Is Driving More Economical Than Public Transport?

Last week, City Hall’s Lib Dems called for annual congestion charge increases in line with public transport fares. The current charge of £10 (or £9 if you use auto pay) hasn’t changed since London mayor Boris Johnson bumped it up from £8 in 2011, while fares for tube, bus and rail users have increased year on year.

London Assembly Liberal Democrat leader Caroline Pidgeon says that ‘while fares have gone up at a faster rate than inflation the congestion charge has remained constant’ and this ‘means that over time driving is slowly becoming a more economic option.’ Given the eye-watering cost of petrol and Vehicle Excise Duty (or ‘road tax’ as everyone else calls it), we weren’t so sure that driving could be more economical but we decided to hunt out our calculator for a not very scientific comparison.

We’ve obviously made a few assumptions with our comparison — a tube journey is a return on zones 1-6 on Oyster Pay As You Go, a rail journey is a daily return from Brentwood, a bus journey is from Watford and our car is a typical small hatchback doing a 40 mile round trip. We’re also not going to faff about with mpg or car maintenance costs because mpg figures are notoriously unreliable, especially in town driving, and servicing costs vary wildly depending where you go.

Mode of transport




















Car (free parking)





Car (paid parking)





So there you have it. A bus journey is the cheapest, while driving is the most expensive, even without factoring in £20 per day to park. Cycling or walking would be cheaper still, but unless you have showers at work or your colleagues don’t mind sitting near someone who smells riper than a road digger after a hard day’s labour, it’s not that viable for longer commutes — we can’t all live in Hackney. We also wouldn’t like to try walking from Watford every day.

In this comparison, car sharing is pretty much the only way driving becomes more economical so if you don’t mind the teeth-grinding stress of driving in central London, have access to free parking and a friend or two, you may be onto a winner. If you own a hybrid rather than a petrol car like the example we used, you can knock a whopping £2160 off your annual driving bill though possibly not for much longer. Going electric would also remove the fuel and congestion charge element from the daily cost as well as doing your bit to prevent localised pollution.

Our figures for driving were based on £25 per week on petrol, VED of £135 per year and congestion charge at £9 per day. Our estimate of £20 per day to park is for Tower Hill NCP car park. Our calculations were made while in the grip of a hangover, should the keen-eyed among you spot any errors.

Photo by Joe Dunckley in the Londonist Flickr pool.

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Article by Beth Parnell-Hopkinson | 796 Articles | View Profile

  • Thomas

    It would be interesting also comparing the costs of motorcyling into London.

    • BethPH

      Motorbikes are exempt from the congestion charge and their VED is slightly lower (£76 for 12 months for a 600cc+ bike). I don’t know what their fuel costs would be but I suspect they’re cheaper to run than a car. Finding free parking would be easier too.

      • Hooligan

        No such thing as free bike parking bays in Worstminster.

  • GORN

    Depends on the journey and number of people doing it, doesn’t it? I quite often make a trip to Milton Keynes for work. By tube, train and taxi (at the MK end) it’s £51.11 per person. By car, allowing 35p per mile, it’s £49 for up to four people.

  • Michael

    I live in Kent and have taken the train into London daily for a decade. No more. It is now cheaper for me to drive into the outskirts of South London, park on a side street and use the train from there where I can use my pay as you go Oyster card and not be stung by monthly travel approaching £500 a month. Quicker, I’m only paying for when I am travelling, and I feel a sense of not being totally fleeced for working in London. London will become an economic dead spot unless something changes. Increased fares year on year arent affordable or sustainable…. Salaries are not rising with inflation, so why should fares? let alone ABOVE inflation!!! What a con…

    • londona729

      I think London should have Park & rides at outer London town centres to allow people to take public transport within London- like Nottingham has

  • Adam

    Whenever I do the numbers in my head I consider all the fixed costs of owning a car as I don’t have one…if you add in insurance, and depreciation (to factor in the buying of said car), cars start to look a lot worse!

    • BethPH

      Absolutely, and to be honest, if you lived/worked within, say, zone 1-3 unless you had a reason to drive frequently then then the costs probably wouldn’t be worth it.

      A side note on depreciation though – it doesn’t have to be a killer. Choose a used car wisely and while it does still depreciate, it’s in no way as dramatic a depreciation than buying a new car. Properly maintained and serviced, they can still be economical and not insanely polluting.

  • Alistair Twiname

    Given the large chunks of london not in the congestion charge zone i think it’s a fair comparison for her to make. It is also worth factoring in that most people who own a car would do so anyway, either for kds/shopping/going away at the weekend. so the VED cost is there anyway.

    I recently got a car as part of my new job (so i only pay for fuel) It annoys the hell out of me that it’s the cheapest and quickest way to do my (admittedly awkward E17 to UB9) commute.. but it is cheaper by a long chalk.

    I am getting fat of course and i miss my cycling!

  • Noam Alone

    You’ve written a load of crap about cycling. Firstly the shower thing is the number one lame excuse used by people who wouldn’t cycle anyway. You’re just as likely to sweat on a hot day in a car or on a tube. The rest of the year unless you’re pretending to be in the tour De France (not recommended what with traffic and lights and that) you will not sweat.
    Also – loads of people cycle in from the outer boroughs – ten or 15 miles. Takes about an hour to hour and quarter. Quicker than the tube!! And at least as quick as driving. Believe me, I’ve tried every form of transport going, including driving; I’m not the quickest cyclist in the world but even I can cycle from Kent faster than public transport! And without sweating!!

  • Andrea Casalotti

    You are making a comparison for non-Londoners: Watford, Brentwood, Zone 6, 30 km from the Centre – these places are all not London.

    The majority of Londoners work less than 30 min bike ride from where they live. No need of showers and an average of £100/year in service costs.
    Sometimes your reporting is as silly as the BBC.

    • londona729

      Zone 6 is in London i.e Uxbridge (London borough of Hillingdon).
      Clearly the comparison is true for some people. Still nevertheless the point of fares being high still stands.
      What basis are you making the point about 30 mins bike ride. Name your source, please? Or is it an arbitrary figure that you’ve made up?

      • Andrea Casalotti

        To say that Uxbridge is London is like saying the Malvinas are British: typical English idiocy.

        It would help both London and Uxbridge if the GLA was in charge of a much smaller area. For a starter we wouldn’t be saddled with a clown as a Mayor.

        Here you can find statistics of commuting time in London.

        OK, I maybe a few percentages off. Considering that cycling is in most cases the quickest way to get around London, and that most Londoners do not cycle, it is fair to assert that around half of Londoners can reach their place of work in 40 min cycling. And as Stella says above, this does not assume abnormal levels of fitness.

        • londona729

          No need for an ad hominem attack. Especially when your arguments are based on conjecture.

          Uxbridge along with Kingston, Sutton, Bromley and Romford have now all become part of (Greater) London -whether you like it or not. I think it’s a good thing London extends so far outwards- especially when you look at house prices. The higher the population density

          The 30 mins is relative-especially as distance is constant but journey time depends on your method of transport. For example Walthamstow Central to Brixton is 33 mins by Victoria line but 1H15Mins to cycle according to Google maps.

          To clarify, 75% of people commuting to work does NOT mean 75% of people can cycle to work in 30 minutes or less.

          Also it’s good for London toinclude the wealthier

  • Rene Musa

    Possibly in London, but anywhere else possibly not.


  • Free Parking

    Here is an article that pits public transport against chauffeur driven transportation, in London. The figures may only be accurate for short journeys but it make you think the Government has it’s priorities wrong as usual.