I…I feel like a better person

I am loathe to fall prey to the hand-wringing and borderline (even self-fulfilling) panic surrounding gas prices. My main vehicle, a ’98 pickup, doesn’t get the greatest gas mileage but it is paid for so, on an operating cost basis, it’s fairly economical. It’s certainly not worth plunking $300-$400 a month down on a new car payment in order to save $150 in gas. Furthermore, while I’m as concerned about the environment as much as the next guy (if the next guy is Hamilton Lux), the thought of doing anything remotely “green” just for the sake of being “green” makes me, well, green.

Still, when our monthly fuel bill starts to approach my first mortgage it does make me rub my neck a little. I know there are those who love the idea of high gas prices because they misanthropically hope this will force behavior change on the mindless driving public (just as it mindlessly forces a change in the cost of groceries and quality of life for those least able to afford the lesson), so I purposefully stay cheerful when filling up my truck just to annoy those folks. I wouldn’t mind being cheerful a little less often, though.

Like most folks, I’ve not been too inclined to trade the convenience of having my vehicle at the ready to fit my schedule and whatever immediate needs might come up in order to live my life on the bus company’s schedule. This is especially true since a bus commute from where I live requires at least one transfer and twice the commuting time. I swear, I think Frodo and Samwise Gamgee had a more direct route to Mt. Doom than me trying to get to downtown Minneapolis by bus. Given the hours I’m already working that’s just not an attractive option; there’s more to being “cost efficient” than just price.

I can, however, drive from my southeastern suburb to the light rail (LRT) Park & Ride at Fort Snelling and take the train downtown to within four blocks of my office. I decided to conduct a little experiment by doing just that and comparing how many fewer miles I drove and how much longer it took to get to work, then calculating the difference in cost between my monthly parking bill and a Metropass (unlimited ride). I could have done this on a lovely summer (what passes for summer anyway) day, but why not get a taste of the elements as well? Therefore, I set off yesterday in the pouring rain for the Park & Ride (I brought an umbrella).

Total time to get to the lot: 15 minutes; distance 8 miles (compared to a 12-14 mile drive to downtown Minneapolis, depending on the route I take). The Park & Ride, however, may more accurately be described as a “Park & Walk” as I had about a quarter of a mile jaunt to the depot from my vehicle. I got to the station as a train was pulling up, but the credit card reader on the ticket machine wasn’t working. By the time I’d made a couple of attempts and finally resorted to sliding a fiver into the machine and getting my change (oh, so that’s what they’re doing with all those Sacajawea $1 coins) the train had pulled out. I waited 8 minutes for the next one and it took another 22 minutes to get to my stop downtown. From there I walked the four blocks to my office. Portal-to-portal, it took just under an hour. Driving to work in rush hour takes 40-45 minutes unless there’s bad weather or a traffic accident. The LRT also runs every 7 – 10 minutes during the “rush” hours (roughly 6 – 9 a.m. and 3 – 7 p.m.) so there’s not too much of a time penalty for “missing” a ride.

How about mileage? Four miles one way isn’t much of a savings in distance, but that equals 8 miles a day. Since my truck gets 16 miles per gallon, that’s a gallon of gas every two days, or 2.5 gallons in a typical work week. At $4 gallon, that’s $10!

As for other costs, I pay just under $80 a month to park downtown, but this will be going up an as yet undetermined amount at the end of the year when my employer stops subsidizing the cost. I can get a Metropass through my employer for $39. So, that’s about a $40 a month savings for “infrastructure”, plus $10 a week on gas. The net result is that for an extra 30 minutes a day in total transit time I could save $80 a month. I know, I could donate it to the Sierra Club, or to the schools – they never seem to have enough money! (NOT!). Yeah, I know the LRT is heavily subsidized by the State, so the fares are not a true reflection of the actual cost to operate it, but since my tax dollars are already going to support the choo-choo, perhaps I can feel as if I’m getting a little of my money back.

Other trade-offs: not as much opportunity to listen to my favorite radio programs, but more time to read; being perceived as an enviro-weenie when I’m really a rank capitalist; having to admit that money can change my behavior, but also having more money available to buy things that will increase my carbon footprint. Decisions, decisions! I suppose I should also look at the modest exercise benefit of having to walk a little farther in my daily routine vs. the “character-building” experience of getting to walk that extra distance in the potentially arctic temperatures the other 11 months of the year thanks to our “warming” environment.

