A very small adventure: Riding the bus

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!

More about...Transportation, Frugality

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J.D.
J.D.
11 years ago

I forgot to mention: another reason I was willing to give the bus a chance was because of our discussion on yesterday’s episode of the Personal Finance Hour. We talked for a bit about a car-free lifestyle, and I mentioned that this appeals to me. In the U.S., it has become the norm for families to have two cars. But what if your family had only one car? Or none at all? How would you make that work? I’ve never seriously contemplated this before, and learning to use the bus is one way for me to explore this option.

SeekingLemonade
SeekingLemonade
11 years ago

Welcome to the real world. Not everyone affords a car.

Also, most dealers have a courtesy van that will ferry customers to and from their repair facility; I always get a ride when the vehicle needs repair. Surprised you didn’t ask about it or weren’t even offered.

Baker @ ManVsDebt
Baker @ ManVsDebt
11 years ago

J.D.,

This sample run (even being just one trip) helps encourage me that we can actually pull this off when we try it in a couple months full-time.

The more I talk about it, the more excited I get to try it out!

IH
IH
11 years ago

Ahem. I will refrain from poking fun at your coming so late to the game of riding the bus to point out that in some cities, like San Francisco, transit users can purchase a monthly pass which offers rides on all buses, trolleys, subway, you name it. It’s a great deal and a subtle encouragement to leave the car at home since, “Well, I already have my pass and I want to get the most out of it”.

J.D.
J.D.
11 years ago

@SeekingLemonade (#2) The dealer did offer to ferry me anywhere I wanted to go in downtown Portland, but I offered to walk. Our home is outside of the downtown area, and they wouldn’t drive me. (And I didn’t expect them to.) @IH (#4) 🙂 You can poke fun at me all you want for this post. I’m poking fun at myself in many ways. I have NO IDEA why I took so long to ride the bus. It seems like a very J.D. thing to do. I’m glad to have finally done it. Also, I did find the monthly passes… Read more »

Kevin
Kevin
11 years ago

I also have a bus route that goes from my house to work (although only a 5 minute walk on each end). For me another benefit of the bus is I can read while riding the bus, and sometimes I will choose to ride the bus if I feel like reading that morning.

Tyler Karaszewski
Tyler Karaszewski
11 years ago

I remember feeling this way when I first moved to San Francisco. I didn’t want to look like an idiot getting on the muni for the first time, but it’s really not that hard. You get used to it after a single trip, and then you’re just glad you don’t have to park downtown. I remember riding the muni train home late one night, a few months after I’d moved to the city, and really feeling like *I live in the city*. Nothing els gave me that “big city experience” quite like riding the train home at 1:00AM after going… Read more »

E
E
11 years ago

Welcome to the bus, JD! 😀 We have only one car, and could go car-free if my husband’s work was a little closer. I work downtown and there are 5 buses that pass within a mile of my house. A 6th bus takes me to the max station 3 miles away. Riding my bicycle increases my flexibility even more. I love commuting by transit. I can relax on the bus – read, do homework, sleep – and arrive refreshed, as opposed to stressed-out from driving. I used to live in LA, so I know car commuting! This is much better.… Read more »

J.D.
J.D.
11 years ago

@Tyler (#7)
You make a great point about trying things even when we’re scared. But the thing that cracks me up in retrospect was that I was scared to ride the bus! I didn’t want to look like a fool when I didn’t know what to do. I guess I needed to turn 40 to lose that part of my ego. 🙂

Shara
Shara
11 years ago

I carpool with DH because the commuter bus from where we live just doesn’t make sense (especially for two of us), luckily we work very close to each other so it isn’t much of a hassle. DH isn’t comfortable with me taking the bus without him because he worries about safety. Where we used to live my friend, who commuted by bus, was accosted almost every day. Some of her encounters made her very nervous and I didn’t blame her. There are a lot of variables to consider, but I agree that it can be a very viable option in… Read more »

Nancy
Nancy
11 years ago

I live in one of the Seattle Eastside suburbs and almost everyone I know who works in downtown Seattle leaves their car at a park-n-ride and takes the commuter bus. Between the stress of too much traffic and the major bucks it costs most people to park, the bus makes tons of sense.

