A planned commuter ferry between Daniel Island and downtown Charleston — the first regular commercial ferry service in the region in decades — might not be the perfect traffic solution for now.
The boat can carry about 49 passengers per trip, which isn’t a big portion of the region’s hundreds of thousands of daily car commuters. But fixing traffic congestion isn’t the only thing that transit options are good for.
And we need to start thinking about transit as a beneficial thing in and of itself rather than just a way to get a few more drivers off the road to make things easier for everyone else.
Advocates for new or wider roads often try to justify that spending by explaining how much time and productivity — and therefore money — gets lost by commuters stuck in traffic. It’s a perfectly reasonable angle. But the numbers quoted are usually pretty meaningless.
One estimate of the savings related to building the $725 million I-526 extension across James and Johns islands, for example, suggested it would save drivers 5,020 hours per day on average. Another report found that traffic cost the larger Charleston area $1.8 billion per year in lost time.
Both numbers are mostly nonsense. Time and productivity can’t be lumped together across a regional population. Commuters can’t add up minutes each day and cash them in at the end of the year. So saving a few minutes is just saving a few minutes.
Five or six extra minutes each weekday probably wouldn’t be life-changing for most people. But eliminating people’s commutes altogether might be — and not just as a time saver but a money, personal health and sanity saver as well.
Ditching commutes is already possible via teleworking. For everyone else, I’m sure scientists are working on more advanced technological solutions. The next best thing, however, is a decent mass transit system.
Mass transit isn’t usually faster or more convenient than driving a car. But not having to pay attention to the road frees up commuters to make better use of their time.
Transit commuters can read a book, send emails or, ideally, skim this newspaper. Those lost minutes of productivity on the way to and from work? They’re only lost when you’re stuck behind a steering wheel.
Mass transit is also a lot cheaper than driving if transit and other non-car transportation options are robust enough to make it feasible to not own a car. The average annual cost of owning a new car in the United States is a jaw-dropping $8,849 per year, according to AAA.
There’s no mass transit system in the country that costs riders $24 per day.
Of course, mass transit is almost always subsidized. But that doesn’t mean it’s money wasted. In fact, based on the same sort of math we use to justify big new road projects, mass transit investments make perfect sense.
If, say, 20,000 Charleston area commuters spent just 30 minutes per weekday doing work while riding on a beefed-up bus system instead of in a personal vehicle, the cumulative annual impact (20,000 people x 130 hours per year x $17.42 area median hourly wage) would be more than $45 million.
If those 20,000 transit riders were able to ditch their cars entirely (20,000 people x $8,849 in annual car costs) they would save a collective $170 million per year on top of that.
Those are meaningless factoids, of course, just like the road spending numbers. But it’s important to consider not just what we’re paying for when we invest in alternatives to driving a car, but also what we’re getting in return.
Creative approaches like the Daniel Island commuter ferry might not save the Charleston region from traffic congestion. That’s not necessarily the point, or at least not the only one.
It’s another option for people who might not want to spend the average 41 hours per year Charleston commuters lose due to traffic congestion, according to a recent report. That’s about 9 minutes per workday, by the way. But there are better ways to spend that time.
Ed Buckley is an editorial writer with The Post and Courier.