I don’t know, I think I’m coming down on the side of saying “All aboard” and keeping more money in my pocket. Just don’t tell my kids (that I’ve got more money in my pocket)!

11 thoughts on “I…I feel like a better person

  1. I would do it too. If it’s there, already paid for with your tax dollars, go for it. As for radio–get an ipod or a cheaper unbranded pod and listen to shows on podcast. No commercials! I time shift Hugh Hewitt to the next morning since I never have time to listen to him live. It’s great.

  2. There’s no shame in doing something “green” so long as you haven’t been guilted into it by some smug, Gaea-worshiping socialist. (Department of Redundancy Department)

    It might be a good idea, however, to burn some yard waste to maintain your carbon footprint.

  3. Plus, there’s the years you’re not taking off of your life for those times in traffic you eat the frustration of not being able to empty a shotgun into the chowderhead doing 10 mph below the speed limit in the left lane while prevented from moving right by the little old lady happily puttering along in your blind spot.

  4. For me it’s a no-brainer (post coming later today); even with my six mile commute, parking and gas would push the monthly cost up around $150-160 a month. That subsidized metropass ($39) is mighty nice, especially since you can use it for everything, and the bus that comes to my corner drops me off at the back door of my office.

    Of course, now that I can bike it, I can play the guilt card on the Prius weenies, too. Booyah!

  5. Let’s see. An extra 30 minutes a day multiplied by (say) 20 days a month comes out to 10 hours. So you’re sending another 10 hours to save $80. (I suppose it could be more if you figure depreciation on the truck.) Is your time worth $8 an hour? More? Less?

    One factor, as you’ve mentioned, is how you spend your time in transit. Podcasts (and there’s a lot out there, not just radio programs) might be the way to go. Taking a newspaper or book is great, but all the stops and starts could make you queasy. Don’t forget the yahoo yappers that you might encounter. Don’t forget the times you’ll be squished against the window with someone in the aisle seat.

    When the winter comes, just remember: There’s no such thing as “too cold,” just “improperly dressed.”

    On the upside, there’s less stress from driving in traffic. And for each person who takes the bus/train/whatever, that’s one less car on the road. That is one reason, I suspect, why transit gets as much support as it does, in the abstract: Get those other cars off the road.

  6. Yeah, and if enough of those stupid other people get off the road there’ll then be more room for me to jump back on the highway in my truck! Score!

  7. If you can access the light rail, there’s no reason not to use it. When I used to work in downtown Mpls, I took the 4 bus as often as I could. The problem with the light rail line is that it is useless to most people in the metro and it is a giant vortex that will suck money in perpetuity. And the Central Corridor won’t be any better.

  8. Actually, I’ve not shied away from mass transit in the past. When I lived in England in ’79 I saw how an effective bus and rail system made it easy (and affordable then, not so much now) to get around. When I first moved to the Cities in ’80 I tried taking the bus from Eagan to downtown and it became a tedious and miserable experience … long rides and no a/c in the summer. When I lived in South Minneapolis later I used the bus until my after work activities became too frequent and varied (and usually required more equipment than you like to carry on public transport). Even later I lived in St. Paul and worked downtown there and the bus was fast and more convenient for the short trips and we could by with just one car. Then I ended up with my present work/home dispersion and the MTC just didn’t cut it. I agree that money poured into the current LRT and the pending Central Corridor is outrageous in terms of waste, disruption and net effectiveness and will ruin the businesses along University.

    Ironically, the eastern terminus of the Central Corridor will be a shorter drive for me than going to Fort Snelling.

  9. It’s good reasoning that you’re using here to make the case for using public transportation. I too don’t want to see prices go up, but “if wishes were horses…”

    Consider that we’re very likely to see $5/gal fuel before the end of the summer, and that there are no solid indications that this will _ever_ decline to pre-2000 levels (I still remember $1/gal fuel), it makes sense to figure out the best alternatives and simply start to use them.

    On a related point, while it’s true that public transportation is heavily subsidized, it’s also true that private transportation is subsidized to a great degree. We just usually don’t recognize all of the costs.

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