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The Hidden Cost of Cars

Almost $10 billion is spent every year to convince you that automobiles represent freedom and success, but modern urban planning studies show that every trip you make with a car makes you poorer, less healthy and less happy. Let’s cut through the crap and find out the truth.

Cars are Bad for Your Wallet

Source: AAA

You might be surprised at how much owning a car actually costs: AAA calculates the average cost of new car ownership at over $9,000/year!

Think you’re being clever with that used car? Money Under 30 estimates the cost of used car ownership at $6,000/year, which totals to over $2,000,000 lost over the course of a 50 year career at a 6.5% interest rate (stock market). Owning a car and driving it everywhere — even a used one — mathematically makes the difference between dying penniless or a millionaire.

With median US household incomes at $59,000, a household with only one car spends 10–15% of their paycheck (and thus their career) for the “freedom” to be trapped in rush hour traffic. In fact, car commuters spend over 100 hours/year trapped in traffic —plus another 300 hours/year paying off their car (at the average hourly wage of $30/hr). With that much time and money saved, you could retire decades earlier, start the project or company you’ve always wanted, or go on multiple vacations per year! Now that sounds a lot better than rush hour, doesn’t it?

It can be tricky to fully understand the cost of car ownership because there are both fixed costs (that you pay no matter what) and variable costs (that increase the more you use it). It’s a common assumption that most of the cost of a vehicle is fixed, and that there’s very little cost to each time you drive it (known as the “marginal cost” of driving it one more mile). In reality, almost all costs of car ownership increase with usage: deprecation, maintenance, even insurance go up. AAA estimates the true cost of driving a car an extra 10 miles is $5–7 (vs just 50¢ for a bike). Don’t get tricked into driving your car everywhere just because you own one!

Cars Increase Your Taxes

Image courtesy of Unsplash

The American Dream: Owning a nice car and a nice house in the suburbs. But we’ve been duped. Suburbs have enormous hidden costs in their commutes and infrastructure that make it harder for you to have the time and money for the things that really matter.

If there’s one thing everyone can agree, it’s that we would love to pay lower taxes if we could. And yet, we subsidize every suburban household to the tune of thousands of dollars per year since they pay less taxes than urban households, but cost the government significantly more. Indeed, suburban road infrastructure and maintenance costs almost ten times as much as urban households. Surely there are better uses for our money than subsidizing suburbs?

It gets worse. Once a suburb is built, it causes unfixable traffic issues. Just look at Los Angeles — the poster child for death by car. Thanks to Los Angeles, we know that cars have what’s known as “induced demand” — the more roads you add, the worse traffic gets. You read that right: the billions of dollars we spend on new roads and highways aren’t fixing anything… they’re actually making traffic and pollution worse.

And yet, our money is still spent on it. Because we don’t speak loud and clear to our representatives, they think it’s fine to waste our hard-earned tax dollars ($126 billion/yr on highways alone) so that the Joneses can afford to buy a big backyard and expensive pool. They think we want our paychecks to be spent on wider roads that will only make traffic worse. We need to speak up if we don’t want America to be crushed under the asphalt of 20-lane freeways.

Consider what we could invest that money in instead. Walking and biking infrastructure is an order of magnitude less expensive to build and maintain. By one analysis, a single mile of interstate highway costs as much as 70 miles of bike lanes! ($7–9M/mile vs $130k/mile) Bikes do 10,000x less damage to roads than cars, so the next time you see a cyclist, don’t honk at them… high-five them for saving your tax dollars.

This drain on society is perpetuated by the myth that it’s cheaper to raise a family in the suburbs. Why? American society consistently fails to factor in the cost of transportation. Just consider this analysis: only looking at housing + property tax + childcare, it would cost an extra $11,376/year to raise a family in urban Seattle compared to the suburbs. But did you notice what they didn’t account for? The cost of owning one (or, far more likely, two) cars to function in the suburbs. Owning two cars at $9,000/car/year actually makes living in Seattle over $6,000 cheaper per year. And that’s not even accounting for the 100+ hours per year you get back from ditching the commute (more on that below). Another analysis found that every mile you move closer to work saves you so much money that you could buy a house $15,900 more expensive. That adds up to over $450,000 for moving 30 miles closer, more than enough to afford a place in the city. Even groceries can be cheaper in the city due to more competition between stores.

This myth is furthered by the belief that you’d have to give up everything — your garage, your backyard, your guest bedroom — to live in the city. But that’s simply not true. Here in Pittsburgh, I pay just $2,400/mo in rent for a four bedroom house with a garage and a backyard — and yet I’m still biking distance from thousands of job opportunities, dozens of restaurants and six grocery stores. I’m even walking distance from a 644 acre park complete with running trails, barbecue areas, tennis courts and more.