Microsoft also started its own commuter busline that picks up at the park-n-rides to help alleviate traffic and parking woes. It’s very very popular.

Robert Huffman
Robert Huffman
11 years ago

I’m glad to hear you survived the bus. I ride the bus most days in Portland, and it does not seem to have affected me yet. If more people would give it a try, they would realize how efficient bus transportation is. They might also start thinking about how ridiculous it is that our city keeps spending millions of dollar on light rail and street cars: buses are much cheaper, and much more flexible. By the way, in your cost calculation, you forgot to include parking, which can be a good chunk of change: more than your gas and wear… Read more »

Ryan
Ryan
11 years ago

To pick up on what Kevin said, don’t forget the benefits of not having to pay attention to the road when you ride the bus! Catch up on reading, take notes on ideas for future posts, maybe even do some writing. Not only are you spending less money, you’re actually making productive use of that time.

Jen
Jen
11 years ago

My husband and I have been public transit enthusiasts for years, and until recently, only owned one car. Our families both thought we were nuts, but truthfully, we never needed two. We were able to save all the cash we would have spent on payment plans, insurance, etc, and have been able to buy a new car in full. Also, keep in mind the time it would take you to park in the city – it sounds like your 40 min is a curb-to-curb estimate, but finding parking could easily take you another 5-20 min. And cost even more. I… Read more »

J.D.
J.D.
11 years ago

You know, running these numbers just makes me not want to go downtown ever. It looks like it costs about $10 per trip. It’s amazing how once we become accustomed to something — like owning a car — we just take it for granted and never calculate things like per-trip costs. (Well, I don’t anyhow, and I don’t think many other people do either.)

bethh
bethh
11 years ago

JD: the bus can actually be even cheaper! When you board and pay, ask for a transfer: it’s a flimsy piece of paper that will let you continue to ride on your initial fare without paying more.

I checked trimet’s (useful!) site and yours are good for 2 hours. Look at that: the bus is 25% the cost of the car.

(p.s. next time you’re in SF you could arrange a reader get-together! I would totally attend.)

Kim Cornman
Kim Cornman
11 years ago

Portland’s mass transit is WONDERFUL! Several years ago I had the experience of traveling to visit relatives in Gresham on Thanksgiving day. No car, so I took the Greyhound from Everett, WA to Portland, a local bus to the light rail station, and then the light rail out to Gresham; the station was only a 1/2 mile from their home. All very cheap, and, much to my surprise, no huge waits due to “holiday schedules”! It was a great experience. I lived car free for 4 years, and it was great. Seattle/Tacoma/Everett have great mass transit systems, and they are… Read more »

Beth @ Smart Family Tips
Beth @ Smart Family Tips
11 years ago

Congratulations on your bus ride J.D.! I love public transportation because it’s not only much less expensive than driving (usually), but it’s also eco-friendly. 🙂

b-bo
b-bo
11 years ago

it’s funny, on my way to work, there’s one of those local sketchy used car dealerships on a corner where I usually have to sit at a light for a spell and I always sit and look at the cars in the small parking lot and ponder over used cars and pricing and how that place makes money and how i actually like haggling for used car prices etc. and after your post last week, they got an 05 bright yellow mini cooper that looks like yours, and now I see it and think…how can a guy who runs a… Read more »

Beth
Beth
11 years ago

I totally agree with you on the “getting over it factor”. In the last year alone, I had to get used to long distance commuter bus or train, subways, streetcars and occasionally a bus in the large city where I now work. I was worried about making a mistake or not knowing what to do, but the people who work for transit see a lot of people so they’re probably used to it 🙂 Besides, it’s been a year now and I’m sure I made mistakes but I honestly can’t remember what they were. I do remember asking a lot… Read more »

DM
DM
11 years ago

I wish I could take the bus to work and only have the trip be 10 minutes longer than the drive. The transit system in this city leaves some to be desired, so a 7-minute drive turns into a 40-minute bus ride, partly due to the bus routes and partly due to the 15-20 minutes of which are a wait for another bus at the half-way point.

