So I’ve spent all week without the car – on Monday, I biked to work (my stepson and I rode our bikes west to Casis, and then I rode all the way in to work – and boy was it tiring; I’m very out of shape); so out-of-shape that I ended up taking the bus home. Then, Tuesday, the car wouldn’t start. Since then, we’ve learned that the alternator broke and supercharged the (nearly dead) battery and nearly done blowed it up. The garage still hasn’t figured out how to make it work, so I’ve been busing it ever since (including today).
Big deal, huh? Well, son, I work in northwest Austin in the software bidness. (My last job had two offices; both about 5 miles west of 360 on 2244 and 2222 respectively; this one is at least in the 183 corridor).
This is my second long stretch in Austin without a car – I went for two weeks without my old convertible at my last job and had to bike in 8 days in a row (a much more difficult bike commute than I have now, but I was in better shape then too) – the bus is not an option in that part of town – closest bus stop to the office was more than five miles away. The office at my current job is far more favorable for bus use – I can use either the express buses or the #3, both of which I board at 38th and Medical Parkway. The express bus drops me off 5 minutes (by foot) to the north of my office and the #3 drops me off 5 minutes south – when I’m early to the bus stop I’ll often take a #3 which takes longer but arrives slightly earlier, for instance.
Most days this week, I took the “express” bus (983 or 983 depending on which way). The trip into work consists of a 15-minute walk to the bus stop (except for the day my wife dropped me off on her way to Casis); a 20-minute bus ride; and the 5-minute walk to work. Not too bad compared to a 15-minute drive — basically the walk makes it worthwhile. The problem is the trip home – the bus takes considerably longer due to Mopac traffic, and is even less reliable than the car (and of course in the car you can escape Mopac at a couple of places and try to make up some time).
Anyways, the work commute: not bad. Could I do this every day? Yes. I’d use the bike more (if nothing more than to get home quicker from the bus stop). I’d have to get better rain gear (I got rained on the most the day I biked, ironically).
But am I saving money on the work commute right now? Not unless we completely get rid of that car. The fare for the express bus is $1.00 each way ($0.50 for the slower #3 bus which I could also take). Half-price ticket booklets bring it down to $1.00 round-trip. This calculator shows how much this daily trip really costs in my car, once you dispense with the fiction that you should amortize fixed costs like insurance and maintenance over each trip. Even with half-price tickets, I save a whopping eight cents a day.
Now, what about getting rid of the car entirely? Now we’re talking, especially since the cost of repairs (so far) are almost what I consider this car worth in total. Well, experience from this week shows that we’re almost, but not quite, ready to be a one-car household.
- Work commute: See above. No problem, basically; I could do it.
- School trips: Every other week, my stepson lives at our house, and has to be taken to school in the morning. I could bike more often with him, but not every day (we can’t even do two consecutive days now since my wife picks him up in a car which can’t take his bike home). Next year? Probably stops being an impediment as he moves on to middle school at either O’Henry or Kealing, both of which lie on the combined 21/22 bus route (which he’ll be taking anyways even if we remain a 2-car family). I f we had planned ahead a little more, he could probably be doing this now (the bus runs right by Casis too), but I plan on riding with him at least a few times first, and haven’t done it yet.
- After-work appointments: This was the big problem. My wife has a weekly meeting at 5:30 on Wednesdays, for which I have to be home at 5:10 to watch the baby. There’s no way to do this feasibly taking the bus – I’d have to stop my workday at about 4:00, which is simply not going to happen in my line of work. Also, we both have a weekly meeting on Thursdays at 5:10 – same problem. This week, I went home at lunch on Wednesday and worked at home — this works for occasional emergencies, but not as a regular thing. On Thursday, she had to get the babysitter earlier than usual and come pick me up. Also not going to work as a regular thing.
We’ve failed on the Thursday meeting in the sense that we acquired a regular engagement which I can’t get to on the bus. I could theoretically bike there in about 20 minutes — but this is not the type of thing I can do all sweaty. I don’t know if anything other than opting out could fix Wednesday.
So we’re repairing the car this time, and I’ll continue to wish I didn’t have to. We’re looking at at least $500 in repairs (on a car I figure is worth $500-$1000), about $400/year in insurance, about $200/year in various other fixed costs. All for two lousy meetings a week.
That’s what you get when you have a half-assed transit system — people who in other cities could live with just one car (and wouldn’t mind doing so) can’t even do it. Unfortunately, nothing but massive densification of the urban core could solve this problem for us, and even then, Capital Metro hoodwinked enough people with the commuter rail debacle such that the urban core of Austin won’t have competitive transit service for essentially ever. C’est la car.
11:00 update: Now the engine computer needs to be replaced. Bare minimum, if we do it through the shop and use refurb parts: another $500 for a total of $1000. Argh. My wife is checking now to find out how much we’re already on the hook for if we bail, and then I get to go price cheap used cars. Hooray for economic disaster! Man, I hate cars.