Let’s kill the myth once and for all: Cities are cheaper than suburbs, and you don’t have to live in a sardine can to let go of your dependency on cars!

Cars are Bad for the Planet

Source: EPA

To frame the problem: Consumer cars, SUVs and pickups account for 15 - 20% of all US emissions.

You might think that electric cars will solve this, that driving has no consequences if you have a clean electric car. Unfortunately, that’s not true. Only 15% of electricity in the US comes from renewable sources. In theory, if our government prioritized the planet, we could reach 80% renewable in 30 yearsbut that’s half a lifetime away at best. As it stands today, electric cars still only get about 90 MPGe (miles per gallon equivalent, a measure of emissions caused by the electricity they consume per mile). Certainly better than an SUV, but not “zero emission” by a long shot.

Another oft-overlooked fact is that the manufacturing of a car produces as much emissions as the car will produce over its entire lifetime, effectively doubling the environmental impact. That means the most efficient electric cars today aren’t actually 90 MPGe… they‘re only 45 MPGe. That 40MPG “environmentally friendly” sedan? That’s actually 20MPGe.

To put that in perspective, bicycles achieve an energy efficiency of over 700 MPGe when accounting for the energy required to grow the food for the calories burned. If you assume that the rider would have otherwise exercised for their health, then they consume zero additional energy per mile. Of course, bicycles must also be manufactured. One analysis estimated the average bike at about 1/4 ton of CO2 (vs 17 tons for an average car), 68 times more efficient! A well-maintained bike can last for over 10,000 miles, resulting in a still mind-blowing 600 MPGe.

You might be asking yourself why the actual efficiency numbers aren’t advertised. Simple: it would result in people buying less cars and US corporations are legally required to only care about profits, even if it means evading the truth, trapping you in debt and destroying the planet. (the linked lawsuit, fittingly, involves a car company)

To really gain perspective on just how ridiculous cars are, consider this: when you walk, you take just your body weight with you. Biking, your bike might add 20 or 30 pounds. But driving a car? Everywhere you go, you’re hauling 3,000 pounds of metal with you. Can you imagine trying to walk to the store carrying 3,000 pounds on your back? The energy inefficiency of cars is comical — and a fundamental limit of physics. Cars — even electric ones — can never be anywhere near as efficient as walking or biking. We need to stop planning our policies on the hopes and dreams of technologies that cannot exist, and start encouraging and incentivizing actual fixes through increased density, walking and biking infrastructure and public transit.

Cars are also tremendously space inefficient — not only are buses and bikes themselves dozens of times more compact in transit, but each car’s parking space can cost as much as $50,000 to build, and in aggregate can consume more than 20% of the land in a city. (more: free parking is bad for everyone)

Cars are Bad for Your Health

Source: CDC

Cars kill over 35,000 people each year and are the leading cause of death for ages 15–24. Since the turn of the century, more US citizens have died due to automobiles than all of World War 2. And yet cars are not labeled as a humanitarian or health crisis. They’re just “business as usual”.

Of course, 35,000 deaths per year pales in comparison to the over 600,000 heart disease deaths and $140 billion per year lost to obesity. Switching commutes from driving to walking / biking is an easy solution to achieve the recommended 30 minutes of physical activity each day. The best part? Unlike driving to a gym, walking is free!

If billions of dollars and hundreds of thousands of deaths don’t convince you, studies have also found that walking or biking to work makes you happier and more productive. One study found that shaving 20 minutes off your commute would give you as much happiness as getting a 19% raise, something that is absolutely achievable when you move closer to work and whiz past rush hour traffic on your bike.

When discussing biking, there’s a common worry that it’s more dangerous than driving. Unfortunately, due to lack of reliable data about how many miles are biked each year, it is impossible to calculate this. As such, we’re forced to fall back to first order principles: cars have more mass and travel at higher speeds, and thus in general pose a higher risk of injury and property damage — if not to the occupant, then everyone around them. And small infrastructure improvements like protected bike lanes can make biking 10 times safer than it already is. If we get our cities and politicians to treat bikers as people and give them the same safety treatment they’ve given cars, I absolutely believe we can make biking as safe — or safer — than cars. And, given that motorists are the overwhelming cause of death for cyclists, more bikers means more motorist awareness of bikes, resulting in a positive feedback loop of safer streets, more people biking, and fewer accidents.

When are cars OK?