Amy
Amy
11 years ago

Congratulations on your very first bus ride! You are very lucky to be near Portland, which has one of the best public transit systems there is. Everything within a certain radius of downtown is a free ride, all the time. I planned an anniversary weekend that involved a train ride there (from Centralia, WA) and locations within the free ride area, and got away with a very frugal (but memorable) vacation there. Good times.

Tyler Karaszewski
Tyler Karaszewski
11 years ago

@J.D. (#15) What percentage of that cost is paid regardless of whether you go downtown or not? Are you including insurance, depreciation, and maintenance in your calculation? If so, those are paid regardless of your trips downtown. This is why people who own cars drive everywhere instead of taking the bus. Sure, the overall cost of the car per mile may be higher than the bus, but the marginal cost for each additional mile driven is usually far lower (barring things like parking in metropolitan areas) than public transit. What I currently pay to own and operate my car is… Read more »

J.D.
J.D.
11 years ago

@b-bo (#19) I am human. I am not infallible. Nor do I pretend to be so. When I make mistakes on the blog, I try to correct them quickly and publicly. I do my best. I try not to judge others for their financial shortcomings because I’ve made plenty of mistakes in my own life, and I know that I will make plenty more. All this is to say: your criticism is valid, and I accept your admonition. But remember: I am learning. This is a journey. I’m sharing what I learn along the way, but I haven’t reached my… Read more »

Nate @ Money Young
Nate @ Money Young
11 years ago

JD,

I also have never rode the bus for the same reason, I don’t know how it works. Maybe sometime soon I’ll give it a try.

Do you think it’s different for people who *have* to take the bus as opposed to you and I who see it as fun?

-Nate

Irina I
Irina I
11 years ago

Were you staying in the city when you visited SF? In that case, you should have taken the BART from the airport to the city. It would have cost less than $4.

Bether
Bether
11 years ago

JD, have fun experimenting with the bus! On the whole, if you’re not a teenager or intoxicated or rude, Portland bus drivers are friendly, helpful folks. One of the perks my job offers is a universal annual pass: I can get on any bus or streetcar or MAX (even the funky OHSU tram) whenever I want to just by flashing that thing. I use it so much, that when I lost one, it was worth it for me to pay the out-of-pocket amount (close to $100 for six months) to have it replaced. The bus rocks; between that, my bike… Read more »

David
David
11 years ago

Congrats on taking that leap. I remember having a similar aversion but then had a job in NYC and started exploring various commuter options. I prefer the train/subway over a bus personally but buses work just fine too! You mentioned the time/money trade off. One thing that rapidly changes even having that consideration is the ability to bring your laptop or work reading on the bus and keep working. While you probably aren’t likely to be as efficient as working at your home office you’ll certainly more than offset any “time value” considerations. Another thing to remember is that sometimes… Read more »

L
L
11 years ago

This post made me laugh for several reasons- when I attended university in Glasgow I happily rode the subway several times a week but avoided the buses for three years because I didn’t understand the fare system and the drivers weren’t known for their friendly demeanor. Also my father just turned 60 this year and was very excited to collect his free bus pass (UK) he didn’t understand why I thought this was entertaining as he hasn’t been on a bus in my lifetime (still hasn’t used his bus pass, apparently he’s waiting 4 years for my mum to get… Read more »

David Thomas
David Thomas
11 years ago

I find the interesting point about this. Is how unfriendly the process of catching a bus is. It is the same in Sydney Australia. Exact change required and you are expected to know which bus to catch and how much.

