Monday, January 18, 2010

Thrift Week, Day Two: Transportation

Welcome to Day Two of Thrift Week. Today's topic is transportation, the second-biggest item in the average American budget. For the average American household, transportation costs $8,604 a year, or 17 percent of total expenses. That includes the cost of automobile purchases, gas and oil, maintenance and repairs, and public transportation, plus a few miscellaneous expenses like drivers' licenses and auto registrations.

Transportation is a tricky area for the ecofrugal. On one hand, most forms of mass transit, like buses and trains, have a lower carbon footprint than driving--especially driving alone, as so many commuters do. But if you already own a car, it's probably cheaper to drive it than it is to take the bus or the train. After all, you've already paid (or are still paying) for the car itself and the insurance, so all you save by not driving it is the cost of gas. And gas has to get pretty expensive to make driving more expensive than transit, at least around here. As an example: back when I was single and living in Princeton, I used to ride a little train called the Dinky to my job in Princeton Junction. The trip was only a couple of miles each way, but it cost $3.75 round trip--$16.25 per week. At the time, I owned a very fuel-efficient compact car that got about 36 miles to the gallon, so driving that 40 miles per week instead would have used up a little more than a gallon of gas. At the time, gas was only about $1.50 per gallon, so I was paying about $14 extra each week for the privilege of riding the train. (I was willing to pay it because I found the 35-minute commute by train, which included a one-mile walk to the Dinky station and ten minutes of reading or doing crosswords on the train, so much more pleasant than the 20-minute commute by car, which included about 10 minutes of actual driving and 10 minutes of sitting in traffic and fuming.) Taking the Dinky might have been an economical option if it had allowed me to give up my car entirely. But I relied on the car to get me to places where I couldn't go by bus or train--places that literally had no bus or train stop within 5 miles. And this was in New Jersey, a state that has a better mass transit system that most.

So what are the ecofrugal to do? Well, there is some middle ground. For instance, Brian and I can't make do without a car--but we can easily make do with just one car for the two of us. At my old job, I could commute by train, so I didn't need a car most days; now that I work from home, I need one even less often. His job allows him to commute by bike in nice weather, which, unlike mass transit, doesn't cost any extra (the cost of maintaining the bike is only a few dollars a month, which is offset by the savings on gas) and offers a cheap, healthy alternative to joining a gym. Carpooling is another useful option. These days, our car makes very few trips of more than a few miles with only one person in it; usually it carries both of us, or the two of us plus a friend. This lowers the cost-per-person of driving, both in dollars and in pollution. And finally, living in a walkable community saves us money on transportation. We might have been able to find a cheaper home in a suburban area, but by choosing to live in a town with a real town center, we put ourselves within walking distance of the library, the grocery store, the drugstore, the post office, and most of the other places we might need to run errands in a typical week. So the extra money we spent on housing comes back to us in transportation savings, as well as health benefits and a better overall quality of life.

Anyone else want to share ideas about ways to be thrifty with transportation?
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