The price is just too right.
Last Thanksgiving, just in time for the busiest travel day of the year, I looked at why more people in the crowded Northeast Corridor take trains than planes and submitted as evidence the following charts:
Although both modes have comparable total travel times and prices, train travel involves far more in-vehicle time, which makes taking Amtrak much more productive than taking the air shuttle. By the time you drive to the airport, park the car, go through security, sit on the runway, and reach a comfortable cruising altitude, you have maybe an hour to get anything done. With the train you show up at the platform, find a seat, then open your laptop or phone for the duration.
So rail dominates the train-plane split in the Northeast U.S. But a broader look at travel in the corridor shows that neither mode measures up to driving in terms of popularity. Productivity, it seems, takes a backseat to price.
The following data come via a September report by the Northeast Corridor Commission (NCC), a group charged with studying intercity transportation trends between D.C. and Boston. I’ve charted the modal breakdowns for the four major cities in the corridor below: Washington, Philadelphia, New York, and Boston. In all five pairings, more trips are made by car than by train, plane, or bus:
The only city pairing where the majority of trips don’t happen via car is New York and D.C.; even there, driving gains a plurality mode share, at 43 percent. Everywhere else, driving at least doubles the next most popular mode choice. And it towers over the competition between Boston and D.C., despite the fact that a road trip between these ends of the corridor clocks in at over 7 hours—in good traffic conditions.
But traffic conditions are so rarely good in this part of the country. Why are so many people still driving? The top reason, given by the NCC via driver surveys, is time savings; some 42 percent of respondents believed the car was their quickest option. The second most frequent reason, at 39 percent, was that people needed a car at their destination.
Neither explanation feels quite sufficient. Total driving time is very comparable to total train or plane time between these cities, and transit or taxi options are plenty reliable in all four places once you arrive. These answers may actually reflect the survey’s coverage of all Northeast Corridor metros—trips like Philly to Central Jersey, which would indeed take much longer via train or bus and leave travelers without many travel choices once they arrive.
Instead the most compelling answer why people drive between the corridor’s main four cities is the third most-popular survey response: cost. Some 35 percent of Northeast Corridor travelers who drove for intercity trips gave price as a reason for their decision. When you calculate total toll and gas costs among the fair city pairs—assuming a standard 2014 Toyota Camry, and going downtown to downtown—it’s not hard to see why:
These totals are highly competitive with the train or plane fares that range into the hundreds of dollars. They also rate well against bus travel when you add the convenience of leaving whenever you want and of having a car at your destination. There are, of course, other costs of driving that don’t show up here: direct ones, like parking; dispersed ones, like maintenance and insurance; and social ones, like road deaths and air pollution. But so long as these remain artificially low or hidden away, the choice for the clear majority of travelers—even in an area of the U.S. where their options are greatest—remains an all-too-easy one.
So safe travels this Thanksgiving. Just remember to also be thankful for the traffic: it’s the price you pay for an otherwise super cheap trip.