Pulling the data together

It’s not easy comparing the cost of different modes of travel. With driving, for example, there are a lot more costs than just the per-mile cost of driving – the cost of the vehicle, insurance, maintenance, tolls, parking etc. This appendix delves into some of those costs and how they have changed over time. It also raises issues that policymakers may have to address if they decide to add to the cost of driving.

Every traveler is different. Some own cars and may have a choice ahead of each trip whether to drive or take the T. Some have access to free parking, while others’ schedules make driving a hassle. For many, the location of their home and work near reliable transit adds an intangible convenience factor, and presumably higher rent or mortgage payments. For many others, accessing transit from home or work is difficult.


STORY: Isolation problem: T fares rising faster than cost of driving

VIEW THE DATA: Download the spreadsheet


CommonWealth obtained data from the Internal Revenue Service and the National Association of Tax Professionals on the IRS’s standard mileage rate. The standard mileage rate – which was 54.5 cents in 2018 – represents the cost of gasoline and automotive maintenance required for every mile driven. The NATP has data [pdf] going back to 1974. That data indicate the per-mile cost of driving has risen by a little more than double since 1990. Subway fares, meanwhile, have tripled over that same period and some other T fares have gone up at even faster rates.

In January 1990, a gallon of gas in the Boston area cost $1.04, a subway ride cost 75 cents, and a bus trip cost 50 cents, according to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics and the MBTA. By this past February, according to those sources, the cost of a gallon of gas had gone up by a little more than double to $2.37, while the subway fare had tripled to $2.25 and the bus fare more than tripled to $1.70.

The MBTA provided a spreadsheet with data going back to 1989 on changes to fares. Some types of fares have been phased out, and others have been introduced more recently. (For instance, commuter rail travelers can now receive unlimited rides all weekend for $10.) CommonWealth’s analysis covered fares that existed throughout the past three decades. The analysis also focused on the cost of individual trips as opposed to monthly passes, and used the discounted rates paid by those with Charlie Cards, which were introduced in 2006 and are free.

By comparing the mileage for a particular trip and the MBTA fares required to make the same journey by transit, it is possible to make a comparison of the cost of travel itself. That shows the cost of getting from Point A to Point B. The comparison does not include many of the additional costs of car ownership – such as excise taxes, insurance, and lease payments – nor does it account for the cost of parking, which varies widely, or of tolls. One other limitation on this analysis is that the IRS uses a nationwide standard even though the cost of driving varies region to region and state to state. According to a recent USA Today analysis, Massachusetts has the 30th lowest gas tax of all 50 states in the nation. The newspaper included the 2.5-cent per-gallon underground storage tank fee, which brings state fees and taxes to 26.5 cents per gallon.

This chart shows the indexed cost of travel by MBTA subway, bus and commuter rail as compared to the cost of driving and the price of a gallon of gasoline.

It is impossible to account for every single cost factor that might play into decisions about how to get around, and it is also impossible to account for all the particularities of each traveler making that type of decision. CommonWealth’s analysis focuses on the raw cost of travel itself, but for those giving serious thought to the cost of travel, some other expenses might be worth consideration as well.

Parking costs

For Boston-area drivers, the cost of parking varies depending on whether a driver parks in a metered spot, a commercial garage, or in a space that is free.

For someone driving into Boston for only a couple hours – say for a shopping excursion or medical appointment – the cost of on-street metered parking has been relatively unchanged since the early 1980s when the standard hourly rate was $1. The hourly rate increased to $1.25 in 2011 where it stands today. So while the cost of riding the subway has tripled since 1990, the cost to park at a meter has increased 25 percent. Boston Mayor Marty Walsh has proposed another increase, to $2 per hour, which would still not keep pace with the escalation in MBTA fares. The city has also experimented with variable rates in certain neighborhoods.

The city has 8,000 metered parking spaces but, according to the Boston Transportation Department, it doesn’t track the amount of residential permit parking available, where Bostonians are granted free on-street parking spaces throughout the city. Residential permitted areas tend to be in the neighborhoods outside the employment centers. Boston City Councilor Michelle Wu has proposed charging Boston residents an escalating rate starting at $25 for the permits – which recently numbered more than 100,000. Walsh told WGBH he doesn’t think charging residents for parking permits would be fair.

In the downtown area of the city, there are a maximum of 35,556 spaces available to members of the public for a fee, a limit imposed by a so-called “parking freeze” the city approved in 1978. Citywide, there are more than double that number of public off-street parking spaces. According to a study published by the National Parking Association in 2013, Boston had 227 off-street parking facilities with an average of 360 spaces each. That works out to over 81,000 off-street spaces at those facilities.

