July 16 2009|08.38 AM UTC

Jonathan Rivers

The Cost Efficiency of Transportation

Category: UncategorizedTags: ,

Americans are once again paying a hefty premium at the pump, making transportation costs a legitimate expense to consider. One of the largest factors in this evaluation is the fuel efficiency of your chosen mode of transport. When looking at these calculations, it is also important to consider not only the hard numbers, but also your personal lifestyle needs. Are you typically traveling on the freeway or surface streets? Do you carpool or fly solo? Is your commute trans-Atlantic? All important considerations. While these various modes of travel are not always interchangeable, it is interesting to look at them side-by-side when evaluating the cost efficiency of your chosen transportation.

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Fuel Efficiency

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{ 41 comments… read them below or add one }

Thomas July 16, 2009 at 11:19 am

So where’s the bicycle?


gus July 16, 2009 at 11:19 am

I see that various forms of water transportation have been left out. And since we are moving something, a passenger, it would be wise to consider time in the efficiency equation also such as miles per hour or the amount of time it takes to complete a 500 mile journey.


Design Goes Zen July 16, 2009 at 11:23 am

Ok, if I read your admittedly very nice infographic correctly: the scooter wins… But! Ever been driving or cycling behind such a machine? They use mostly two-stroke engines! That translates to low-fuel efficiency and high output on toxic gases. 4-stroke engines are readily available but the manufacturers stick to producing these notorious polluters as their cash-cows!


Quinn July 16, 2009 at 11:25 am

I’d love to know what time period these numbers were based off of to get an idea of the prices of the various fuels involved. Good chart.


mike jones July 16, 2009 at 11:26 am

An average SUV does not have 5 passengers.
More like 1.2 in my experience.


Mike July 16, 2009 at 11:28 am

They make the fun comparison that four people in a prius is equivalent to four people in a sedan that gets 27 mpg. If you cram people in as much as in a prius, you’re in a civic getting 35+ mpg instead.


Jeff July 16, 2009 at 11:30 am

Average car & suv passengers are 4 or 5? I think that’s WAY high. I would think 2-3 maybe…


BillShrink Guy July 16, 2009 at 11:31 am

Anon: Good point, especially considering many flights will be out of the range of 500 miles. Another thing everyone should note is that although the “MPG” of a Boeing 737 may seem highly inefficient, a B737 won’t be carrying just one passenger. Depending on the 737′s configuration (737-800, 900, etc.), the per seat MPG can be around 50-70 “MPG”.

Thanks Mike Jones & Jeff for the note on average occupancy, we could have clarified what we meant by “average passengers” better. I believe the average passenger count for passenger vehicles (cars, trucks, SUV) in the U.S. is about 1.57.


Anonymous July 16, 2009 at 11:35 am

Also note that the efficiencies are based on trips of only 500 miles, instead of taking into consideration the lifecycle of the vehicles


skiyak July 16, 2009 at 11:38 am

This is not a fair comparison as the number of passengers is the key and this graph only compares the vehicles at full capacity – not often the case.


CP July 16, 2009 at 11:39 am

If the average fuel cost for a 500 mile trip for a scooter is $20, how is the average fuel cost per passenger (1) $19.67?


Dan M. July 16, 2009 at 11:44 am

I agree with Jeff that the “average passenger” data is way off. If it were 1.5 for all three commute vehicles I would be more inclined to agree since the math would make the SUV look bad by changing the math from dividing by 1.5 from dividing by 5.


Ben July 16, 2009 at 11:44 am

This graph is VERY misleading, there should be a miles per passenger, sure a plane gets .42 miles per gl, but it gets 300 people .42 miles per gl! and a few tonnes of cargo…


PDX Biker July 16, 2009 at 11:47 am

A bike is *way* cheaper.


Ryan July 16, 2009 at 11:57 am

My non hybrid 08 Focus sedan holds 4 – 5 people and gets 30 – 37 mpg.


bammerburn July 16, 2009 at 12:02 pm

Living in DC, I find it absolutely incredible that so many people here are driving SUVs and cars considering space constraints and the heavy bias against them from the traffic light system (which has inordinately long timed red lights).

