I had a big day today, though I’m sure many of you will laugh: I rode the bus for the first time.

Actually, I’ve been on buses many times before. I rode a school bus as a child, and I’ve used public transportation in other towns. I’ve even used the light-rail trains here in Portland. But I had never used the city’s bus system until this afternoon.

Brave new world
I took my new-used Mini Cooper to the dealer this morning for the inspection I should have requested before I purchased it. Also, the car was due for its 60,000-mile service.

While it was in the shop, I walked around downtown Portland, taking a day to play hooky from the blog. I ran some errands. I shopped for my mom’s birthday presents. (She’s 61 today.) I had lunch with a friend.

After we finished eating, I called the dealer, crossing my fingers that there wouldn’t be any bad news. I’m pleased to report that there’s nothing major wrong with the vehicle — just normal wear-and-tear. I dodged a bullet. (The next time I buy a used car, however, I’ll be sure to have it inspected first.)

All the same, there are a couple of small things that need done, including the repair of a leaking power-steering fluid line. “Can we keep the car overnight?” the dealer asked.

“Sure,” I said. But I was really thinking , “How will I get home?” I thought of how much I paid for taxi fare in San Francisco last week. Then I remembered that Kris used to work just two blocks from where I was standing. She used to ride the bus to-and-from work. Why couldn’t I take it home?

I lucked out; the bus I wanted was pulling to the stop just as I arrived. I hopped on board, fumbling my way through the process. “How much?” I asked the driver. He grunted and pointed at a placard listing the fares: $2.30 for an all-zone pass. I put three one-dollar bills into the ticket machine. “Where’s the change?” I asked. The driver grunted and pointed to another placard that noted there’s no change for bus fare.

Half an hour later, I stepped off the bus about a mile from our home. Another pleasant fifteen minutes of walking saw me safely to the door.

A small victory
I realize this is a fairly minor accomplishment, and that many of you won’t see the merit in this. That’s okay. It’s a big deal to me. For years I’ve avoided the bus because I didn’t know how it worked, and because I didn’t know how cost-effective it was. Today I took a chance and just did it. I’ve added another frugal weapon to my arsenal. When the Mini dealer calls tomorrow to say my car is ready, I’ll hop on the bus and head back downtown.

Because I’m that kind of geek, I calculated costs on my ride home. Is the bus cost effective? Is it time effective? I was curious. Here’s what I figured out:

  • The bus ride from downtown Portland to my neighborhood takes 30 minutes. It takes another 15 minutes to walk home. (There’s actually another line that runs closer — I’ll have to look it up.) It costs $2.30 per trip.
  • To drive from downtown Portland to our house takes about 20 minutes. If we use my estimated costs for the Ford Focus I recently sold, it comes to 36.1 cents per mile, or about $3.60 per trip.

So, a round trip from our home to downtown Portland costs $4.60 and takes about 90 minutes on the bus. It costs $7.20 and takes about 40 minutes by car. (Addendum: In the comments, Robert reminds me that to go downtown, I need to pay for parking. That’s true. That brings the total to $9 (or more) per round-trip.) Depending on which is more valuable to you — time or money — you might choose either the bus or a car. In my case, a car is usually the best choice. But I can certainly see how having the bus as an option could save me money sometimes (like today).

And I can understand how, for many people, public transportation can be a heck of a deal!

Note: I’m enjoying this working vacation. It’s been very productive. Although I’m eager to resume writing full time, I’m actually going to stretch this current batch of guest posts until the end of the month. I have some good guest articles on personal finance basics in the queue, and this will give me time to recharge my batteries so that I can come back even stronger in May!

This article is about Cars, Frugality, Real-Life