Traffic Volumes

Car vs. Train: Comparing Travel Time and Costs in South Florida

Using Urban SDK speed data to gain insights into how competitive train travel is during a typical weekday and weekend.

Each month Urban SDK’s Planning Team researches new opportunities for our data to provide community benefits.

This month the team leveraged Speed Data to compare June 2023 automobile travel times with scheduled Brightline departures. This was done with the purpose of gaining insights into how competitive train travel is during a typical weekday and weekend.

Car vs. Train: Comparing Travel Time and Costs in South Florida

The Bipartisan Infrastructure Law has been an historic investment in America's transportation system, with $66 billion for intercity rail. These investments are being complemented by private operators that are exploring innovative ways to tackle passenger rail in America.

Brightline is one such operator, servicing a high-speed inter-city railway line between Miami and West Palm Beach in Florida with plans to expand to Orlando this year.

Urban SDK is based in Florida and has seen, firsthand, the excitement the Brightline service has brought with growing ridership and calls for extensions into communities across the state.

Knowing this, we decided to compare the competitiveness of taking the train vs. car travel to uncover the secret to Brightline’s success.

Travel Time and Cost Analysis

There are several factors that can impact the competitiveness of transit.

For this exercise, we are focusing on roadway travel time, as well as the cost of cars vs. trains, and comparing it with Brightline’s departure schedule and ticket prices.

Knowing this will help us evaluate which mode — train vs. car travel — is the best value and at what times.

Scope of Comparing Car vs. Train in South Florida

Our planning team took the following steps to conduct the analysis:

Step 1: Download speed data from Insights

We used Urban SDK Insights to download roadway speed data for June 2023 in the three counties served by Brightline: Miami-Dade, Broward, and Palm Beach.

The data was aggregated to compare weekday vs weekend, as well as period of day.

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Step 2: Fastest Path between Stations

Speed data on each road link was used to calculate the fastest driving route between each station to create a comparison corridor.

Step 3: Road Travel Time of a Car vs. Train Schedule

The sum of each road link’s average travel time across the entire corridor was used to compare total travel time by period of day with scheduled train departure times.

Step 4: Road Travel Cost of a Car vs. Train Cost of Tickets

The travel time data output in Step 3 was used in combination with other factors to estimate a cost for driving one-way and compared to train ticket quotes provided through Brightline’s web portal.

Travel Time and Cost Findings

Train vs. Car Travel Time

A summary of weekday and weekend travel time comparisons are provided in the tables below.

The analysis shows that it was faster to take the train point-to-point in June 2023, with the greatest savings during the weekday afternoon when auto travel was overall 29% slower than scheduled train departures.

Weekends saw minor time savings of up to 7% compared to driving during the afternoon peak period, but saw little to no major savings during other less busy periods.

car vs train in south florida
Summary of weekday and weekend travel time comparisons

Brightline’s operation via railway, away from cars, allows it to maintain a more reliable travel experience with an average scheduled travel time of 82 minutes from end-to-end — between Miami and West Palm Beach — on both weekdays and weekends.  

In comparison, driving sees greater variability in travel time from 85 minutes in the off-peak to 106 minutes during the afternoon peak on weekdays (24% change). Yet there is much less variability on weekends between 80-88 minutes (10% change).

This gives Brightline the benefit of being the more reliable option, even if time savings are diminished during off-peak periods or weekends.

Travel Cost of Taking a Train vs. Car Today

Another consideration that affects a person’s decision to choose the train over driving is cost.

Where transit lacks in timeliness, it can counteract with competitive pricing to attract ridership.

A review of Brightline’s ticket prices ranged between $17-34 USD one-way with cheaper prices during off-peak periods, and more expensive prices during peak periods.

Driving costs were estimated using the Florida average cost per gallon of gasoline, which is $3.682, and applying it to the journey distance (69.5 miles) at an average burn rate of 25 miles per gallon.

The average monthly auto insurance premium is $238 which equates to a daily cost of $7.67 per car owner resulting in an estimated one-way driving cost of $17.84 to drive end-to-end between Miami and West Palm Beach.

((Distance / Avg Car Mileage)*Cost Per Gallon) + (Monthly Insurance Cost / 31 Days))
((69.5 miles / 25mpg)*$3.68) + ($238  / 31 Days)) = $17.84

A summary of one-way travel and cost comparisons of cars vs. trains from Brightline are provided in the charts below.

The estimated one-way cost for driving is undercut by Brightline with $17 tickets during less busy periods, where the train is less competitive in travel time.  

Whereas the highest-cost tickets at $34, which exceed the cost of driving, correspond with departures during the most competitive times like the morning and afternoon peak periods when demand is highest and the greatest time savings are had for riders (29%).

There are also limited seats available on trains that depart during those periods which likely factor into the pricing to balance affordability and demand.

car vs train in south florida
Train vs. car travel time comparisons: Automobile travel and Brightline trains in South Florida
train vs. car in south florida
Car vs. train cost comparisons: Automobile travel and Brightline trains in South Florida

Private automobiles obtain greater economies of scale when there are more than one person in a vehicle where the costs can be shared with minimal increase to fuel consumption. Comparatively, additional tickets on a train require a full purchase.

This would likely lend vehicles more amenable to families, or groups of people traveling together, whereas transit would likely be more amenable to students, business travelers, the elderly, and tourists who typically travel in smaller numbers and are willing to pay the premium for faster travel times, comfort, and flex time.

Another consideration is that vehicle insurance costs are also minimized per additional trip taken since they are a fixed daily cost which owners might view as a sunk cost when compared to a train ticket.

This results in vehicle owners factoring only the cost of fuel, instead of the holistic cost of car ownership, which would make driving appear to be cheaper.

Summary of Findings

When evaluating travel of train vs. car in South Florida, Brightline is the overall quickest option to travel point-to-point between each destination.

Brightline's trains are also competitive on price by offering cheaper tickets during less competitive travel periods, and costlier tickets during the most competitive travel periods.

This allows Brightline to strategically compete on price when a car would be the preferred option and obtain the best return for its service during its most competitive periods.

Further Analysis of Cars vs. Trains in the Region

We have compared how competitive train travel is station to station, but not all passengers will end their journey near the train station.

This is an important caveat, when comparing the benefits of car vs. train travel.

Trip savings can be eroded when there are inefficient first/last-mile connections to transit, and active transportation which is something we will explore in next month’s edition of The Curb using Speed, Traffic Volume, and Road Fatality data to evaluate the effectiveness of connections to stations.

We’ve only scratched the surface of what makes Brightline successful, and encourage you to explore the data yourself. We have exported the results as a geospatial file and uploaded it to Urban SDK to visualize which portions of the corridor see the greatest savings and at which times - here.

Until next time.