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Is public transit really cheaper?

Marketplace Staff Jul 16, 2010

Is public transit really cheaper?

Marketplace Staff Jul 16, 2010


Tess Vigeland: One common piece of advice you’ll hear for cutting the household budget is to take public transit. Get out of your car and onto the bus. Or the subway. But in some areas, that financial rule doesn’t cut it anymore. Because transit authorities are cutting service and raising fares.

From WNYC, Matthew Schuerman looks at how riders in New Jersey are coping with the new math.

Matthew Schuerman: The train station in Secaucus, New Jersey sits just across the Hudson River from Manhattan. Thousands of suburban commuters pass every day through the sleek and modern station. Marlene Mascioli used to be one of those commuters. And she enjoyed riding the train.

Marlene Mascioli: I can read books, play crossword puzzles…

Schuerman: But Mascioli now drives to work. Why? This spring, New Jersey Transit announced it would hike fares by as much as 25 percent. Mascioli’s a pharmaceutical consultant, and couldn’t help but run the numbers. So she created an Excel spreadsheet to see if driving would be cheaper.

Mascioli: It really is pretty simple. I looked at the New Jersey Turnpike tolls…

Mascioli found out she’d save $34 a month by taking her car instead of the train.

Mascioli: I think 25 percent increase is just, it’s just so unrealistic.

New Jersey is just a part of a growing trend. The American Public Transportation Association says that more than half of large transit agencies across the country have increased fares over the last two years.

Mascioli: So the train loses. Or I lose, I guess you can say, because I get to drive now an hour and a half each way.

Once Mascioli started driving to work, she reported, she actually liked it. Then again, Mascioli does a reverse commute and driving simply isn’t an option for most New Jersey Transit customers. They commute into crowded, expensive Manhattan every day which is why the agency says more than 97 percent of its riders continue to take mass transit. People like Andy Cohen. He and his family moved to Madison, New Jersey two years ago.

Andy Cohen: The train goes right along this ridge.

Madison is an old-fashioned small town about 20 miles west of Manhattan. Cohen teaches film and video at a Quaker school in Brooklyn and his commute takes an hour and 20 minutes each way. Cohen says he’s thought about driving.

Cohen: I have a colleague that lives nearby and we could commute, we could carpool and it would be cheaper for us.

But they figured, just one car accident, and those calculations would get thrown off anyway.

Cohen: The stress of driving back and forth to New York City everyday would do me in.

The fare hike by New Jersey Transit means Cohen now has to pay $620 more a year to get to and from work.

Cohen: It means that we’ll be eating out less frequently than we are already eating out less frequently.

With an annual household income a little over $100,000 and a daughter in college, Cohen’s taking a close look at his budget.

Cohen: I’m not going away this summer, I just need to save some money.

Because next fall, he’ll be back on the train, a little less money in his wallet.

In New York, I’m Matthew Schuerman for Marketplace Money.

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