The Cost of Slow Travel

Steven Polzin, director of the urban transportation research center at the University of South Florida, has spurred an interesting debate on with his recent column noting that slow transit travel times might actually be a cost of transit use. Steven makes the neglected point that transit users spend more time in transit. As a result, they don’t have as much access to jobs and housing, and they don’t spend as much tme at work. (Adrian Moore and I discuss the research supporting this thesis in Chapter Three of our book Mobility First.)

As Steven summarizes:

Transit’s slower average travel speeds result in approximately 3 billion hours annually of additional travel time. If valued at the TTI time value of $15.47 per hour, this equates to approximately $44 billion annually in lost productivity due to travelers having or choosing to use transit. Thus, the few percent of persons who use transit (approximately 2% of total person trips are on transit {5% of work trips} and approximately 1% of person miles of travel) incur 70% as much lost time relative to driving as is incurred by the total of auto travelers due to congestion, $44 billion for transit users versus $64 billion for driving in congestion.

While one often hears about the “cost of congestion”, there is virtually no one talking about the “cost of using slower modes of travel”. We hear a lot about the value of having a choice of modes but increasingly little about the value of having a choice of an uncongested or less congested travel option. Is it fair to talk about the cost of using transit as $44 billion in lost productivity? And what is the time cost of walking and biking versus alternative modes?

Of course, Steven’s right. But, not all planners agree (perhaps not even most). As many professional planners continue to defy logic and research, several of the commenters make the counterintuitive claim that spending more time traveling enhances our quality of life. Of course, most of these comments are made by planners with different lifestyle preferences and are perfectly happy biking to work or living in very high densities to walk to work.

Many of the pro-transit comments are anecdotal as well. Personally, I applaud those that can use their transit time for productive use, whether reading, listening to their ipod, or engaging in productive work. My experience as a frequent user of transit, however, is that I rarely get these opportunities, particularly since I am often standing when riding a train or in cramped quarters in a taxi.

Samuel R. Staley, Ph.D. is a senior research fellow at Reason Foundation and managing director of the DeVoe L. Moore Center at Florida State University in Tallahassee where he teaches graduate and undergraduate courses in urban planning, regulation, and urban economics. Prior to joining Florida State, Staley was director of urban growth and land-use policy for Reason Foundation where he helped establish its urban policy program in 1997.