For this hypothetical, my assumption is that one day I wake up and have decided to reinvent my life. The first priority is, of course, to buy a car since I currently have none. For this I consulted Craigslist, and found someone selling a 1997 Honda Accord for $2,700 - it's within what I would imagine to be my price range, so I'm using it here. For the purposes of figuring out the cost, I'll assume that it's bought outright.

One advantage of purely hypothetical car purchases off Craigslist is that you don't have to worry about ornery sellers or unwelcome surprises under the hood.

According to the US Department of Energy's Fuel Economy website, the '97 Accord gets 22 miles per gallon, which works out to 9.35 kilometers per liter. Not the greatest mileage, but not the worst either. From my apartment in New Westminster, it's about twenty kilometers to my workplace in downtown Vancouver by Google Maps - which interestingly enough quotes a travel time of thirty-three minutes, actually slightly longer than my SkyTrain commute; must be all that traffic on the Kingsway. Thus, my travels to each work shift would consume 4.27 liters of gasoline, which resolves to 21.35 liters per week and 85.4 liters per month. The '97 Accord has a 64.45 liter tank, so with that consumption pattern I would need to refuel once in the first month.

When I entered the job market back in 2000 I started out as a gas monkey, pumping fuel at a full service station along Highway 400 in south Barrie. Prices then, even for the premium fuel, were far lower than they are today, which may be another one of the reasons why so many people of my generation are re-evaluating the value of car ownership. According to today's average gasoline price is $1.29/liter trending upwards. At this price, my fuel cost to get to and from work per day would be $5.50 - the cost of a one-way three-zone ticket in 2013 if TransLink's request goes through. This resolves to a monthly cost of $110.16, which is effectively equal to my $110 two-zone FareCard.

Looking at those numbers, some people might say that the car makes economic sense - I wouldn't have to cram myself into a train packed full of Canucks fans heading back to Surrey, for example - but that would be disingenuous. Fuel isn't the whole story here, no matter how much some people are tempted to read it as that. My car would have to exist somewhere while I was at work, after all - so I consulted three EasyPark lots in the downtown core. The cheapest, Lot 3 at 535 Richards, would cost me $15 per day with my shift, and the one under the Pacific Centre would be most expensive at $29 per day. Going with the least expensive option of these takes my effective daily transit cost to $20.50 - at that rate, I'd spend the cost of my FareCard in six days. Plus, at home there's costs to consider - my building charges $10/month, I believe, for the use of one of its spaces.

Then there's insurance. I can't put down an honest dollar figure here, as I have never held my own car insurance policy. I'll just have to leave that as a significant but undefined number. The same with maintenance - a fifteen-year-old car could just as easily purr like a kitten or need a $2000 cough suppressant.

With those numbers, then, my transit cost to work comes to $410/month - a significant portion of my pay; it would in fact work out to be my second-largest monthly expenditure after rent, though since the charges would come in ones and twos scattered throughout rather than in one lump sum, it would probably be easier to look past. Yet that's not the whole story, either. For the purposes of this hypothetical I replaced my commute only, trading my regular SkyTrain use for car use. I regularly use the SkyTrain and bus system on weekends or vacation days to get places around Metro Vancouver; I imagine it would be the same if I had a car, and that would just send the dollar amount ticking upward again.

So, for me at least, would a car make economic sense? It appears that the numbers reflect the conclusion I've held for along time, which is hell no!

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