The Cost of Auto Travel

A discussion sprang up in another thread about the cost of commuting by auto.  In order to keep this separate from the original article (on Spadina trackwork), this item has been created as a “stub” to own those off-topic comments.

17 thoughts on “The Cost of Auto Travel

  1. Stephen Kit’s posts caught my interest because, like him, I have travelled from Mississauga to the U of T St. George Campus. I’ve also done the trip in every possible way that uses motorized transport (U of T bus, public transit, cycling, and driving, at different days, time of day, and different parts of the year).

    His post is also timely because my vehicle and I are participating in the Canadian vehicle use study, which gives me a nifty GPS+driving data-logger device that tracks my regular driving patterns & fuel use.

    The first amazing thing so far is the real-time display of fuel costs. A short 5 minute trip costs me approximately $0.20 (depending on red lights and left turns). A 15 minute trip costs me approximately $0.50-$0.60 and a trip as long as 2-3 hours can cost as little as $3-4 while driving on the highway.

    The second amazing thing is that on average, my vehicle spends 20-30% of engine run-time at idle (and therefore, wasting fuel).

    I have always wanted to have this information, because it gives me an idea of how quickly I am using up the fuel I put into the tank. Since gasoline is pre-paid, most people don’t have any idea of their actual fuel usage (ps. it’s nowhere close to the Environment Canada numbers) or how much it is costing them. Now, I know, and in the next few weeks I will be getting data and making changes to my driving patterns accordingly.

    Now, the majority of this driving in Mississauga. Tomorrow is my first trip to downtown Toronto with the logger, and it will be interesting to see what traffic, congestion, red lights, pedestrians, and the effect of the construction on Spadina will be on idling time & fuel cost.

    Why is this relevant? Because I already see the importance of investing in public transit and reducing vehicle use. First, there simply isn’t enough room on downtown Toronto roads for everyone who wants to drive in from the suburbs to do so (especially if they want to do so at the same time). Second, the time spent idling is already an unnecessary waste of fuel & contributor to poor air quality. Third, there has to be a clear financial incentive towards increased use of public transit and reduced numbers of vehicle trips, especially single vehicle trips, both into and around Toronto.

    So with all of the above, why am I driving? Because even if I make the trip by myself, right now it will cost me less money and take less time than taking transit (either using MT+GO+TTC, MT+GO, MT+TTC or GO alone). And since I’m making the trip in the early afternoon, and bringing my wife and son with me …. I’m saving the cost of 2 fares each way and saving time and not contributing as much to congestion as other drivers.

    Cheers, Moaz

    ps. we’d sell the car and move to Toronto if we could afford to live there.


  2. So here’s the summary of the trips we took today.

    depart Mississauga at 3:00 pm.
    Arrived U of T Faculty of Education at 3:40 pm (approx)
    Trip length 29km
    Cost of fuel $2.32
    Idling time 10% from Mississauga to Spadina & Lakeshore, 23 % overall (including from Spadina & Lakeshore up to Spadina & Bloor

    depart U of T at 8pm
    arrive Mississauga at 8:29pm
    trip length 28.6km
    cost of fuel $2.30
    Idling time 24% from Spadina & Bloor to Gardiner on ramp, overall 15% including Mississauga

    Total cost = $4.62 fuel + $6 for parking + assumed wear & tear costs. The car was bought used, with cash, so there is no interest, finance charges or major depreciation write downs to factor in.

    Compare the cost from Mississauga using public transit:

    2 passengers x (($2.60 + $2.60 per trip ) x 2 trips)

    2 passengers x (($0.65 + $4.75 per trip ) x 2 trips)

    2 passengers x (($0.65 + $4.75 + $2.60 per trip) x 2 trips)

    Now, I’m not driving down to Toronto by myself or during rush hour. Obviously if I did that, the fuel costs, trip time and idling time would be far greater than the data that I got. Perhaps Stephen Kit can comment on his trips based on his experience.

    The point is that, if you are driving alone or with passengers and you are not driving around during peak hours, then it is possible to drive from a suburban “905” area to downtown Toronto and save money & time as compared to the cost of taking public transit. Of course, there are risks (collisions, congestion etc) and other costs that have to be factored in.