Riding on my (2-stroke, gasp) scooter here, 70% of the time just one person occupy each SUV. Other than that it’s almost always two persons.

It’s those gargantuan SUVs and cars that make traffic a horrendous pain, taking up all that space which could be easily used by an army of motorcycles/scooters/bicycles.


BillShrink Guy July 16, 2009 at 12:03 pm

PDX: That’s true enough, biking is even “cheaper” than walking based on MPGe figures (miles per gallons equivalent).

Here are some MPGe numbers for those that are curious:

653 MPGe — Bicycling
235 MPGe — Walking
212 MPGe — TGV
108 MPGe — Neighborhood electric vehicle (e.g., golf carts)
60 MPGe — Toyota Prius
50 MPGe — Motorcycles
44 MPGe — Rail (Commute)
42 MPGe — Rail (Transit Light & Heavy)
41 MPGe — Rail (Intercity Amtrak
33 MPGe — Automobile
29 MPGe — Air
26 MPGe — Buses
25 MPGe — Hydrogen automobile
12 MPGe — Steamship
4 MPGe — Helicopter


Ian July 16, 2009 at 12:12 pm

This is a little inaccurate because most car (suv, hybrid, etc) trips do not include 4 people. I would say the average is more like 1.5


DavesNotHere July 16, 2009 at 12:19 pm

The Average Passenger on the Prius is 4, that would mean that there would have to be many time there were 8 people in it to balance out all the time there is only 1 person. This is so out of whack as to call into question any other data presented. Very misleading.


Dan July 16, 2009 at 12:23 pm

How can it cost a single seat scotter $20 to drive 500 miles yet cost the passeneger $19.67?


Vic July 16, 2009 at 12:33 pm

Ever been to India/China/South Asian countries? Ive seen 6 people travelling on a single scooter. A family of 4 travelling on a scooter is a common site in most Indian cities!


Mr. Obvious July 16, 2009 at 12:39 pm

@Dan & CP

It’s called rounding.


Brian July 16, 2009 at 1:02 pm

I like the graphic. I think that the “Average Passengers” used is misleading, though. The average number of passengers in SUV’s, Sedans, and Hybrids is probably 1.3 or so. If such a number is used, the lower right graph showing cost per passenger would change dramatically and would more accurately reflect the travel choices we face.


Spanish Classes July 16, 2009 at 1:29 pm

The train is great for mass / long distance transit. The problem is the US is so big. It would be great if we had a high speed train system.


Duh July 16, 2009 at 2:11 pm

“How can it cost a single seat scotter $20 to drive 500 miles yet cost the passeneger $19.67?”

Ummm… have you heard of the concept of rounding to significant digits?


Steve-0 July 16, 2009 at 2:20 pm

Every new Vespa has a 4-stroke motor since the mid 80s. I have a 2-stroke type though.

And what about diesel cars? If it is a 500mile highway trip, they should beat a hybrid.


Parthena July 6, 2011 at 8:02 am

Big help, big help. And spuelrtaive news of course.


wilmer July 16, 2009 at 4:09 pm

So given that everyone has so much problems with the (# of passengers of SUVs/Cars/etc.) we can just simply modifying the lower right graph by multiply the cost/passenger by the the number of passengers by for example, 4/1.2(SUV case expected 1.2 passengers per trip.) For train, airplane, the expected number of passengers per trip might be right. However, the expected number of passengers for the bus, car, suv, hybrid, will definitely vary quite a bit! eg. for a long distance bus, we would hope it be close to full but for an urban bus, during off peak hours, it is usually quite empty


Steve July 16, 2009 at 7:01 pm

There is a profit motive to keep busses and airplanes packed, and thus make them as efficient as possible.

Very few people think that way when they consider personal motor transportation. Maybe if gas was $50/gal they would, but not likely until then. For even the poorest car owner, driving is way to cheap to worry about one passenger or two.