b-bo
b-bo
11 years ago

i have been critical of other posts and you have always handled the criticism professionally and gracefully which is sometimes hard to do over the internet. I think I originally came across this blog when trying to find a simple breakdown of IRA’s for my sister and I RSS’d it. I guess sometimes I maybe hope for a little more…i dunno…”progress?” and more informative posts about finances and financial instruments etc. but your posts always have a more personable tint and stretch more about general life scenarios and how they apply to PF. I have yet to remove grs from… Read more »

Charlotte
Charlotte
11 years ago

For me, it is cheaper to drive because it is only a 5-mile distance to work and I drive a Honda Civic which is very fuel-efficient. I understand it may not be the best choice for the environment but I mde this choice for other reasons. One time however, my car would not start so I took the bus for the first time. It was a 5-minute walk to the bus stop. The ride was 20 minutes to the train station then it is 2 stops to my work. It took an hour total including the walks while it takes… Read more »

Leanne
Leanne
11 years ago

I remember that “this is so cool!” feeling. Even though I rode the bus to and from work very often (and used my car on the weekends), it was when my car was in the shop for a month that I started to feel just… cool… for getting around the city so efficiently on public transit. That was a brief and enjoyable taste of the car-free lifestyle. Other benefits to taking mass transit: 1) it’s rarely close to door to door, so you actually get some exercise while going from place to place. 2) if you have a longer ride,… Read more »

J.D.
J.D.
11 years ago

@b-bo (#31) 🙂 Your second post made me chuckle. Sometimes it’s difficult for me to know exactly how I come across on the blog. I know the realities of my daily life, but it’s impossible to represent them completely on the blog, and for a number of reasons — some logistical, some personal, and some legal. I think the people who know me in Real Life get the best picture because they can see all sides. Does that make sense? All I can do is assure you that tremendous progress has been made and is continuing to be made. But… Read more »

sandy
sandy
11 years ago

Our family lived in Paris for a number of years, and I was on the bus daily. The bus system there makes it very easy to understand the routes. Last year when we were in Chicago visiting relatives, we hopped on the bus, and found it very difficult to understand where the stops were going to be (in Paris, the bus “told” you the next stop, so you were never at a loss as to where you were). Perhaps some upgrading of ease of use for newbies and visitors could make people ride more. Someone mentioned having kids on the… Read more »

Sini
Sini
11 years ago

In addition to the money and time factors we should also consider the stress factor. If you have a car, you have to worry about taking care of it (filling up the tank, oil changes, tire changes, regular check-ups, etc.) and then there’re the insurance and liability issues. If you can and choose to use public transport, you need to stay alert for schedule changes, factor in extra-time for possible delays, remember to buy a new pass every xx/days or in other ways ensure that you can pay your fare… and- of course- be prepared for all kinds of weather… Read more »

teaspoon
teaspoon
11 years ago

Most bus systems allow you to bring a bicycle on the bus with you, and I’m almost 100% certain that Portland’s system allows it. If you were to ride your bike to the bus, you’d shave at least 10 minutes off your commute, which might make the time savings of driving somewhat less relevant.

Mike in Portland
Mike in Portland
11 years ago

J.D., Love the blog man. There are many reasons to take mass transit. Keeps you in touch with the people, keeps another car off the road and once you do the math it throws less carbon dioxide into the air, and it also SLOWS you down…which is NOT a bad thing. On the bus you can read a book, meditate, work on your computer, or simply enjoy the scenery…adding no increase to your blood pressure. Shaving minutes of time is overrated in my opinion…and taking the bus adds minutes to your life because of the stress it takes away. And… Read more »

A.
A.
11 years ago

I’ve never had a car. I don’t drive. I’m always glad when people get out of their cars and take public transit. The more normal members of society take the bus, the better the bus will suit your needs. A few notes on public transit: 1. A bicycle can help get rid of those 15 minute walks and 20 minute waits to travel two stops. (Or, you know, bicycling 5 miles isn’t too difficult.) 2. If you’re going to commute by public transit, you had better make sure you live near a convenient stop. 3. Public transit has its un-fun… Read more »

Sini
Sini
11 years ago

J.D.,

Another thing I want to say is that I really enjoy reading your blog because you’re not afraid to tell us about your mistakes. It’s such a relief to know that there are other people who make embarrasing and often costly financial blunders BUT DON’T GIVE UP!

