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What Does Driving Really Cost?
[Note: logic still painfully valid. These are 2002 numbers...all of this is even more extreme now. In 2019 the AAA estimates that the average driver will spend more than $9000 on thier car.]
What does it cost for you to drive your most common round trip? If your answer is close to the cost of gas, you're being taken for a ride. When I carpool the 20 mile round trip from our house to town, people are stunned when I offer them the ten bucks I saved by not driving my own car. Most people think the cost of driving is the cost of gas.
What a boon to the auto industry! People think their product costs them 85% less to use than it does! (gas = 7.7¢ a mile, driving costs 52.3¢ per mile, or $5500-$7000 per year according to the AAA).
Do you think people would drive less if they knew what it really cost them? We certainly do.
Between my wife and I, by driving less than half as much as the average American, use of carpooling, public transport, and bicycles, and not owning cars until later in life we saved approximately $180,000 by 2002.
This is almost exactly what it cost to buy and completely pay off our 1st house in Santa Barbara ($140,000 in 1992 plus ten years interest). If we'd both got expensive cars instead of average (not unusual in this town) we'd have spent a quarter of a million dollars between us in our combined 48 driving years [2019 update: we're well into $300,000 savings now; own one car for four drivers, and are in escrow for our third SB house, as savings and rental income snowball].
Can't believe it? Check the calcs and references below.
If this were the end of the story, that would be bad enough.
However, the direct out of pocket costs are just the tip of a still greater iceberg:
The external environmental and societal costs of driving in the United States include:
- 40,000 deaths a year. It is still the leading cause of death for Americans age 2-24. (Accident Facts, National Safety Council, 1995) A 16-year old in the suburbs is more likely to die in a car crash than his urban counterpart is in a violent crime. According to the Annual Review of Public Health: "At current mortality rates, a baby born today has roughly one chance in seventy of ultimately dying in a traffic crash." Driving a car is the most dangerous thing any of us do.
- Police, fire, ambulance; road construction & maintenance; other local government
- Property taxes lost from land cleared for freeways
- Air, water, land pollution
- Noise, vibration damage to structures
- Global climate change
- Petroleum supply line policing, security
- Petroleum production subsidies
- Trade deficit, infrastructure deficit
- Sprawl, loss of transportation options
- Uncompensated auto accidents
- Traffic congestion
- Expenditures under federal medical assistance programs, are a result of one third of injuries caused by car crashes, according to the US DOT.
- Cost to families from traffic fatalities— $350 billion annually (according to Federal Highway Administration estimates)
- $50 billion of the US defense budget (2002) used to defend oil fields and shipping lanes from the Middle East, Nigeria, and Venezuela. (None of this bill is paid for through road use fees such as tolls or gasoline surcharges, or by the companies that most directly benefit, but instead comes from general funds like income and payroll taxes.)
- Up to 40% of the activities of police, and 15% of that of emergency and fire departments spent on traffic management, theft, parking enforcement, and accident response, at the expense of other emergencies like violent crime, arson, or industrial accidents
- Health costs of air pollution estimated at a minimum of $10 billion a year, much of which comes from cars, trucks, and SUVs (which pollute the most), (American Lung Association).
- Economic losses of $100 billion annually from traffic congestion- a function of lost productivity, wasted fuel, and unnecessary wear and tear on vehicles through stop and go driving (US General Accounting Office)
- Limited mobility for people who are unable to drive—the elderly, handicapped, and children. Sprawl can condemn senior citizens to their home. Kids cannot ride their bikes or walk to school or to visit friends, effectively turning parents into chauffeurs.
- Compromise to national security. Transportation consumes 1/3 of all US energy used annually and 2/3 of its oil, half of which is imported. Oil alone is 60% of the US trade deficit, and auto and auto parts account for 2/3 of our trade deficit with Japan.
- An extreme amount of paved land surface, which in the US is now roughly equivalent to an area the size of the state of Georgia.
- Damage caused to bodies of water from crankcase drips, oil spills, and the wash of toxic crud from roads, driveways, and parking lots
- Crops stunted by air pollution (valued annually at $10 billion)
- Fragmentation of wildlife and ecosystems from 220,000 miles of roads and highways (Alan Durning, The Car and the City)
- Cars (and especially sport utility vehicles) are the US's primary contributor of greenhouse gases, like carbon dioxide, which are creating a double glaze around the planet, almost certainly warming the global temperature, and probably wreaking havoc on our climate and food production systems.
- Ground level ozone and smog that is both ugly and unhealthy, and stunts the growth of trees, which are our source of oxygen and a hedge against global warming.
- Cars are burning a staggering amount of fossil vegetation: 98 tons of plants per gallon. This is hard to assign a dollar value to, but it sure puts the "sustainability" of driving this much in perspective.
- During the full span of the baby boom generation, 1950 to 2025, two thirds of US petroleum reserves will be consumed, leaving the most inaccessible 1/6 of reserves for all future generations (the easiest 1/6 was used between the discovery of petroleum and 1950).
graphic courtesy DCAT
* Unless otherwise specified, these numbers come from, The Going Rate: What It Really Costs to Drive, by James J. McKenzie, Roger C. Dower, and Donald Chen. Statistics come from studies done by the Cato Institute, The Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University, The Urban Institute, The Brookings Institution, and the National Research Council.
More info on external costs from Victoria Transport Policy Institute
|Average American's car costs|
|21||Years I could've owned a car (I refused my parent's offer of a gift of their Pinto station wagon at sixteen)|
|$115,500||What the average American would've spent in my shoes.|
|My car costs|
|$2,000||My actual annual costs (approximate)|
|13||Years I've owned a car (I've owned one car, a 1978 Toyota pickup which I bought for $2000 when I was 24)|
Note: my 1978 truck was "totaled" by my wife-to-be twelve years ago. The insurance company gave me $1500 for it. The darn thing still is in great mechanical condition and I've had multiple offers to buy it out from underneath me for $500. Thus, In 13 years of car ownership, I've spent ZERO on depreciation. Following consumer reports recommendations to average buying behavior, I would've lost almost $60,000 in depreciation.
|Lynn's car costs|
|$148,500||If she spent the average amount per year|
|$54,000||What she did spend|
|$94,500||What she saved|
|$184,000||Total household savings thus far|
|$256,000||Savings compared to moderately expensive cars ($7000 instead of $5500 a year)|
How Low-Carbon Can You Go: The Transportation Emissions Ranking
by the Sightline Insitute
- Zipcar? car sharing
- Zim Ride carpooling network
- Over Consumption, Overspending on Cars Spurred by Consumer Reports
- AAA Understatement of Car Usage Cost
- Equal opportunity mobility
- Ways of reducing car dependency
- 98 tons of plants per gallon
- Edmunds.Com Detailed cost info on new, late model used cars
- Kelly Blue Book.com Cost info on used cars; change the milage on your care to see the cost of per mile depreciation
- The Bicycle Dividend
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