Summer Internship and Commute


Count the modes of Southern California’s transportation palimpsest shown in the video below – cars, trucks, buses, light rail, subway, commuter rail, freight rail, helicopters…With this view from my office, it’s amazing I got any work done.

For most of the summer, I commuted to an internship at LA’s Union Station. I generally commuted from Orange County on Metrolink (accessing stations by a combination of bike, car, OCTA bus, and iShuttle). I also tried LADOT Commuter Express, Metro Local bus lines, and, on one morning, driving from the Westside. The figure below shows the routing of these trips and how often I made them.

I paid $258.75 for a Metrolink student monthly pass, or about $12.93 per weekday round trip over the month. The equivalent weekday round trip cost would be less if some of the pass’s other benefits (e.g. validity for most Southern California transit operators including Metro and OCTA, for weekend travel anywhere on Metrolink’s system, and for Amtrak between the station pairs on the pass) were taken into account. According to the National Transit Database, Metrolink’s operating cost per passenger mile is $0.42, or $34.13 for my 81.25 mile round trip weekday commute. This equates to a fare subsidy of approximately $21.20 per day. The subsidy would be higher for days on which I used the iShuttle or OCTA to access the station.

How does this compare to the cost of driving this 81 mile roundtrip commute? The cost of gas and maintenance for making this trip alone in a Honda Civic would be about $24.03 per day. That is, driving would have been twice as expensive, and I would have lost the productivity (or sleep) time I had on the train.

While they were definitely a big benefit to me personally, are the subsidies for Metrolink optimal more broadly? A draft report by Ian Parry (Resources for the Future) and Kenneth Small (UC Irvine) offers some guidance about the consideration of externalities such as air pollution, traffic congestion, and crashes.

  • Greenhouse gases – A Honda Civic would emit approximately 0.45 kg CO2e per mile, or 36.36 kg CO2e of greenhouse gases for the roundtrip commute. Using a cost of carbon suggested by the US Interagency Working Group on Social Cost of Carbon, $0.09 per kg CO2e results in a social cost borne by society of $3.27. In contrast, Metrolink’s diesel locomotives emit 0.18 kg CO2e per passenger mile, resulting in an externalized social cost of $1.36.
  • Air pollution – Parry and Small estimate that air pollution externalities (e.g. increased healthcare costs due to exposure to particulate matter and NOx) in the Los Angeles area are $0.07 per vehicle mile, resulting in a $5.66 externalized pollution cost for my roundtrip. Assuming that the ratio between a car trip’s greenhouse gas externality and Metrolink’s greenhouse gas externality equals the ratio between a car’s pollution externality and Metrolink’s externality, the externalized air pollution cost of Metrolink would be $2.36 for my roundtrip.
  • Congestion – Parry and Small estimate that during rush hour in Los Angeles, each car imposes a congestion externality on the cars behind it of $0.34 per mile, for a roundtrip externality of $27.47. An externalized crowding cost for Metrolink would be negligible, since seats were always available on the trains I rode. Even if demand increased beyond seating capacity, it is reasonable to assume that more trains would be added, decreasing wait times for other riders and resulting in an external benefit, rather than cost.
  • Crashes – The risk of injuring others in a car crash is estimated to be $0.03 per mile, which equals $2.42 for my roundtrip. The risk of Metrolink crashes is assumed to be negligible.

These externalities sum to $38.82 for driving this roundtrip, and $3.72 for riding Metrolink. Society, through the market’s failure to consider these externalities, essentially subsidizes a driver who makes this trip $38.82, while subsidizing a Metrolink student rider only $24.92 (the sum of the fare subsidy plus the externalities). To equalize these figures, society should be willing to subsidize Metrolink tickets by an additional $13.90. Put another way, if society were willing to bear the same amount of costs from Metrolink riders as from single occupancy vehicles, Metrolink student riders would pay a fare of negative $1 (i.e. be paid for making the trip)!

In this second-best way of economic thinking, it makes sense to pay people not to drive; the longer the car trip that is averted, the more pollution and these other externalities are reduced. This way of thinking, of privileging riders who have the choice to use a car instead, underlies Southern California’s transportation agencies’ willingness to expend sales tax revenues to subsidize suburban riders well upwards of $20 per day, but urban bus riders at only a fraction of that level. This setup is especially perverse given that suburban rail riders tend to be those who are already taking advantage of mortgage tax breaks and who have more mobility options than poorer urban residents who depend on transit.

Accepting single occupancy vehicles as the baseline leads to strange second-best pricing/subsidy outcomes. Instead, maybe what’s needed is a paradigm shift and a system whereby drivers pay more fully the costs they impose on society.

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