Cheers to you, J.D.!

Steven@HundredGoals.com
11 years ago

When we were traveling in Aruba, we found that the best way to get around the island was via the public bus service. It turned a $10 cab ride into a $1 bus ride. Talk about savings!!! I wish we had more mass transit in the United States, it makes so much sense.

Rachel
Rachel
11 years ago

Hi JD,

Remember, too, that you pay a monthly insurance bill on your car, which can be broken down into a daily cost. Those of us who use public transport or bikes entirely in lieu of a car are also saving this money. Of course, if you have the car sitting at home anyway, then insurance isn’t a cost you can erase.

Nate
Nate
11 years ago

I started riding the bus when my employer offered monthly bus passes for $9. Though it wasn’t always possible to ride the bus every day, I figured if it could keep me from filling my tank at least one time per month, it more than paid for itself. I would prepare work on my laptop that I could do without a network connection, which allowed me to leave the office a little bit earlier and offset the 40 minute one way trip so I could get home at a decent hour. One thing that was very nice (and my wife… Read more »

slackerjo
slackerjo
11 years ago

Car people, buy a few bus tickets and keep them in your wallet. In case you need to take the bus, you are set, no looking for change.

Kevin
Kevin
11 years ago

b-bo Go get a life man. If a blog isn’t what you want it to be then don’t read it. The only reason you’re hypercritical is because you have no idea how much work something like this blog takes. If you want more complex financial knowledge, why don’t you take a class? Now there’s an idea. If you want to learn about bond convexity or derivative decision trees, go do it. Go nuts. Quite honestly JD’s articles are much more real than any of that. What a selfish poster. I’m sorry to even have to stoop to this negativity, but… Read more »

Noah
Noah
11 years ago

I stumbled across your site when I was looking for gardening info, and that led to the bus trip posting. A few observations. One is – good for you. The first step is often the hardest. As for the “sunk cost” argument – that each additional mile is a cheaper per-mile cost, is equally effective when you buy a transit pass. Whether you take one trip or one hundred, once you get a monthly pass, you’re done with the cost. You’re in an outstanding city for public transit, so a pass is a viable option. The one-car option is viable.… Read more »

Dan O
Dan O
11 years ago

Here in Minneapolis, the city bus and light rail system are great! I think 80-90% of the grad students in my department take public transit to and from campus. Plus, the university heavily discounts semester-long passes. It beats biking in the winter cold/snow and summer heat or thunderstorms. One bus and one light-rail ride will get me to the airport too!

Public transit can rock if it fits your commute.

guinness416
guinness416
11 years ago

My husband actually took his first bus ride in Toronto on Sunday and was quite enthused by it too – much to my embarassment sitting next to him pointing and exclaiming like a four year old. Exciting stuff! In fairness he does use the subway almost every day, but is one of those who think the bus is a lesser form of transit than subways and steetcars. I think everyone should know how to use the local transit system. I’m a railfan and like “A” above have never even had a driving license, but even if you use transit irregularly… Read more »

Arvin
Arvin
11 years ago

unfortunately most of the economics of riding public transportation goes out the window when there’s more than one traveler (not counting its environmental benefits).

Anca
Anca
11 years ago

Funny. I bet your fellow bus riders rolled their eyes at the “tourist”.

While bussing it is not generally “fun” (due to occasional crowding and crazy/smelly people), it is useful. We live in downtown Seattle, so keeping a car would be silly, especially when there are 3 Zipcars within a block for those times when a car is better than the bus (groceries, late night trips).

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