Personal Costs of Driving and Car Ownership


To celebrate 26 years of publishing Whatcom Watch, we will be printing excerpts from 20 years ago. This article is from the August 1997 issue of Whatcom Watch.

Previous articles (Whatcom Watch January 1997, May and June 1997 ) have discussed the many ways in which our society under prices and subsidizes driving. For several years we have also called attention to the rapidly increasing amount of driving which is creating problems for our transportation system and our environment. We believe that the underfunding and under-provision of alternatives to driving coupled with the expansion of roadways and the subsidization of driving is at the root of this problem. In this section we shall explore some of the personal consequences of our overdependence on the car for transportation. We shall investigate the amount of driving, its monetary cost, and its cost to the quality of life of the average person. We shall also apply the concept of “opportunity cost” or what might have been saved or gained had we not invested so heavily in cars and driving, to some of the not so obvious costs of driving.

According to the American Automobile Association the direct financial costs of owning and operating a car rose to $6,389 (over $530 per month) in 1995. This includes amortization and depreciation (monthly payments and loss of value), insurance, licensing fees and taxes, fuel, repairs, and maintenance. Or about 43 cents per mile. Since the American car fleet is moving more in the direction of sports utility vehicles (50 cents per mile) and minivans (45 cents per mile) than in the direction of smaller, fuel efficient cars we will likely see the average cost rise in future years.

The average motorist drives about 1,000 miles each month. This represents an increase of about 65 percent over the past 25 years. While commute driving has increased by about 20 percent, the greatest increases have been in driving for shopping and family and recreational trips. The number of short trips taken by cars has increased by about 100 percent in the same time period. Assuming a mix of freeway, arterial and residential street speeds and waiting at drive-though facilities, this would translate into about two hours per day behind the wheel. Ivan Illich in the 1970s taught us to calculate how many hours per day we were working to support a car: two hours per day for the average wage earner. Two hours behind the wheel, two hours working to support the car equals four hours per day for a start.

One of the opportunity costs associated with cars is the amount of space we devote to their storage and how that adds to our living expense. If we all owned fewer cars we’d have more space on our streets for walking, playing, bicycling and transit. If you are a homeowner and are fortunate enough to have street parking then you can use your lot for purposes other than car storage. If you store your car on your lot you need at least 200 square feet per car and generally double that amount in driveway space. The average single-family dwelling commits from 600-1500 square feet for driveway and car storage. In other words we devote considerably more space to our cars’ slumber needs than to our own — and then some. At work, the amount of space devoted to parking generally exceeds the average floor space per worker. At the mall there is generally more space given over to parking than to store interiors. Reduction in car ownership permits more living, working, shopping and green space in cities and towns. If we were to reduce the space given over to cars at home, at shopping, and at work, we might have smaller mortgage payments (or more living space) and more neighbors to ride the bus with (since we would need smaller lots and thereby have a little more human density rather than car density in our neighborhoods), lower prices at the stores, and bigger paychecks from employers who were spending less on parking.

Another personal cost is the extent to which our overdependence on cars taxes our health. Traffic is the greatest death and injury risk factor for youth and young adults. Various health studies have documented how the environment inside a car is highly toxic due to exhaust fumes and vapors from car components and fabrics. We are subjecting our children to longer and longer stretches of time in this environment as they are walking less and being chauffeured more. Health researchers are finding that we need regular daily exercise such as walking and bicycling around town — not just driving to the health club a couple times a week. As Mike Ferro of the Cascade Bicycle Club has observed, we are becoming a car-potato culture. Less time in cars, more walking and bicycling, and less polluted air could translate into savings of 25-50 percent of our health expenditures or another $50-100 per month for each of us.

Finally there is a cost which is hard to quantify: how much does it cost us as individuals and members of society to seclude ourselves daily inside an air conditioned, steel, plastic and tinted glass reality? How much do the auto-centered individual and the auto-centered society lose as a result of citizens spending such a cocooned and anti-social life? What are the “social and cultural” opportunity costs?


At the time this article was written, Preston Schiller was ALT-TRANS (Washington Coalition for Transportation Alternatives) Research Director and a member of the Sierra Club’s Sustainable Communities Task Force.







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