    If you are living in Toronto and have access to rapid transit, that is still your best choice if you are traveling to downtown Toronto. Aside from that, it’s really a toss up depending on what you value.

    Now, I realize that perhaps this comment should have been in Steve’s post on the “32 Minute” Campaign from civic action, so I will conclude with a question about Spadina that had me thinking.

    Steve, if the overhead & the trackwork is finished between Adelaide & College, why aren’t Spadina buses using the ROW? I noticed a few passengers waiting on the ROW, including some waiting at Nassau Street (there was a temporary “Bus” Stop sign placed on the streetcar row as well as one at the curb).

    I realize streetcars are (hopefully) coming back soon, but if there isn’t any significant barrier to putting the buses on the ROW, can they operate there?

    Cheers, Moaz

    Steve: Actually, there is still some minor work in progress on some of the safety islands, but, yes, the work is nearly done. Streetcar service is to return in mid-November.


  3. So with all of the above, why am I driving? Because even if I make the trip by myself, right now it will cost me less money.

    Your analysis omitted the cost of parking, insurance, maintenance, or the capital cost for acquiring a vehicle. It’s possible you’ve found some free parking somewhere, but the other three can’t be avoided.


  4. Cars have large up-front costs (easily $100+ per month), but low marginal costs for a trip with one person (~10c/km) and *tiny* marginal costs for each additional person in the car (under 0.1c/km).

    On the other hand, transit has no (necessary) up-front costs, but does have high marginal costs (2-3$/trip), with the same marginal costs for each additional person.

    Steve: The situation is different for someone using a pass (or equivalent) where there is a one-time cost to purchase the right to travel for some period of time, and zero marginal cost to make any trip. Most passes, however, are single-user fares.

    The result? If you don’t own a car, it is generally cheaper for you to keep not owning a car and use transit instead. But, if you own a car, it is generally cheaper to use it than to own a car and use transit.

    Therefore (in general) transit has to offer something to car owners that it makes worth the extra cost to them over using their car. The most common thing is time (subways/LRT/commuter rail are good for this) – people will pay extra for a shorter trip. If there are no non-monetary benefits to using transit, then the only way to get significant numbers of car owners to use transit is to make car trips more expensive (e.g. through tolls or higher parking costs).


  5. These costs are all just variable costs. The fixed(ish) costs of ownership have to be added in (as Leo says).

    If you assume buying/maintaining the car costs $2000/year (say, generously, a $10,000 used car lasts for seven years, with ~$500/year in maintenance), and (generously, I think) $2000 a year for insurance. Plus say $500/year for parking. (Even if you “already have a spot,” that wasn’t free (although zoning laws may have made it difficult to avoid).) So $4500/year. If you’re driving 15,000 km a year, that’s $0.30 a kilometer you’ve got to add to all these trips.


  6. Leo makes a good point. Even purchasing a used car, as I did in 2007, it was still $9000 out of my pocket. $9000 buys an awful lot of metropasses, day passes and single transit fares. However, it is not practical for most people in the GTA, central Toronto included, to not own a car. As a personal example, even though I live and work within the city of Toronto, I have family in the 905 and beyond, and other reasons to venture out from time to time, so owning a car is indeed an assumed cost as Moaz described. So I believe his analysis is appropriate, and represents exactly how most people judge whether or not using public transit for any given trip would be worthwhile or not.


  7. Moaz, could you factor in your capital cost? The purchase of most vehicles does involve financing, depreciation, etc., as you mention. But even if the next car is cash these purchases may be averaged over time and there is still an added cost per trip, no?


  8. Your analysis omitted the cost of parking, insurance, maintenance, or the capital cost for acquiring a vehicle. It’s possible you’ve found some free parking somewhere, but the other three can’t be avoided.

    Some of those are sunk costs, they are being paid even if this individual trip is being taken on transit. Many trips beginning and ending within the inner suburbs/ring cities do not have adequate transit options available (especially if you are crossing municipal boarders) and the ownership of a car vastly increases quality of life by decreasing travel times.

    He also omitted the time saved vs. various transit options. The trip from Central Mississauga is ~1:30-1:45 via the transit options, he’s saving an hour each way. Even if you value free time at minimum wage ($10/hr?) it adds up.

