Why is owning a car cheaper than public transportation? (Helsinki)

In any city that is trying to ensure quality air, reduced noise pollution, and alleviate heavy traffic, public transportation is part of the solution to these problems. Not too long ago a plan was proposed to eliminate traffic in the city center of Helsinki within ten years. Public transportation in the Helsinki region is very easy to use. Trains, trams, busses, the subway, and even ferries run on a unified ticket system allowing for smooth travel throughout the city and its neighboring regions. We also see a lot of innovative solutions such as kutsuplus which remind me of a high-tech version of the Chilean “colectivo” or group taxis that pick up customers along a given route.

So what’s the problem?

The cost. Good public transportation is not cheap to operate. Not only is there an enormous amount of equipment to maintain, the system is under constant expansion with many employees to take care of. It’s not cheap to operate, and in turn as a customer it’s not cheap to use. As an adult the cost is 50€ a month for a city pass, and 100€ a month for a regional pass. The ease of use and convenience may make this cost well worth it. If you happen to live and work in the city center you may not have much of a choice as the cost of parking can be prohibitively expensive. You can choose to walk or bike to your destination just as I did as a student; Helsinki is a compact city. The problem is that for many living and working outside the city center, owning a car may be the cheaper option over public transportation.

This is my own unique experience, and of course it won’t apply to all. Personally I try to keep track of expenses as closely as possible to keep our home budget under control. Over a year ago we arrived back in Finland with a car. At first I was very hesitant with this decision, being quite concerned initially with the tales of high taxes, insurance, cost of gas, and maintenance charges. I did the math, and to my surprise it seemed it would come out cheaper to own a car than to ride the public bus. Twelve months later tallying up every receipt for gas, maintenance, taxes, insurance, and even with an instance of emergency towing and repair it seems that for us we still came out ahead at right around 1400€.

The nature of our jobs (substitution) require us to work throughout Espoo, Vantaa, and Helsinki – a region pass that cost 100€ per person, or 2400€ a year for a couple. 2400€ vs 1400€ – It’s easy to see the difference. Now imagine if you have a bigger family and kids, it just doesn’t make sense not to drive. Even when you toss in the cost of a cheap used vehicle (500-2000€) it is still the more viable option over the years.

Associated savings

The convenience in itself is immense. I can spend an hour riding the bus to Espoo, or drive there in under 15 minutes. A three hour job turns into just an hour, freeing up more of your time. On top of that, you open yourself to access to discount stores that may have been out of reach before. Additionally browsing sites like tori.fi (similar to craigslist in the US) one is able to find quality furniture and appliances for the cost of gas.

Despite all the advantages, it still bothers me that for a family it is cheaper and far more convenient to drive than it is to use public transportation.

Not for all

If you live alone or are living or working near the center, public transportation is likely for you. I do have some friends who share the cost of a vehicle, but for this to work you will need to plan your schedules accordingly.

The Solution

Ideally I would imagine public transportation would need to be subsidized to a far lower price. If you are already driving, you’re unlikely willing to spend the ten euros a round-trip region ticket will cost you on any given day. What is the price point at which I forego the hassle of driving through heavy traffic and jump on the train instead?

Another option would be to make ownership of a vehicle prohibitively expensive, out of reach in cost to the majority. Likely not the best solution, as we do need to keep in mind that transportation drives economies; easy access to work and new opportunities is a necessity for a healthy population.

Without question I am sure Helsinki will be able to eliminate private cars from the city center, I already avoid the center whenever I can. Nevertheless, As greater Helsinki continues to seek out innovative solutions to encourage customers to use public transportation there needs to be a serious look at what the cost will be to the customer.

2 Comments Add yours

  1. Hey, I love your blog, found it via reddit. I would like to see more detailed arguments for this topic. Could you give breakdown on how much you travel and spend on car monthly? How far do you live from bus routes, what is your insurance choice etc. I think that for region 1 transport is the best option, while for region 2 it is tied with owning a car. I was surprised to see 1000e difference there.

    1. Hungry Gizmo says:

      When I get a chance I’ll be revisiting this article, and hopefully making a little video out of it. The real answer in terms of cost difference is it depends. I’ve been shifting content over to this site, so there is a mix of old and new content (from this point on, new articles will be new). Yes, in general if you live in region 1 it’s very likely that public transport is cheaper than a car, unless you are doing ridesharing with coworkers or classmates. In the city center you also have the issue of paid parking if your employer doesn’t cover it (though there are some hidden spots with free 2h parking). For outside regions, then it becomes debatable. For our situation, because of the lack of permanent work (substitution) there is a need to travel through several regions (Espoo, Helsinki, Vantaa, Kauniainen), and for this reason it’s a large difference in cost. Most bus routes seem to be routed through helsinki, which makes it slow to get over to other regions. Driving from Vantaa to espoo is a 20 min drive, by bus it takes well over an hour. Because of the value of the vehicle being low, it’s liability insurance – if you own a more valuable car you might be looking at more comprehensive options. I would estimate roughly 3000km a month.

      When I get a chance I’ll try to break it down further.

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