The prices at commercial lots and garages have been pretty stable over the years, according to the Transportation Department, and they are much more expensive than metered spots. One key advantage for motorists using commercial garages instead of a metered spot is they can leave their cars there for the full workday.

At those downtown commercial lots, motorists need to pay a hefty price to park for the day. The Boston Common Garage, which is owned by the Massachusetts Convention Center Authority and tends to keep rates somewhat below market level, charges $28 for 10 hours of parking, which is about the price of the foie gras plate at the nearby No. 9 Park restaurant. The North Station Garage offers an “early bird special” of $24 for those in by 9 a.m. and out by 6 p.m. In 1999, which is the furthest back the convention center was able to produce parking rates for the garage, the 12-hour rate was $13. Even though those downtown parking rates have climbed significantly over those past two decades and they far exceed the cost of transit, the rate to park for an 8-hour workday has increased at a lesser rate than MBTA fares since the turn of the century.

Vehicle cost

More expensive than even parking is the actual purchase of a car or truck. Kelley’s Blue Book put the average price of a new car at nearly $37,000 this year, and the cost has risen significantly since 2005, increasing by $9,725. The cost of vehicles purchased used or obtained on a hand-me-down basis from family is much less.

Drivers also need to buy insurance, pay excise taxes, and pay Registry of Motor Vehicles fees, which can add up. For those who own cars, those expenses would be owed no matter whether they decide to take the T or drive for a particular trip.

The traffic data firm Inrix estimated that the cost of driving for Bostonians was sixth-most expensive in the country, tallying up to $12,853 in 2017. Of that total, $7,237 was car ownership, $2,045 was for parking, and a total of $3,572 was for indirect costs of congestion and something the firm called “parking pain.”

Tolls

Meet the Author

Andy Metzger

Reporter, CommonWealth magazine

About Andy Metzger

Andy Metzger joined CommonWealth Magazine as a reporter in January 2019. He has covered news in Massachusetts since 2007. For more than six years starting in May 2012 he wrote about state politics and government for the State House News Service.  At the News Service, he followed three criminal trials from opening statements to verdicts, tracked bills through the flumes and eddies of the Legislature, and sounded out the governor’s point of view on a host of issues – from the proposed Olympics bid to federal politics.

Before that, Metzger worked at the Chelmsford Independent, The Arlington Advocate, the Somerville Journal and the Cambridge Chronicle, weekly community newspapers that cover an array of local topics. Metzger graduated from UMass Boston in 2006. In addition to his written journalism, Metzger produced a work of illustrated journalism about Gov. Charlie Baker’s record regarding the MBTA. He lives in Somerville and commutes mainly by bicycle.

About Andy Metzger

Andy Metzger joined CommonWealth Magazine as a reporter in January 2019. He has covered news in Massachusetts since 2007. For more than six years starting in May 2012 he wrote about state politics and government for the State House News Service.  At the News Service, he followed three criminal trials from opening statements to verdicts, tracked bills through the flumes and eddies of the Legislature, and sounded out the governor’s point of view on a host of issues – from the proposed Olympics bid to federal politics.

Before that, Metzger worked at the Chelmsford Independent, The Arlington Advocate, the Somerville Journal and the Cambridge Chronicle, weekly community newspapers that cover an array of local topics. Metzger graduated from UMass Boston in 2006. In addition to his written journalism, Metzger produced a work of illustrated journalism about Gov. Charlie Baker’s record regarding the MBTA. He lives in Somerville and commutes mainly by bicycle.

Tolls are another cost factor for those who use the Massachusetts Turnpike, the harbor tunnels, or the Tobin Bridge. The Tobin tolls have essentially been flat since 2004, when the cost for southbound drivers with transponders rose to $2.50. In 2016 when automated tolling was introduced, drivers with E-ZPass transponders began paying $1.25 each way, so there was no real change for those driving back and forth on the bridge. Looking back to 1990, Tobin tolls have gone up faster than even bus fares, rising five-fold from the old 50-cent southbound rate, according to the Massachusetts Port Authority. For residents of Charlestown and Chelsea who qualify for discounts on the tolls, the cost has remained essentially unchanged since 1983 when they had to pay 30 cents. When the state switched to all-electronic tolling on the Turnpike in 2016, transportation officials said the cost would remain the same or go down for just over half of drivers, but those taking the trip from West Newton into the city now pay more.

Those tolls can be a difference-maker when calculating the cost of driving as compared to taking the MBTA. The driving distance from West Newton to South Station is identical to the distance from Melrose Highlands to North Station, but the inclusion of a $1.70 toll for travel on the Pike makes it slightly cheaper to take the train for that journey even though the train fare to West Newton is slightly more than the fare to Melrose.