    Steve: The component that is only hinted at is the increased congestion or, to put it another way, declining lack of space for cars to move around and park downtown. Sunk cost or not, the option of bringing your car downtown may simply not be viable at some point in the future. At that point, the sunk costs are distributed over fewer passenger km and, depending on your travel pattern, may not be cost effective especially when extra cars are concerned.


  9. Moaz brings up a great issue that transit supporters never seem to want to discuss.

    No matter how much transit supporters want people to, most people do not factor in having to buy a car or other expenses when deciding how to travel. Because most people are going to own a car anyway.

    They factor in the gas and parking if they pay for it. Bur rarely fixed expenses like insurance.

    And whether we like it or not, the vast majority of transit users (and this is a good thing because it shows our transit system is healthy) have a car or have access to one.

    So transit has to rise to the challenge and attract people with fast service, and fares that are reasonable compared to driving.

    The cost of transit is probably one the biggest issues in Toronto. I can’t tell you how many times people I know have driven somewhere because the cost to take transit would just be a total waste of money over driving. Sad but true.

    Yes there are people who choose not to have a car. But at the end of the day most people in the region do have cars and as we are seeing, transit riders have to be treated more and more like valued customers, which they are. And not captives who have no other choice.


  10. I am with Leo on this – while I like to use transit as much as possible but it is not always practical. Either it takes too long/involves too many transfers, doesn’t go where I am going, or involves more than two transit agencies. It can be far more practical to take a car than to take transit. Transit in Toronto can do a good job, but sometimes it isn’t always the best option. Sometimes I simply don’t want to waste two or more hours getting from Point A to Point B, or have to pay several different agencies that don’t do c0-fares.


  11. To answer a few questions:

    I did mention the cost of parking, which turned out to be a $6 evening flat rate at Spadina & Bloor. My wife and I then walked around the U of T campus and then went to Bay & Wellesley. On Bay St. we also passed another place offering $6 parking all day (the former Sutton Place Hotel).

    In factoring the capital costs, I would follow Josh’s numbers. My parents paid $10,000 for the car in early 2010. At the time I was living in Malaysia and actually recommended that they not buy a car, but my mom said it was important to her to have the “freedom”. In 2011 she had a fall that left her unable to drive, which means that I have to be responsible for taking her and my father around often, although they make use of TransHelp services and MiWay when possible.

    I don’t drive 15,000 km a year and our insurance (at 1,700) is somewhat lower than what Josh mentioned. Maintenance has been approximately $1000 over two years as Josh suggested.

    So even if I factor in the $0.30 per km additional costs, a 30km trip is going to cost $9.00. As I said earlier, the fuel cost was $2.30 so we’re talking $11.30 each trip, plus the cost of parking. Factor in the value of the time saved for two people as Cliff mentioned, and that car trip is still going to cost less than using transit.

    But again, this is the cost of one very specific trip, taken at a time that would avoid peak traffic congestion, to a place that would cost little in terms of parking. Every day thousands of people from the “905” and “416” make this trip driving during peak hours, wasting gasoline in their idling cars, building up additional stress etc. Those costs have to be factored in but no one is doing it because it is complicated, and as one comment alluded, the up front cost of car ownership & fuel purchases tends to encourage additional driving.

    My point here is that we need to invest in public transit, and we need to make people aware of all of the costs associated with public transit *and* driving. We hear of the billions in capital costs for public transit as well as the operating costs and TTC subsidy, but we just don’t hear as much about the billions in up front costs for our road & highway systems along with the cost of purchasing, insuring, maintaining & operating a car.

    And, while we build more transit, we also need to provide financial measures to make it cost more to drive a single-occupant vehicle into the city centre, as opposed to a vehicle with multiple passengers.

    We also have to consider areas outside of the city centre as part of any transit plan. I could easily make the trip to Spadina & Bloor using transit, but I could not easily make a trip to McCowan & 16th Ave. using transit. All of our ‘doable’ plans for regional transit expansion are focused on getting people into and out of downtown, but the biggest & fastest growing areas of congestion are the ‘reverse commute’ and the long-distance “905-905” trip.

