Friday, January 06, 2006

Perceived Transportation Costs

I am teaching a small winter session class here in Missoula. Students divided into groups based on how they get to campus most often. The groups were to list things that would be most likely to change their transportation choice. The hope was that they would begin to understand how different factors (costs, substitutes, income, tastes) affect their decisions as "consumers" of transportation.

The discussion was lively, and, as usual, I found it very hard to understand the rationale of the group that drove and parked on campus (though it follows other findings). Fuel, maintenance, depreciation, insurance and most other car operation costs were not seen as affecting the decision to drive. The three things most likely to change the decision to drive were parking costs, parking availability, and the need for a car before/after classes. An $80 increase in parking costs per semester would change all of their decisions, as would missing class due to no vacant space. The (perceived) need for a car to get to and from work or daycare/children's school was also an important component in the decision.

When asked to clarify why fuel, maintenance, etc were not weighed in the decision to drive to campus, the response was unanimous. Since the tank is filled, maintenance done, and insurance paid already, use is essentially "free." This corroborates the idea that the perceived cost of operating a car is much lower than the actual cost. And, this includes only direct private monetary costs, leaving out private nonmonetary costs (health), indirect costs via taxes (roads), and social costs (congestion, pollution). It also demonstrates why density (tough parking) is so much more conducive to alternative transportation.

For the curious, only 2 out of 25 students used bicycles primarily. Weather was the main factor in their decision.


Blogger aaron said...

yet more evidence that motorism is a form of mild insanity. very intersting premise for a class!

9:40 AM  
Anonymous Michael Rasmussen said...

Ask the drivers how often the fill up the tank. Then ask them about the cost of filling up just once a month. When I commute by bike, which is all the time except for December 2005, a visit to the gas station is a monthly event. It would be even less of an event if my wife cycled more.

Do your students perceive the costs of car ownership as necessary overhead for life? Once that assumption is accepted the only driving expense is the incremental costs of gas and parking. Other driving expenses would be incurred regardless.

2:28 PM  
Blogger Joe said...

Michael, I think you've hit it: "Do your students perceive the costs of car ownership as necessary overhead for life?" It's easy to forget how common this perception is.

I don't know how common it is, but insurance on our last old car would have about doubled had it been used for commuting to school or work. This may vary by company. Relatively short trips in town also cause a disproportiante amount of wear and tear on a car.

I remember reading once about an older California activist who kept her old car but allowed herself only one tank a year. A tank a month is pretty impressive though, well done!

5:28 PM  
Anonymous mike said...

"costs of car ownership as necessary overhead for life"

Our local newspaper ran a wire story over the weekend about some data from the latest Census. Shows a high number of people at or near poverty level income have color TVs, cable, computers, air conditioning, and other things that could be (and long have been) considered luxuries. I'm sure cars were in there, too -- luxuries that we've come to consider bare necessities.

6:39 AM  
Blogger Joe said...

I wonder, if real income continues to decline (and/or income inequality to increase), which perceived necessities will get squeezed? Perhaps if the consumer debt doomsayers are at all correct, we'll get a preview soon.

1:16 PM  
Anonymous Michael Rasmussen said...

Ah, but I forgot to include the bicyclist's version of this same question. Did either of the (was it two?) two cyclists include the cost of the extra calories in riding?

I rode for two hours today, most of it through rain and headwinds. So let's say that is 700 calories burned. Maybe more because I'm overweight and was trying to push it.

What does it cost to supply 700 calories? Three and a half candy bars? Seven slices of bread? Someone here do Weight Watchers? I'd think the cost is, depending on caloric source, somewhere between $1 and $6.

10:24 PM  

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