Over the past year, I began voluntarily leaving my car at home in favour of public transit for trips outside of Waterloo Region. My intention was to begin to wean myself off of my car, in favour of a more sustainable mode of transportation.

This summer I was on the bus back to Waterloo from a conference in Toronto, and I realized this change has become about more than just sustainability for me. I’ve decided to share a micro-level analysis here on the costs and benefits of taking public transit to Toronto for this particular conference. My analysis is broken down into the four main areas effecting my decision: economic, sustainability, personal time/convenience, and social.

Some of the results were expected, but some were a little surprising.


Best Option: About even, though this is being kind to the car and doesn’t take into account all costs of car ownership, namely maintenance.

Cost of public transit:
When buying as part of a value pack, the Greyhound bus costs $15 each way; $30 roundtrip to Toronto and back to Kitchener. Add in two GRT bus passes and my total cost was $35.

Benefit of public transit:
If I had taken my 2000 Cavalier, using stats from this site & assuming a price of $1.06 per litre, the gas alone would have been $19.93.

On top of this, the two fixed costs of car ownership should be divided into the total kms per year: insurance (approx $1200/year), and oil changes ($50/quarter = $200). Assuming 20,000km driven/year and 216km for this trip, these two costs add $15.12 to my trip, for a total of $35.05.

This still doesn’t take into account depreciation of the asset (in my case this is negligible), any lease or other cost of ownership (none for me, I purchased outright), and maintenance (for me this has been approximately $1,500/year).

Other Factors:
With the $35 I did spend, I supported our public transit network rather than the oil & gas industry, which I see as a positive overall.


Best Option: Bus, but not as obvious as I expected.

Cost of public transit:
A bus has an emission factor of 70g of GHG per passenger kilometre, so with a roundtrip distance of 216 km (door to door), the total emissions I was responsible for was 15.1kg.

Note for all calculations I used emission factors supplied in the Accounting Methodology section of our Guide to the Regional Carbon Initiative – this is the same math used when we calculate GHGs of Regional Carbon Initiative members.

Benefit of public transit:
My car has an emission factor of 213g of GHG per passenger kilometre, so the total emissions would have been 46kg – approximately three times as much as the bus.

Other Factors
By taking the bus, I continued to learn about bus schedules, stations, & online reservation systems, all of which help reduce my future personal dependence on my car.

Note that I could have reduced both my cost and GHG emissions by cycling to the Kitchener bus terminal, rather than bussing. But I have been advised time and again not to leave my bike at the Charles St station overnight. Truthfully, this is a real shame – I would support indoor lockers, or at the very least, video cameras, to help combat this issue.


Best Option: Car, by far.

Cost of public transit:
Door to door, my trip from Toronto to Waterloo was about 2.5hrs, whereas in my car this would typically be about an hour and fifteen minutes.

Benefit of public transit:
Because I didn’t have to drive, the time I was in the bus was used reviewing notes for an upcoming Board meeting, providing feedback to Helena on our event sponsorship strategy, and continuing with recent reading on Canadian history.


Best Option: Public transit.

Cost of public transit:
None. I can’t think of any missed social benefit that I would have been exposed to had I driven rather than taken the bus. I might be missing something though – feel free to let me know in the comments.

Benefit of public transit:
I continue to be surprised by how many friends I run into on the bus, and the good people I meet. In this case, I ran into one person I knew on the Greyhound to Toronto, struck up a great conversation with my seatmate on the way back to Kitchener (about Louis Riel, predictable given my reading at the time!), and in the GRT bus back in Kitchener I ran into a friend I hadn’t seen for well over a year – he had just returned from a trip to Africa.


So there you have it. I think this puts together a more compelling argument for out of town public transit,  while also recognizing the inherent challenges.

And you know what? It’s a good thing I feel this way. My housemate recently got into a bit of a fender-bender with my car, and it wasn’t economically sensible to spend the money to repair it.

The result? I no longer own a car, and I now feel more able than ever to continue to get around without it. That, and Sustainable Waterloo Region recently joined the Grand River Car Share – for those meetings in Waterloo Region that we just need a car to get to.

9 thoughts on “A Coarse Comparison: Public Transit vs. A Personal Car

  1. Ben Janzen says:

    Great breakdown Mike!
    It seems to me that most of mine (and I would guess others) decision making gets focused on the Time/Convenience category. I think most of us say “we don’t have 2.5 hours” though that’s probably not true. We just don’t want to take the the time and slow down.
    Another thought: While as an individual I think I will consider the bus, when I think of my family of four it just might be cheaper to drive in (let’s not talk about 2.5 hours on a bus with them!).

  2. Mike Morrice says:

    Great points Ben! Thanks for the comment.

    In terms of the seemingly extra time required to take the bus – as I mention in the original post – the caveat is that this is time ‘reclaimed’ from driving which can be used to get some work done, read a book, or just relax. Admittedly, the bus isn’t always the most inspiring or comfortable workspace – but I have found these rides to be perfect for catching up on reading, both work-related and personal.