Cars aren’t all bad, and I don’t want to scare you away thinking that the only right answer is to give up everything right now. There are still situations where cars allow you to do things that would be difficult otherwise, as long as you limit your usage of a car to these times and don’t become car dependent:

  • Carpooling: From an environmental perspective, cars become reasonably efficient when fully loaded. A modern minivan at 15 MPGe (after manufacturing) achieves 60 MPGe when carrying 4 people. An electric vehicle’s 45 MPGe becomes 180 MPGe — which is energy-competitive with 4 people biking. Public transit is still more geometrically efficient (and thus more effectively reduces traffic), but carpooling is still a great way to embark on your journey towards more sustainable transportation. Just don’t fall into the trap of using a car when not carpooling: if you’re getting into a car alone, you should be biking.
  • Group road trips: Although planes are more efficient than single-occupancy cars, if you’re traveling with two or more people, a road trip is competitive. That being said, any form of long-distance transportation still consumes a lot of energy, so please travel conscientiously!
  • Mountain adventures: There are some situations in which public transit options do not currently exist, such as driving up to the mountains to go on a hike. In these cases, you have no other choice (besides hiking somewhere that’s closer to you). The greatest negative effects of car dependency come from relying on them every day; as long as you don’t fall into that trap, driving a few hundred miles a year to do something you love is reasonable.
  • Carrying really heavy things: We’re not talking grocery shopping here (see below). We’re talking things like furniture and lumber. If you only move these a few times a year, you’ll save a lot of money and stress by selling your car and renting a truck when you need one. If this is your primary need for an automobile, make sure that you own one vehicle that serves this need first and foremost, and continue to walk / bike / transit when you don’t explicitly need its capabilities. Mr Money Mustache has a great post on how to save tens of thousands of dollars when buying a car for this purpose.
  • Ice: Although it’s entirely possible to bike warmly and safely in the winter with the right clothing and equipment, it can occasionally get so utterly frigid or icy that biking is no longer safe. In these situations, it is also generally unsafe to drive, and I would highly encourage you to not go outside — delay your plans, take a rain check, work from home. If you’re willing to put yourself in danger by traveling on icy roads, then you’re less likely to get injured in a car than on a bike. If this is your primary use for a vehicle, be honest with yourself and buy something with four wheel drive and snow tires and leave it in the garage during the spring, summer and fall. Or, just use Uber and public transit for those few days per year.
  • Handicap: Because this is a comprehensive list of valid reasons to drive a car (notice how few reasons there are!), we would be remiss to include handicaps that prevent you from physically riding a bike. Note that just being out of shape is not a valid excuse! (see below)

There are also several use cases that the car industry attempts to defend, but are really quite viable — perhaps even better — without the burden of a car:

  • Commuting to work: Being sweaty and smelly is easily avoided. For the cost of being car-dependent for only a few months, you can buy an electric bike that allows you to take it easy on the way in, and then get a free workout on the way home. Plus, if you live within biking distance of work (~10 miles or less), electric biking is consistently faster (and more fun!) than rush hour traffic.
  • Inter-city solo trips are easily serviced by planes, trains or buses. And, unlike a car trip, the cost of transportation is fully transparent and you can spend the trip enjoying a nice book, movie or game instead of clutching a steering wheel. Planes are also more energy efficient for single passengers. (of course, trains are even more efficient than that)
  • Grocery shopping is not only a solved problem on a bike, it actually makes you a healthier and more conscientious shopper. Grocery shopping for an entire family via bike isn’t hard either, especially with an electric cargo bike.
  • I’m out of shape: Exercise can be more difficult if you’re out of shape, but it quickly gets easier. Thankfully, electric bikes are now incredibly affordable. For a fraction of the money thrown away maintaining a car, you can purchase a brand new, fast, elegant electric bike that will give you a whole new level of mobility and freedom and help you gradually work your way up to a greater level of fitness — no obnoxious personal trainer or expensive gym membership required.
  • Shared households, such as two partners with commutes, are a more nuanced situation. The default thinking in America right now is that if you can’t live close to everyone’s job, you might as well live in the suburbs. But we’ve seen the problems with suburb living—depending on multiple cars to function adds tens of thousands to your annual expenses. The worst part? There’s no one easy trick to fixing it because everywhere you could possibly work is still a drive in the suburbs. The solution? Play for the long game. Move into the city before your next job change so that when you are looking at your next career move, you can accurately compare the true cost of different jobs — job X may pay 10% more, but job Y is biking distance (which, as we’ve seen, is worth up to a 20% raise). And, since job growth is higher in cities, the odds of everyone in the house eventually finding jobs accessible via sustainable transportation is much higher.
  • Kids: In the suburb situation, parents must drive their kids everywhere because that is the only transportation option. But in denser areas, kids are able to walk, bike and transit themselves not just to school, but to soccer practice and their friends’ houses, making them healthier and more independent, and saving you a lot of time and money.
  • No bike lanes: work with your local bike advocacy group (here in Pittsburgh we have BikePGH) to get more protected lanes added — they make streets safer, reduce traffic, provide affordable transportation options and increase property values. Also, check your local bike map! Many routes that you think aren’t bikeable have alternative routes with bike lanes that are more enjoyable than riding on the main car thoroughfare.