Leo July 17, 2009 at 12:50 am

Sorry if this point’s already been mentioned, but this graphic misses an important measure of of cost per mile per passenger.

I mean, think for a moment about why things take more or less energy for travel. Energy is consumed when climbing hills, accelerating, or from internal friction (or friction with the ground). At speed, most of a car’s gas is being used to move the air out of the way. Roughly speaking, a train only has to do this once, for the whole train. A scooter _still_ doesn’t beat the aerodynamic advantages of a train.


Mark July 17, 2009 at 5:15 am

Nice but, as usual, what is a MPG (For the brain dead, I do know what a MPG is, I am making a point)

Nice conversion for the rest of the world would be appreciated.


ikkefc3 July 17, 2009 at 8:22 am

Biking is actually 1203MPG (avg) as stated by a Dutch research. Maybe that’s because Dutch people bike a lot (18 million bicycles vs. 16 million people) and Americans not (as personal daily transport).

For myself I calculated about 1871MPG when the weather is good (250W@20km/h) and about 1039 when the weather is not that good (450W@20km/h).
In 1 liter of gasoline ther is about 35MJ of energy (source: Wikipedia NL).
When you are biking when the weather is nice etc. and there isn’t a lot of wind you use about 250watts (250j/s) when driving 20km/h.
When you divide 35MJ by 250watts you see you can drive 140000 seconds. When you bike 140000 seconds at 20km/h (= 5,55 m/s) you drive 777,77 km. Divide it by 1.6 and you have the miles. That will be 486,1. If you take 486,1 times 3,85 you have the MPG (about 1871).

And remember, you can also take a passenger on a bicycle, but the MPG will rise then.


tgt114 July 17, 2009 at 1:49 pm

Guess the hybrid wins


Johnny Tweeter July 17, 2009 at 3:09 pm

When they say “Average Passengers” in this chart, it does not refer to the average passengers a given vehicle actually has on an daily basis. It refers to the “Average Passengers” the given genre of vehicle can accommodate. So…if SUV’s commonly come with 4-7 seats in them, then the average would be 5 average passengers.

OF COURSE if we look at the retarded SUV drivers on the road they are all driving there own fat asses around with ZERO passengers! This is an entirely different issue.


Scott July 18, 2009 at 12:32 am

The real flaw is placing the average bus as 50 passengers. Busses are only at capacity for a few hours each day during rush hours. The most efficient bus systems, in the most crowded urban areas, average about 5 passengers per mile traveled. Most systems average under 2 per passenger mile. If you compare that to a single passenger vehicle, private motor vehicle travel looks like a bargin. Also busses run empty or full according to a schedule. Individuals only run their cars when they need them.


Uncle B July 18, 2009 at 3:29 am

Tele-commute? Not good enough for Yankee Doodle? Funny, the folks in India used it to decimate a couple of American industries! They certainly are not above living where it is cheap to do so, and working wherever the wires, satellites and cables go! Folks from India hava a lesson to teach Yankee Doodle Dandy! Tele-commuting works well! Many MRI’s and Brain Scans, as well as a lot of hidden medical business, are done over-night in India, to save American hospitals a buck and a lot of time! most Americas banking – same story!Yet the stupid Americans who wrote this article didn’t even list tele-commuting! You must be mired down in the unworkable Microsoft “Pablum-Programs” India has a better product for you! Wake Up America! Your pants are at half-mast and the whole of Asia is laughing at you!


Michaelc July 18, 2009 at 10:30 am

I am pretty sure that if you included costs like repairs and tires, the car would do much worse than the train or bus.

