Thoughts on driving to work
2023-09-28 [updated 2023-09-29]

I bought a lightly used petrol hatchback to replace my old Hilux. The Hilux was incredibly affordable, but I wasn’t feeling great about driving a noisy polluting diesel ute for city commuting. I sold it to a small business owner in the construction industry who’ll put it to use hauling building materials, where it belongs.

About three months ago I set myself the goal of limiting my car commuting to three days a week. Public transport plays the biggest role in achieving this, along with working from home and riding my bike. Catching the bus doesn’t work for me all the time due to site visits, variable hours, or the need to carry equipment. It’s for this reason my target is public transport twice a week for now.

Hatchback distance-based running costs (marginal):
Petrol 6L/100km economy @ $2/L 12c/km
Maintenance $1000 per 10,000km 10c/km
Depreciation $500 per 10,000km 5c/km

The marginal cost of driving my hatchback is 27c/km ($10.80/40km, which is my daily return commute to work). The public transport fare is $5.44/day when I commute. Daily savings with public transport instead of driving is $5.36.

To get this cheap fare I get off the bus at an earlier stop and walk the last part. This is a function of our quirky fare zone system which, as luck has it, places an imaginary line across the map near where I work. If I ride public transport across that line twice a day it would increase the cost of my fare to $8.16/day, bringing it within a whisker of the marginal cost of driving my car. Hence, I add about ten minutes per day of walking to my commute to save a few dollars. Unfortunately I have to walk along busy roads under highway overpasses with intersections that lack pedestrian crossings. I just have to wait for a gap and run across. This is made worse because about half of all drivers don’t use their indicators at these intersections. This lack of safe pedestrian infrastructure is typical in many parts of my city. My letters to Main Roads and the Minister for Road Safety requesting improvements have proven fruitless. I wonder why kids aren’t riding to school any more.

Driving to work takes between 30 and 40 minutes each way and I can leave at any time. Catching public transport takes a minimum of 60 minutes each way (more like 70 or 80 heading home in the afternoon sometimes). The buses I need to catch generally run on 30 minute headways, but not all of the buses have fast connections to the next train. I have narrow windows of opportunity to get good connections. One late bus or missed connection and I’m well over 90 minutes getting home.

Hatchback annual running costs (fixed):
Insurance $800
Registration $1000
Maintenance $200
Depreciation $500

Rationale for maintenance and depreciation split:
For a car of this type, age, and value depreciation is about $1000/year with average kilometres (10,000km/year). Let’s call that $500/year plus $500/10,000km. Most maintenance is done on a distance basis (replace tyres, replace certain filters), but some items require attention on a time basis (brake fluid replacement, for example).

Structural problems with the cost of car ownership:
The relatively high fixed annual costs of car ownership incentivise owners to use their car more often, because they spend all this money each year regardless of use. They may as well get as much use as possible out of their cars at the same fixed annual cost. As cars get more expensive to buy and cheaper to run (electric cars, for example), the relationship between fixed and marginal running costs skews even more towards the marginal cost (per kilometre) being cheaper. The marginal cost is comparatively low because of the low cost of fuel, good fuel efficiency of modern cars, free parking at most destinations, lack of toll roads (in my city, at least), and lack of distance-based registration and insurance fees. Many of the marginal costs of driving private motor vehicles are paid for collectively by government and society.

“If I’m paying all this money each year to own a car it would be silly to leave it at home and use some other transport option. I’m paying $2,500 for my car to sit at my house while I catch a bus. How silly of me.”

On a value for money basis I can’t justify catching public transport. Adding an hour to my daily commute, the loss of flexibility to leave at an arbitrary time of day, and lack of safe and comfortable pedestrian infrastructure is not worth saving $5.36/day. My commute involves two buses and two trains each way (and a horrible walk around a highway in an industrial area with no footpaths) so I can’t really use that time productively - it’s just too disrupted with all the connections.

Getting an extra hour of sleep, yoga, or cooking time is worth more than $5.36 to me.

All that being said I’ll probably continue to catch the bus once or twice a week because it’s the environmentally and socially responsible thing to do, and ever so slightly cheaper, but it’s a big investment of time and effort and doesn’t feel like it’s worth it. It shouldn’t be like this.

I hope the rapidly increasing cost of new cars will put pressure on the government to prioritise mixed use infill development over urban sprawl and take walking, cycling, and public transport more seriously. Admittedly our public transport here is excellent given how sprawled our city is. Owning and driving a car should be expensive and deprioritised while other transport options should be efficient, convenient, safe, comfortable, and affordable. This all comes down to government policy choices.

Our current model of everyone having to own and drive their own car to do their daily routine is the dumbest transport model ever invented and it’s entirely unsustainable.