At the end of the day, it’s not the end of the world to own a car if you have an occasional car-appropriate use case. In fact, having a car that you only drive a few hundred miles a year is quite affordable! But living a car dependent lifestyle, driving everywhere and logging 10,000 or more miles per year will make you poorer, sicker and less happy — and nobody wants that.

To put it another way: it’s ok to own a car as an occasional luxury — just like it’s ok to occasionally eat at Cheesecake Factory. The problem arises when you put yourself in a situation where a car is your only option — or, in this example, where your only food source is Cheesecake Factory. When you’re trapped into only having the worst possible option for yourself, no amount of willpower can fix your current lifestyle. Thankfully, as we’ve seen, it is absolutely possible to move closer to your destinations and give yourself back the choice and the freedom to live a richer, happier and healthier life.


So, what can we do about it?

As an individual

You can save thousands of dollars per year by “giving up” your soul-crushing commute. You don’t even have to sell your car to reap all of the benefits — just adjust your location and lifestyle so that you don’t depend on a car for everyday things (going to work, hanging out with friends and food).

Lifestyle changes can be big and scary. If you find yourself hesitating to make a change, here’s a quick thought exercise. Ask yourself: how much would I have to get paid to go from my current lifestyle to one that’s not car dependent? $5,000/yr? $10,000/yr? $20,000/yr? To put it in perspective, think of what you could do with that money: is driving instead of biking to work really worth giving up a free vacation every year? Every month?

If you can’t name a number that would convince you to move closer to work and give up a car-based commute, I would encourage you to take a step back: over 9% of US households don’t own a car. It’s possible, especially with ridesharing as a backup. As a starting point, experts recommend spending no more than 20% of your salary on a car. Is your commute really worth 20% of your money, 20% of your entire career? What could you do if you got a 20% raise? Or, if money isn’t your primary motivator, you can do the same exercise with your time, health or happiness. How much time would you be willing to spend to keep owning a car? How much of your health are you willing to sacrifice? How much of your happiness?

If you’re still struggling, comment below with what’s holding you back!

If you’re ready to take the leap to a healthier, richer, less car-dependent life, check out Mr Money Mustache’s blog for tons of actionable insights. And remember to set Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, Time-bound goals for yourself in your exciting new transition to maximize your success!

As a group

We can start by giving it a name: Car Dependency. Like fish in water, we aren’t consciously aware of social norms. Once we become aware of them, we can discuss, explore, and improve upon them.

We can share these thoughts with our friends. Most people are not aware of just how detrimental cars actually are, and a little education can go a long way in promoting productive dialog in communities and governments.

We can protest anything new that’s car-centric. Is a new suburb being proposed in your neighborhood? Is the government trying to spend your tax dollars to expand roads? Fight these things — even if you only care about paying lower taxes. Are there talks of adding bike lanes or improving mass transit? Support them — even if you only care about keeping your commute traffic from getting worse. If your neighborhood isn’t already organized, consider using a tool like NextDoor to build a neighborhood alliance.

As a society

We need to stop subsidizing cars and make them pay their fair share with systems that work like congestion pricing and carbon taxes, which can even make the experience of driving more pleasant by reducing traffic gridlock. We need to pressure our representatives to do the right thing and not let them blame “Politics” when they fail to pass something that would penalize their extravagant lifestyle.

Many people’s first reaction to taxing cars / gas / road usage more heavily is to point out — correctly — that we all benefit from roads (e.g. package delivery). Increasing taxes on cars doesn’t remove that, it just makes the costs more transparent and more fairly distributed to those who use them most. As an example: Instead of paying $10 in tax with $5 subsidizing your package deliveries and $5 subsidize suburban commuters, you would now pay $0 in tax and $5 per year in extra postal costs (saving $5), whereas resource-hogging commuters would pay their fair share ($15). Only by properly aligning the economic incentives can we fix this at a societal level.

Want to read more about how we can redesign America to be less car-dependent? Read the insightful Human Transit blog.

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