    Your second point is also a good one – my analysis as a single rider would be very different from that of a family. But in my recent decision to go without a car, know that I wasn’t focused on public transit as the only alternative – it’s just one of many options for me. As always, there’s no one ‘magic’ solution. For example, when two friends and I recently spent a weekend in Toronto, it was both more convenient and more cost-effective to rent a car for that particular trip – this might be something to think on for you and your family in terms of another option outside of a personal car.

  3. Ben Janzen says:

    Thanks for the counterpoints Mike!
    “Reclaimed time” is a great term and stands as the challenge to mainstream “too busy” thinking.

  4. Miles DePaul says:

    Excellent points by you both.

    I am curious what you think of the ever-pending possibility of a GO Train from Waterloo to Toronto. While on first thought this seems like it may be the “magic” solution you mention, I am curious what impact this would have on Waterloo’s culture and, for lack of a better word, sovereignty. Would Waterloo quickly become yet another commuter town having counter-productive impacts on our goals for reducing the distance between work, home, and pleasure. Or would it simply offer a more sustainable means of transportation for workers, travelers, and socialites, without having larger implications on our unique culture?

  5. Jenn says:

    Hi Miles,

    What a timely response you give! The provincial government announced today that Go Trains will be coming to Waterloo by the end of 2011.


    While I recognize your point that there is a possibility of Waterloo becoming a commuter town, I think it’s unlikely that it will affect Waterloo’s culture in a dramatic way. I think it is a much needed response to a growing need in the Region. Many people in the Region already do business in Toronto but contribute to our local culture in other ways. The Go Train will offer a more sustainable option for transportation and perhaps increased knowledge sharing between Toronto and Waterloo – be it through attracting new professors to our universities or talent within the work force.

    It is also important, however, locally we realize the need for Grand River Transit’s services to be improved so that the Go Train is more accessible for residents to use the Go Train and also for incoming commuters to reach their desired destination across the Region.

    Interested in hearing your thoughts!

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  7. Spencer says:

    Very interesting!
    You might want to also include the cost of the infrastructure to your calculation. Although both vehicles used the roadway, the cost/person may turn out to be more efficient for public transportation than 1 person per car. Although I’ll admit I don’t know how this would work out given the invevitably lower contribution per person per litre of fuel through the gas tax.
    Food for thought!

  8. Theodore says:

    Amazing how you can so accurately and confidently quote the “GHG” expended by buses and break it down per individual. This is akin to how economists have been so uncannily accurate in their predictions. Now, how about using your same magical abilities and enlighten us as to the cost of industrialization, agribusiness, displaced farm families, and their effects on “sustainability”. By the way, you very much did support the “oil and gas industry” simply by riding on a combustion engine vehicle. Furthermore, the Blackberry/IPhone and computer you had with you are all made from petroleum products, by cheap labour in corporate-raided countries, and transported thousands of miles using fossil fuels.

  9. Mike Morrice says:

    Hi Theodore – First, let me be honest. Though I welcome your critiques of my post, I really didn’t appreciate the ferocity of your comments. I hope that should you choose to reply to this comment, you find a way to do so with a little less hostility. I’m all for debate & discussion, but I will not reply a second time if further posts are as hostile as your first.

    In terms of your critique of my GHG accounting methodology (for my personal GHG emissions on the bus), I certainly didn’t try to hide the logic, do any “magic”, or even purport the number to be perfect. I simply multiplied the nationally recognized standard emission factor for buses in Canada by the number of kilometers travelled. This is the same number & methodology accepted by many other credible GHG accounting protocols, including the Regional Carbon Initiative & the Carbon Disclosure Project, and it was sourced from the United States Environmental Protection Agency.

    As for supporting the oil & gas industry, never in my post did I claim that I was boycotting all use of fossil fuels. Rather, I pointed out that my car would emit three times as much GHG as the bus did. As such, I think it’s a meaningful improvement that was worth the time, as stated in the post.

    Embedded in your commentary seems to be a deep seeded anarcho-primitivist philosophy. As an admirer of people like Daniel Quinn and reader of Derrick Jensen, I can understand where you’re coming from. But a critique of civilization wasn’t the point of my blog post. Rather, it was about presenting public transit as a viable alternative to driving. By no means do I have any illusions about public transit – particularly on diesel-fuelled busses no less – being the solution to the myriad of deeply embedded social, economic & environmental ailments that our culture faces. Nor do I claim it to eliminate my environmental impact. But I do think improvements are worth pursuing, while remaining honest about the progress being made.


    PS Spencer, thanks for your comment as well. Truthfully, I’m not sure how this math would work either. Philosophically (and as an avid cyclist), it’s my opinion that roads are public infrastructure for all to use, not just cars or buses. Particularly given how much we collectively spend on them! This lens then makes it even more difficult to apply the analysis you’re suggesting, though it is an interesting point.

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