Americans are famous for driving everywhere and, indeed, we have one of the highest per capita vehicle ownership rates in the world. Yet few drivers are aware of the enormous lifetime financial burden of car ownership. A recent article by Stefan Goessling, published in the journal “Ecological Economics” and reviewed favorably in Forbes Magazine, sheds light on these incredible costs.
The average lifetime (50 year) price of owning inexpensive small cars is $689,000. The government subsidizes $275,000 (using your taxes), leaving you with a personal tab of $414,000. If you buy more expensive cars, the lifetime bill is over a million. Double this figure if your family owns two cars.
The cost is far more than the purchase price plus fuel (which is abnormally low here because Americans are quick to shout when asked to pay the full cost of gasoline). There are also interest payments, depreciation, insurance, health and social costs resulting from congestion, noise, emissions, road damage, parking (2 billion parking spaces for 250 million cars) and costs for health systems (accidents, lack of exercise, poor air quality). ).
The philosopher Ivan Illich calculated in his 1974 book “Energy and Equity” that “the typical American man…spends 4 of his 16 waking hours on the road or gathering the (financial) resources for it”. Along the same lines, environmental activist Bill McKibben concludes in his book “Deep Economy” that “households can save up to $750,000 over their lifetime if the bus system works well enough to allow people not to buy a second car”.
These savings are one of the reasons many people in Northwest Arkansas have called for a transit system that is fast, widespread, and frequent enough to be convenient for everyone. Slow local buses will not suffice. To replace that second car or to enable a car-free life, Northwest Arkansas needs a commuter rail (preferred) or bus rapid transit with dedicated lanes, traffic light priority traffic, off-board fare collection and improved stations. Despite the cost, the net dollar savings for ordinary people over their lifetime could amount to a small fortune.
Walking has served mankind well for the past 6 million years. We have to stick to that, for our health and our sanity. Cities that, thanks to cars, are expanding madly are not well suited to such old-fashioned fashions. Fayetteville has slowed sprawl by promoting infill, but city-killing car suburbs still proliferate.
Bicycles offer respite and an alternative. Our region, especially its four major cities, deserves praise for its wonderful array of trails and bike paths. Northwest Arkansas has become a nationally recognized cycling destination, and I am deeply grateful to the city and donors such as the Walton Family Foundation for making this possible.
I’ve been cycling since 1972. At 87 and retired, I cycle a few miles to my beloved office at college every weekday. The health benefits and joy are well worth the slight danger. Marie and I had a memorable three-day cycling round trip to Bentonville, where we spent two nights and visited Crystal Bridges. I enthusiastically recommend it. We have spent 15 summer holidays cycling on the wonderful trails of Europe. Besides keeping us in shape, the bike has saved us nearly a million dollars by easily eliminating the need to buy a second vehicle.
People are making a disastrous financial choice, not to mention a bad choice in terms of health and just plain fun, by buying cars and driving instead of walking, biking or commuting. Unfortunately, automobiles are a hard offer for Americans to refuse, due to uninformed transportation priorities, abnormally low gas prices, and endless commutes.
America and Northwest Arkansas can do better.
A footnote to my previous column on gun violence:
Gunfire erupted during July 4 festivities on Philadelphia’s Ben Franklin Parkway, injuring two police officers and sending attendees running. After the shooting, Mayor Jim Kenney spoke passionately:
“If I had the ability to deal with guns, I would. But the Legislature won’t let us. The US Congress won’t let us. The Governor is doing his best. Our Attorney General is doing his best. But it’s an armed country. It’s crazy. We are the most armed country in the history of the world and we are one of the least secure. … Until the Americans decide that they want to give up the guns and give up the possibility of getting guns, we’re going to have this problem.”
The shooting came just hours after gunfire left seven dead and 30 injured during a July 4 parade near Chicago.