Three rides for the price of two

I got a new job recently, doing server-side programming for a mobile games company. The big change is that the company’s office is in downtown Austin, about 25 miles from our house. More importantly, it’s a 40 minute drive in light traffic. In normal rush hour traffic the drive is … well, it could be 45 minutes or it could be two hours if there’s a wreck. But even relatively light rush hour traffic is hard on the nerves.

So I’ve started riding the train to work. It’s a six mile drive from the house to the train station, a 40 minute ride to downtown, and a six block walk to the office. I get to the office with a fresh mind, rather than being frazzled by dealing with traffic. And the trip home is pretty relaxing. Most days my brain actually comes through the door with my body.

The only possible drawback is the cost. A one-way ticket on the train is $3.50, and a 24-hour rail pass is $7.00. So for the last two weeks my daily commute has cost $7.00 for the train and about a half gallon of gas getting to and from the train station. Not terrible, really, as driving to work and back would cost me about two gallons of gas. At the current price of $2.50 per gallon, that makes the train trip $8.25 and driving about $5.00. If I had to pay for parking in downtown Austin, the cost of driving would be prohibitive. Fortunately, the company I work for pays for garage parking.

I didn’t take into account wear and tear on the vehicle, but that’s not going to add up to $3.00 per day. On a purely financial level, driving to work is less expensive than riding the train. It’s hard to put a number on my mental health, though. I seriously dislike driving in traffic. I don’t know if Debra has noticed it, but I feel much more relaxed and less irritable on the days I ride the train.

Discount passes are available. For $26.50 I can get a 7-day commuter pass, or about $5.30 per working day. For a little less than $100, I can get a 30-day pass. If you figure 22 working days a month, that works out to around $4.50 per day. That’s cheaper than driving, even at today’s low gas prices. I think I can get that monthly pass through the cafeteria plan with pre-tax dollars, which would reduce it to something like $75, or about $3.50 per working day. The only drawback to these commuter passes is that I incur a commitment. For the weekly pass, I lose money if I don’t ride the train at least four days out of the week. The monthly pass at retail would require me to ride 15 days out of the month, or 11 days if I can get it pre-tax.

It occurred to me last week that I can adjust my schedule just a bit and save some money on train rides. Remember that my daily commuting ticket is actually a 24 hour pass: it’s good for 24 hours from the time I buy it. So if I were to buy the pass at 7:00 AM Monday, I can ride the train to work and back. But the pass is still good until 7:00 AM Tuesday. If I catch one of the two earlier trains (6:08 AM or 6:49 AM), I don’t have to pay for a ticket!

Tuesday afternoon I buy a ticket for the late (5:30) train and ride home. Wednesday morning I take the train in, and Wednesday afternoon my ticket is still good as long as I catch a train before 5:30. All told, I’ve made three round trips for the price of two: a 33% discount. If I go the whole week like that, I end up paying for three round trips and one one-way (the trip home Friday night), for a total for $24.50, or $4.90 per day. That’s cheaper than driving, and I don’t incur a long-term commitment.

But I can do better. What happens if I take my bike on the train on Tuesday morning, and ride the bike back to the station that evening rather than riding the train? If I do the same thing on Thursday, then I end up buying three tickets per week (total, $21.00). For that I get five morning trips to downtown and three trips home. Riding my bike home isn’t a particular hardship unless it’s cold or raining, and I need the exercise anyway. So my commuting cost is $21.00 per week, or $4.20 per day. That’s cheaper than driving and cheaper than the monthly rail pass, but not as good as the pre-tax plan. But I also I get a 20 or 25 mile bike ride in twice per week, and it only costs me a little extra time. Sounds like a win to me.

I’m testing that this week. Monday morning I took the later (7:00 AM) train to the office, and today I brought my bike along when I caught the 6:08 AM train. So this afternoon I either buy a return ticket or I ride the bike back. It’s going to be hot, but I don’t mind. I have plenty of water.

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