My Next Car May Be a Lyft App - Using the "Ride or Drive" Calculator

Photo by  Dan Gold  on  Unsplash

Photo by Dan Gold on Unsplash

We are entering an interesting time when it comes to owning a car in our society.

When I left college, I moved to Chicago and lived with a bunch of friends in a house in the City. Most of my other non-roommate friends lived with a few blocks as were most stores, coffee shops, and bars. I didn't own a car, but occasionally I would ride the Metro Green Line out to Oak Park to borrow my mom's. A car was a convenience but with the additional expense of parking, definitely not a necessity.

I moved to Los Angeles in 1996 to attend school at USC. At that time, South Los Angeles was a crime-ridden, barren wasteland. I owned a bicycle though I have to admit I was afraid to take it beyond the boundaries of the school or my nearby apartment. When I could, I would bum rides off some of the other graduate students I knew. Nearly everyone from my graduate writing program lived in a weird perimeter-distance from me: Venice, Santa Monica, Pasadena, Long Beach, etc. There was no neighborhood feel to Los Angeles, no short walk to a local bar where everyone would meet up. Los Angeles was a desert of disconnected towns connected by freeways. If you didn't have a car, you were a refugee until you could get your next ride. 

In 2011, years (and many cars) later, I was in an accident at an intersection in Hollywood. My sedan was totaled. For a brief two months, my wife and I tried to make it work with one car in our four-person family. It failed, spectacularly. With two young kids, K kept the car and I tried to get to my various clients via Metro stops, bus lines, and the occasional ZipCar each day. However, it only took a few times before it soon became less interesting: I took the wrong bus to Union Station and somehow ended up in Inglewood; I occasionally needed two hours to get from Pasadena to Hollywood; I missed a Zipcar return window and was charged double for my time. Within a few weeks, we had replaced our totaled sedan with a Prius.  

Fast forward to now. One of our family cars is now nearly 10 years old and soon, we may have to replace it... or not. There are now ride-sharing services in the world and getting around LA have many more possibilities than either 1996 or 2011. Perhaps now, between the Metro and ridesharing services like Lyft or Uber, could my family live using one car?

I recently found this article on Mental Floss "Is It Cheaper to Own a Car or Use Uber? This Calculator Lets You Know". The calculator is actually from Oak Ridge National Laboratory (part of the US Department of Energy which is run by this guy). The calculator has you enter the following:

  • How much you would pay for a car (+ financing, etc)
  • How much you would drive daily
  • The cost of your time (per hour)

It then plots a graph like this:

The biggest factor really seems to be how you value your time, which isn't always easy to calculate. In my case, I used an estimate of $50/hr and nearly always came out with the suggestion to shift to a Rideshare solution as opposed to owning a car. However, if you look at the graph, you'll see that the actual cost in fares is greater than owning a car, but that the much of the additional cost in owning a car is the lost productivity from driving. This assumes that you'll be consistently working in the back of an Uber, which I can attest rarely happens

That being said, it's a great tool to use when considering if a car is worthwhile. Los Angeles is a tough place (even now) to live without a car, but we may be getting to a time when it is the best economic decision around