    As long as people in these areas are subtly or directly encouraged to drive they will drive, and investments in public transit will not be able to catch up to that increase in demand.

    Cheers, Moaz


  12. “He also omitted the time saved vs. various transit options. The trip from Central Mississauga is ~1:30-1:45 via the transit options, he’s saving an hour each way. Even if you value free time at minimum wage ($10/hr?) it adds up.”

    Time is important, but it doesn’t always work to the advantage of the car, even if the car is faster. I would rather sit on the streetcar for an hour, reading a book, than driving in rush-hour traffic and experiencing the usual rush-hour idiots and weasels for half an hour. Of course, the idiocy is still out there around the streetcar, but I don’t have to pay attention to it.

    Why the twits who talk on the phone or read their briefings — while attempting to control a motor vehicle on a public highway — don’t take public transit or a taxi where they can yak or read all they want, puzzles me.

    “No matter how much transit supporters want people to, most people do not factor in having to buy a car or other expenses when deciding how to travel. Because most people are going to own a car anyway. “

    A Metropass is much cheaper than a car when you work out all the costs per month or year. Why should people not hesitate at dropping tens of thousands of dollars on a car, but cavil at a hundred or so bucks a month for a Metropass, at which point marginal costs for taking transit are zero?


  13. The actual cost of operating a vehicle, according to CRA’s driving allowance, was 42 cents/km a few years ago. I don’t think that includes capital cost. With the higher gas prices now, I wouldn’t be surprised if the actual cost of buying, owning, maintaining, & operating a vehicle is around 60 cents/km.

    Thus a trip length of 29km would actually cost $17.40, which is around the cost of taking transit. How to price the cost of driving stress, road rage etc? Don’t know. I can get alot of work & reading & texting done on transit. In a car (& I do have 1) I can do none of these.


  14. I sold off my car a few years ago (2005-2011) and with my budget keeping I found in my case the total cost of owning a car (2006 Mazda 3) over those 4 years was $1000 a month (including depreciation) and direct costs were $600/month.

    Now, my transit cost per month is now $184 (4 GTA Passes with tax credit). I rent out the parking spot in my condo $185 a month in my pocket. For the past 6 months my average car costs (car2go, ZipCar, car rentals, taxi) has been $290/month. That is the expensive 6 months as winter is much cheaper to rent a car (Enterprise $35/weekend). Which brings out my total peak/summer monthly transportation expense to $291/month.

    In addition to this, no idiots cutting me off, no car maintenance checkups, no car to vacuum or wash, -> less stress. My commutes are spent reading or sometimes sleeping.

    I walk across the street to the shopping mall or 10 minutes to the grocery store (although I typically do my grocery shopping on my commute home at a grocery store on the subway line).

    Only time I need a car is to see my friends who live in the suburbs… so I prefer to see my friends in the city more often 🙂

    This is all about choices you make.


  15. What is the average cost of running a car in Canada now? I have read $8000, and I have read $10000. As said above, if you don’t own a car yet, it’s best to continue on transit. However, if you do own a car, you can sell it and stop bleeding from your wallet. This assumes you have other reasonable options for travel, which in most of the GTA you do not.

    I am happy to ride a bike through winter, and I commute on subways outbound, so I get a seat in both directions. Most people won’t cycle even in fair weather, even if the distance is reasonable (and it often isn’t). And transit? We all know the state and paucity of transit downtown, much less outside of it.

    In Tokyo, where I am typing, it’s a rare family that owns more than one car, and more than half own none. You may think it’s due to space and costs, but car ownership is not much more expensive than in Toronto. I’d estimate it costs 150% of the portion of the average take-home pay here in Tokyo, compared to Toronto. If you own a motorbike (rare snow in Tokyo) or a ‘light-automobile’ (軽自動車) your costs would be not more than in Toronto. So why an ownership rate less than half? Easy: apart from the horrible rush hour crush, transit is convenient, reliable and ubiquitous; driving is slower and parking is more expensive. The reality of a greater Tokyo with the population of all of Canada is that transit is going to be dense, but crowded at rush hour, and though Japan loves to build roads, they fill up immediately.

