The Breakdown | Explaining Southern California's economy

How using mass-transit in Los Angeles can save you $12,000 a year

There's some buzz around LA about a U.S. Census report that shows Angelenos might not have the country's worst commutes. This is from the LA Times:

It took commuters in the L.A.-Long Beach-Santa Ana area an average of 28.1 minutes to get to work in 2010, ranking 17th nationally, according to data released Thursday from the American Community Survey's latest one-year estimate....Surprisingly, topping the list were areas with robust rail networks and transit systems such as New York-Northern New Jersey-Long Island, which ranked first and takes drivers an average of 34.6 minutes, and Chicago-Joliet-Naperville, which clocked in at 30.7 minutes and ranked fourth. The national average was 25.3."

That sounds counter-intuitive: How can regions with well-established mass-transit have longer commutes? Simple: subways and buses make more stops. 

This is an absolutely critical piece of data to have. Urban transit can make for a longer ride. But it also make for a more pleasant ride, an argument that Denny Zane of Move LA put forward. Again, this is from the LA Times: "He said transit pays dividends in other areas: Commutes are 'more affordable…there's less air pollution, compact development is a more efficient use of land and therefore makes housing more affordable.'" 

I moderated a couple of panels yesterday at Art Center College of Design's Forward Motion Symposium, where the whole matter of the dividend payment (to borrow Zane's term) from cutting down on car use was addressed. One of the panelists — Simon Pastucha, a designer for LA's Urban Design Studio — got rid of his car a while back and has been getting around via mass transit ever since. He did the math on how much he saves every year, in total costs, and it came out to $1,000 a month. $12,000 a year.

OK, so he was leasing a Mercedes. But still. You could probably give up your Corolla lease and save six grand. In fact, that's roughly what this calculator spits out (I deducted depreciation, because you aren't dealing with that in the same way when you lease a car, versus buying it).

You may not want to surrender your wheels, obviously. But the point is that what makes an LA-area commute unpleasant isn't time spent in the car — it's that you're stuck…in your car. Some people can Zen with this, as I maintained in my review of Tom Vanderbilt's epic study "Traffic" in 2008. Others can't, and many of them can so not Zen with it that they complain about commuting even though, according to the Census report, they're soft and weak compared with the battle-hardened commuters of New York, New Jersey, and Chicago. 

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