Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Transportation Transformation, Installment Two: Trains + Buses = Mobility

A guest post by
Nelson Sommerfeldt

In my first installment, I introduced the Stockholm County public transportation system. It consists primarily of a complicated network of trains and buses that thoroughly cover Stockholm City, but also reach impressively far into the rural areas of the county. As you might expect, traveling within the city is extremely easy almost any time of day. When you live in the suburbs, as I do, traveling does require a bit more planning. But you adapt and it becomes a part of how you live. Does that mean I’ve lost my mobility freedom? Become a slave to someone else’s schedule? To a small degree, yes, but it’s hardly a net loss.

SL, which stands for Storstockholms Lokaltrafik AB, is a corporation wholly owned and managed by the Stockholm County Council that manages all public transportation in Stockholm County. Roughly half of the operating budget is funded by county taxes and the other half by ticket revenues. The system is incredibly complex, running hundreds of routes, encompassing thousands of stops and carrying hundreds of thousands of people every day. An impressive machine to operate indeed.

Using public transportation is proving to be many times less expensive than owning a car. I purchase tickets on a monthly basis, which gives me unlimited travel on any route during that time. With my student discount, one month costs $70, roughly $2.33 per day. Back home I was married to a lovely 2005 Subaru Outback averaging 20 mpg, and when I left the US I was paying an average of $3.00 for a gallon of 92 octane gasoline. I was fortunate enough to own my car outright, so I won’t include a monthly loan payment. However, insurance still cost me around $120 per month ($4 per day) and with my car being a bit older, maintenance costs were about $1000 per year ($2.75 per day). Because of many long distance road trips, I had many more miles than the average person, 130,000 in 6 years. For the sake of comparison we’ll say I averaged 30 miles of local travel per day, half of the total mileage. All these numbers add up to a monthly car ownership bill of $338, or $11.27 per day. I’m saving $268 per month in transportation costs, and that doesn’t even include a loan payment! And this is for owning my car in the US, owning a car in Sweden is far more expensive (i.e. $30k for a Ford Focus and $7.00/gal gas) so the savings are even more extreme when compared locally.

The primary argument for owning a car is that it gives you personal mobility freedom. However, nearly all of my traveling needs are met with SL. My daily commute to campus is 5.6 miles and takes about 30 minutes using two buses. The timing is perfect: I have almost no wait in the transfer and I arrive on campus at exactly the time I need. SL statistics say the same commute would take about 15 minutes in a car, not including time to find a parking space. However, I usually spend that time on the bus checking my schedule, emails or Facebook on my phone, something I couldn’t do driving a car in city traffic. So really, those 15 extra minutes on the bus are actually 15 minutes I would have spent sitting at my desk anyway. It’s hard to count it as lost time. And while you can carry rather large packages on the bus (I took a bike box home), it’s true that I could never move a couch or mattress on the bus or train. But on the very rare occasion that I do need to do that, I can rent a car with a trailer from almost any gas station for 2 hours and pay only $75 plus fuel. So for an extra $268 per month in my pocket, I am not giving up much.

It’s not all roses with SL, though. There are times when I get frustrated dealing with busses and trains. My biggest pet peeve is when I just miss a stop, and end up having to wait 10, 15 or 20 minutes for the next ride. I have mitigated this significantly since I started using SL’s mobile site, allowing me to type in addresses and store my most frequently used stops to calculate exactly when I need to be there and how long my trip will take. For instance, once a week I stop by the grocery store on my way home from school. This is often at random times, so when I’m riding the train there, I will look up when the next bus heading home will be leaving. This gives me a goal, to buy only what I need and get in and out of the store quickly to catch the bus. While this usually works well, most recently I picked the wrong check out line, behind a woman buying loads of weird produce and the new guy at the register having to look it all up. So I ended up just missing the bus and had to wait 20 minutes for the next one. But as I get better and better about moving within bus and train schedules, most of the time I’m catching rides right on time or waiting just a few minutes. I see this becoming less of an issue as I hone my public transportation skills.

Along the same lines, there is a challenge in traveling to or from home during odd times of day. For example, if I’m in the city on a Friday or Saturday night, I usually set an alarm on my phone to remind me that I need to head home. Around midnight, buses in my neighborhood switch to a one-hour rotation and then stop running at 2:00 a.m. So if I miss a particular trip I will have to wait another hour or possibly walk home. While this does dictate how I behave during these times, it has yet to really bother me. In fact, I kind of like it. It helps keep me aware of the time and prevents me from inadvertently staying out later than I’d like.

Overall I am extremely pleased traveling with SL. The few inconveniences I do have are surely worth the significant monetary savings. In a later installment, I’ll discuss SL’s initiative to eliminate CO2 emissions from public transport, and eventually from all vehicles in the Stockholm City. But next time it’s all about the ultimate CO2 fighter and super-fun joyride, bicycles. I’ve been using the City Bike program for the past six weeks, and I’ll report on all the good and bad of riding bikes in Stockholm.

Hej då!

Photos: Both from Storstockholms Lokaltrafik (SL)