    So how do you get people on transit in Toronto? How do you get households to give up even one car? In fantasy land you prioritize infill so more parts of the GTA have density that can support transit, but we can’t even get laneway-housing downtown. You can throw tax money at it, if you can get people to vote for their own interests for a change, and you can tax roads and parking, but the sad fact is that the GTA has been allowed to metastasize beyond any saving without forcing established communities to suck up new, and more dense, developments. Witness Detroit.


  16. Has anyone tried to factor time savings due to car trips being faster into the equation?

    Steve: This has the intriguing implication that a baron of industry should be able to drive from Rosedale because his time is so much more valuable, but a dishwasher in Malvern can “afford” to take the bus.


  17. Sure I can read an eBook or play around with my smartphone while on the bus. But if I took Miway and Brampton Transit to get to work (I live on Mavis/Eglinton and commute to Bramalea in Brampton. It’s a 3 bus commute), I’d have to leave home like 45 minutes earlier. And subsequently, I’d have to wake up 45 minutes earlier. I live 21.1 km away from work and in this economy beggars can’t be choosers. I think it would be difficult for me to find a similar job within my field with equally competitive pay. And I don’t want to live in Brampton. Mississauga is a nicer place to live. Brampton is like Peel Region’s Scarborough. My morning commute is about 19-22 minutes (from driveway to parking garage ramp) and about 30 minutes in the afternoon going southbound.

    Considering that my commute is more or less 60 kph during the morning and 40 kph during the afternoon (faster than the 34-35 kph from Bloor-Danforth and Yonge-University-Spadina. And getting out of the parking lot takes less time than walking to a stop and waiting for trains to arrive), I can’t complain too much. But not everyone has a decent enough commute obviously (average of 80-82 minutes a day). And we need better transit to service those congested corridors to get cars off those corridors.

    Auto ownership in my opinion is way too expensive in the GTA. I am not opposed to passing on greater variable costs to drivers (my preference would be to charge commercial lot owners a parking levy. Which can then be passed on in the form of parking fees or the introduction of metered parking or monthly parking passes in lots that are currently “free”. The revenue earned from the parking levy could be used to fund rapid transit. That way motorists, while penalized, would have a decent incentive to actually use public transit. Instead of being forced to use public transit just because they the roads are awful and their car is burning a hole through their wallet). I’m not a fan of highway tolls because the collection method costs burn a nice hole into the revenues. And people will take local roads instead to avoid tolls and clog all the arteries in the city. Congestion tolls also have expensive collection costs. And any GPS/trasponder type of collection system would be too Big Brother-ish.

    While I support increased variable costs, the fixed costs you have to pay just to own the damn thing are ridiculous. Even if you own a beater. Auto insurance is a rip-off in Ontario compared to other provinces and the US. And then you have all of those fees. I’m not opposed to seeing high car ownership in the GTA because in many cases, you just need a car. Do I have to go through the hassle of renting from zipcar every time you need a car? If I need to take a 15 lb parcel to the post office that is a 15 minute walk away from my residence? What are you supposed to do? Take a granny cart? Carry the thing? When Hazel and co. designed Mississauga, it’s like they totally forgot about the pedestrians.

    I had lived in Mississauga without a car for far too long (because I was disgusted by the auto insurance quotes) to feel cheated by a system that encourages automotive dependence while simultaneously screwing over auto owners financially. This creates a divide between haves and have-nots in our society. The have-nots are stuck with dreadful public transit. If society created a fast, reliable public transit system in Mississauga and Brampton, the divide between car owners and public transit users wouldn’t be so great. However if you want to narrow the divide, you can’t do so too much at the expense of car owners or else they will feel resentment. I do feel that all the “free” subsizied parking in the suburbs, which encourages urban sprawl and traffic congestion, needs to end. But we need to fund an adequate rapid transit system with those funds or else motorists are going to ask what’s in it for them? I’d happily pay for parking at work if it meant that it would improve rapid transit along Peel Region’s corridors and give motorists a smoother rider. Something needs to be done in Peel. There is too much density here to have a pure automotive transport system here anymore (thanks Hazel for building all those condos in Mississauga without having the adequate public transit and road infrastructure in place to support all those extra cars. Nice going genius). Traffic congestion is getting bad on a number of corridors here.


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