Even with the figures given I don’t understand how this works. If a car gets 50mpg and it has 4 passengers, doesn’t that mean a total of 200 person miles/gallon? Now if the bus gets 5mpg and holds 50 then that would be 5×50 or 250 person miles/gallon. By that figuring the bus is 50mpg better than even a 50mpg Car.
If the bus is half full and the car just has a driver(more typical) then the bus gets 125mpg and the car gets 50.
For an even more typical setup the car gets only 30mpg with just a driver against the 1/2 full bus and then the bus gets 4 times better mileage than the car. Don’t even get me started on SUV’s.


ozzierobert July 19, 2009 at 4:06 am

What sort of fuel does one take when riding a bike?
And how is the MPG calculated in the human body?


phillip russell July 20, 2009 at 5:52 am

I enjoyed this infographic. I would really like to see more about miles per gallon per passenger accurately done by taking into amount the difference in mpg due to added weight. better yet it would be even nicer to see this chart for cargo transportation. I wish this article were more concerned with resource efficiency and the 0zone. I wonder if you could also compare different forms of industrial production and resource consumption


James July 28, 2009 at 2:58 am

Why are people so stupid?

The scooter’s per person cost is less than the fuel cost as the average passengers is actually a little more than 1, or 5 if you’re in parts of Asia :p

The average passengers refers to the average capacity, not average utilisation. In fairness though, the latter should be used for the graph.


The Heretic August 8, 2009 at 12:16 pm

Most people don’t take long 500 mile trips very often, but they do commute. It would be more interesting to compare commuting methods. Also, how many people would take a 500 mile trip on a scooter? On a motorcycle maybe, but not many on a scooter.

I commute almost thirty miles one way each day. I often take the bus, especially in bad weather, but when it is nice and warm I ride my motorcycle. Once in a while I drive my car.

The advantage of the bus is the cost, which starts out inexpensively (about $2 each way on average) and is subsidized by my employer dropping the price by half. The problem is that it takes at least twice as long as riding my motorcycle and I still need a car (to drive to the park and ride – if I didn’t drive, I would have to spend 20 to 30 minutes to walk to the nearest bus stop then another 30 minutes to an hour to get to the right connection for the bus into Seattle).

So, in the morning, from my home door to the door of my office, it is at least an hour, usually an hour and a half. On my motorcycle it is less than 45 minutes usually. Coming home, the bus takes at least as long, and more than once a week I have endured crowded bus rides (sometimes standing) of over two hours, then another 15 minutes to drive home. At worst, my motorcycle saves me an hour a day, sometimes several hours.

My car is slightly worse than the motorcycle because I can’t take the HOV lanes like I do on the bike, but still faster than the bus.

Why are the buses so slow to get me to work?

Well first, I have to wait for the bus, which doesn’t arrive reliably on time, so I need to get there at least 5 to ten minutes early or miss it and wait another 20 to 30 minutes for the next bus. In the evening the buses are even worse; some scheduled buses arrive 20 to 45 minutes late, depending on the traffic.

Then there are the stops. Even though I ride the ‘express’ bus, and I get on at the last stop before it gets on the freeway, it still has to drive through downtown Seattle and make half a dozen stops. I cover the same distance on my motorcycle in one minute (I bypass downtown altogether and go straight to work), ditto with the car.

Then I have to walk from where the bus drops me off to my office, which takes about ten minutes.

Considering what I get paid, if I got paid hourly (I work on salary), I would save money by taking a limo instead of the bus. My motorcycle is not cheap or meant for commuting (it is a Ducati), and when I drive I have to pay about $10 for parking, but I am getting sick and tired of riding the bus.

So there are a lot of other factors:

The true length of the trip.

The time spent – which may be a big factor, or not. But I encourage anybody who thinks bus riding of any sort is fun and inexpensive to do it more often. Whether a long or short distance, in my experience a bus takes twice as long to get somewhere – the longer the trip, the greater the difference (compare a bus to a plane trip across the USA). Every person’s time is maybe worth different amounts depending on how much they make, and how much it is worth to them to save money on commuting, but few people enjoy spending a lot of time on mass transit.

The cost of the vehicle, maintaining the vehicle, its insurance, etc. – my motorcycle can get 40 to 50 MPG, but my car which gets 20 to 30 MPG is much cheaper by the mile once you factor in maintenance and the cost of the vehicle.

The other extras, like cost of parking. In some areas parking is free, in others it is very expensive.

The best thing is to live close to work – unless you hate the area around your workplace, which I do.


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