Is It Cheaper to Ride the Bus?

“Smile, you’re saving money!” says a sign on the 780.  That’s certainly the common wisdom.  People who can’t afford cars ride the bus, so it must be cheaper.  And it’s only $1.25!  What a bargain.

While it’s true that buses are the transportation refuge of the poor, that doesn’t make them less expensive.  As this eye-opening article from the Washington Post shows, it’s expensive to be poor: People on a tight budget are forced to make choices that are fiscally worse in the long run because they have no other options.  For example, buying in bulk saves money, but if you only have $20 to spend on groceries, buying a 20-pound bag of rice or a 40-ounce jar of peanut butter simply isn’t an option.  The bus, I find, is another case that is not really a money-saver, but rather the only option available.

I ride the bus from Pasadena to downtown Los Angeles, covering about 22 miles for $1.25 each way.  That’s a total of 44 miles for $2.50.  Estimating our gas mileage at 22 MPG, I would have spent about two gallons of gas driving, which would have cost about $6.  Of course, I wouldn’t have taken the ambling backroads route that the 780 takes.  Driving, my route would be closer to 19 miles and I would be able to capitalize on highway gas efficiency (yes, even during rush hour), so I would probably pay closer to $5 in gas costs.  Still, taking the bus would cost half as much, even before factoring in other car costs.

But I take one of the longest bus routes almost the whole way.  Say that I decide to take the bus down to Old Town Pasadena for a night out.  True, I could walk, but that would be a bit ambitious for an evening and wouldn’t leave much time for dinner or a movie.  Now I’m traveling just three miles in each direction, but I’m still paying $2.50 in fare (LA Metro doesn’t offer free transfers, so even if I went there, turned around, and came straight back, I’d still have to pay twice).  If I drove, I would be using only a quarter of a tank of gas for about $0.75, and we’d use the free garage so as not to pay for parking.  Now taking the bus is a far worse deal.

I’m lucky because my bus line runs directly to LACMA, but if I had to make just one transfer, my daily cost would be $5, or no real benefit over driving.  The lack of transfers makes riding the bus in LA not really workable as a lifestyle choice.  Say I wanted to run some errands and had four stops to make.  Even if all four stops were on the same bus line, I’d have to pay five times.

Lastly, there’s the time issue.  Riding the bus takes two to three times as long as driving, even in the worst traffic (after all, the buses are stuck in traffic too).  In my case, riding the bus takes two hours longer than driving each day.  It doesn’t matter much to me, because I wouldn’t be doing anything with that time, but someone on a real shoestring budget could have worked some much-needed extra hours or picked up a second job.  At California’s $8 minimum wage, that’s a potential $16 loss, dwarfing the $2.50 gas savings.

By now, you should be pointing out that we have a car payment of $400 a month, and even the potential income loss only comes out to around $300.  Then there’s insurance, registration, and maintenance.  Thus, while riding the bus instead of driving the car we already own may not save money, riding the bus would have been cheaper than buying and maintaining our car.  True.  Of course, our ability to adopt an aggressive pay schedule that will have our car paid off by May (about a year and a half total) is another case of having money resulting in savings, but the question is not whether taking the bus is cheaper than driving our car, but rather whether it’s cheaper than driving a car.  If we were really on a budget, we would probably drive a reliable 90s subcompact that we could buy outright for a few thousand dollars.  Insurance would run around $50 a month–a lot, but cheaper than a Metro monthly pass–and registration would add about $10, hardly what you’d call unaffordable.

By this point, we’ve got a lot of factors in play: distance, number of transfers, what sort of car I would otherwise buy, and whether or not I could earn extra money with the saved time.  It should be clear, though, that riding the bus is not an inherent money-saver.

Riding the bus versus driving is essentially the same dilemma as renting a home versus owning one.  A two-bedroom apartment in Pasadena, rented for $1500 to $2000, is not really cheaper than the mortgage payment on a two-bedroom house.  However, anyone without the money for a down payment is forced to rent; he or she has no choice in the matter.  Riding the bus may be cheaper or more expensive depending on the exact circumstances, but if one doesn’t have a few thousand dollars in hand to purchase a car, one has to take the bus, even if it costs more.

I’d like to end by mentioning quality of life.  Simply put, spending somewhat less for a vastly inferior product isn’t really a good deal.  Renting an apartment may be cheaper than buying, but the apartment will be smaller, more poorly constructed, and worse maintained than the house would be.  An apartment of equal quality to a house would cost a great deal more.  Even if riding the bus ends up being cheaper, even the most ramshackle car would provide a more pleasant ride than the LA Metro.  Thus, in the end, riding the bus is not a good deal after all.

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