Is riding the Loser Cruiser worth it?

RICHARD MEADOWS
Last updated 09:16 11/10/2012
public transport
WHAT VALUE: How mush is it worth to use public transport instead of driving to work?

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OPINION: Public transport is not glamorous. This author spent one particularly memorable and claustrophobic bus ride shaking a fellow commuter's vomit off his pants and shoes.

Another time he was almost crushed to death under a large woman as the bus navigated a sharp curve.

Thankfully, one of the great redeeming features is that public transport is cheap.

And yet a social media probe into the cost benefits unleashed a tidal wave of obscenity, horror stories and general disdain. Admittedly, most of the respondents were Aucklanders.

Is the financial incentive enough to combat the sheer indignity of having to ride the Loser Cruiser along with the great unwashed?

Run through the following questions and find out:

Do you own a car?
Going without a set of wheels could make life difficult in sprawling Auckland, but it's definitely more viable in the capital city.

Neil Miller has a driving licence but doesn't drive - which is quite fortunate, given his job as a beer writer involves downing the odd pint here and there.

The "compact nature of Wellington" means he can walk or taxi around with ease, he says, with the odd bus trip for longer distances or the train out to see mum and dad.

Miller's not sure how much he's saving, because he's never owned a car.

According to the AA's estimates, the answer is a staggering $7,400-$15,100 a year.

That figure's based on the first five years of ownership of a new car, and the average annual distance travelled of 14,000km.

But even if you've got an old dunger where depreciation isn't such a drain, the repairs, maintenance, rego, WOF and insurance can still end up costing a bomb.

Let's split out the cost of commuting to work or study. Most people's daily journey into the city will fall roughly between three and 12 kilometres, according to Statistics NZ.

That adds up to about $1,500- $6,000 a year in operating costs, based on the AA's figure of 100.4c/km for a standard sized car that doesn't rack up a whole lot of mileage.

Bus or train fares to get you the same distance to and from the city each day will cost roughly $1,000 to $1,800 a year.

That means abandoning your vehicle and throwing yourself upon the mercy of public transport is likely to save anywhere from several hundred to several thousand bucks a year.

Another way of looking at is earning a free overseas holiday every year you don't have a vehicle.

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But if you're going to own a car anyway, the case for public transport is nowhere near as convincing.

That's because you're still going to be paying all those fixed costs - like WOF and insurance - regardless of how faithfully you ride the bus.

Surprisingly, the running cost of petrol, tyres, and repairs and maintenance actually works out to be pretty cheap.

The AA calculates it at 23.6 cents per km for a compact 1500-2000cc car.

Running costs for that same short city commute are only $400 to $1500 a year, which almost certainly beats the bus.

Add to that the fact that not owning a car simply isn't feasible for many, especially those living in more poorly serviced areas.

But don't throw away your bus passes just yet. For the majority of vehicle owners, the real cost-effectiveness will depend largely on the following factor:

Can you get free parking?
If you're lucky enough to work outside the central city or have a designated carpark, then driving's almost certainly a winner.

Another option is to park in the fringes and walk in to work.

But from the moment you start slotting coins into a parking meter or forking out for a long-term park, the financial benefits of driving dry up.

Based on our average commute detailed above, if you have to pay any more than $2 or $3 a day then public transport once again takes supremacy.

Finding parking that cheap is nigh impossible, depending on where you live.

In the Auckland CBD it's usually $15 or more a day - and that's early bird.

Wellington's coupon parking in the city fringes is about half as expensive, and in the CBD itself street parking is $1.50 to $4 an hour.

There's no shortage in Christchurch. The central city is starting to resemble one giant parking lot ever since Wilson Parking started buying up levelled land post-quakes. Besides that, the City Council is also offering a cheap-as-chips discounted rate of $4 a day on the streets.

As a general rule, paying for parking means you're losing. But if you're a Cantabrian or paying a super cheap rate, it's probably marginal.

Can you get a ticket discount?
Like anything else, buying in bulk will save you heaps. Your local transport operator almost certainly offers multi-ride tickets, monthly passes or other such options.

Auckland intermediate school teacher Lorelle Armitage paid $195 a month for a Ritchies bus pass to get her to Britomart for a year.

If that seems like a lot, consider that she was doing a massive 60km round trip from out west in Waimauku which would have cost more than $300 month on normal fares.

"I caught it every day so it worked out way cheaper than a car park plus petrol, plus you can read or sleep on the bus," she says.

Auckland's HOP card and Wellington's Snapper will cut anywhere from 10-20 per cent off the cash fare of compatible operators too.

Auckland Transport says that when the integrated fare system arrives, there will be more pricing benefits to come.

Can you car-pool?
University of Auckland student Charlotte Goodwin cadges rides in to the city with her brother or her boyfriend.

"I have caught the bus twice for uni and that is only when I am desperate," she says.

A burden shared is a burden halved. You can make use of transit lanes without getting pinged too. The only hard bit is squeezing some gas money out of your passengers.

If parking is super expensive or picking people up is a hassle, than carpooling still won't work out. Otherwise, it's a winner.

Can you save time?
Riding along a torturous winding bus route with endless stops is about as mind-numbingly boring as watching golf on TV.

Of course, the only thing worse is being stuck nose-to-bumper in heavy traffic, while buses are whizzing past in the transit lane.

Whether it's faster to drive or use public transport depends entirely on local traffic conditions, so there's no use generalising.

The point is that time is money. If waiting around at the bus stop takes another half an hour out of your day, then price it in accordingly.

Are you comfortable?
So far we've looked strictly at saving money:

"But it's important to not only consider financial costs - the environmental and social benefits of public transport provide considerable benefits for individuals and society as a whole," says an Auckland Transport spokesman.

That's true, and might well sway some people's decision. And then there's personal preference, too.

Many will happily pay a premium to drive in their own little bubble, listen to their radio station and avoid having to sit next to obnoxious people.

Others think they're getting a sweet deal by being able to chill out with a book or laptop, avoiding the stress of driving in heavy traffic.

Does driving or using public transport work out better for you? Leave your comments below.

- BusinessDay.co.nz

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