Cars can be convenient, but they are also incredibly expensive, both for owners and for society in general. New academic research has calculated that the lifetime cost of a small car, such as an Opel Corsa, is around $689,000, of which the company pays $275,000. (A Mercedes GLC costs $1 million and more over an owner’s lifetime.)
The research focused on Germany, but lead author Stefan Gössling told me the guiding principles also work for other countries. write in Ecological economyGössling stated that “the car is one of the most expensive household consumer goods, but there is limited understanding of its private and social cost per vehicle-km, year or driving time.”
Motorists, he added, underestimate the total private costs of car ownership, “while policy makers and planners underestimate the social costs”.
Cars are expensive due to high fare, depreciation, and additional costs for insurance, repairs, and fuel purchases. The social costs of mass motoring – known to carry buffs as negative externalities – include carbon emissions from gasoline and diesel combustion, congestion, noise, crash deaths and injuries , damage to roads and costs to health systems due to laziness.
Other subsidies, such as the abundant provision of free off-street parking, are often prescribed in building codes. America’s 250 million cars are overstocked with about 2 billion parking spaces (think Wal-Mart at Christmas) but spend 95% of their time going nowhere.
Gössling based his cost calculations on an individual traveling 15,000 kilometers per year for 50 years. Previous studies using different parameters have come to similar conclusions. In his 2007 book, deep economyenvironmentalist author and activist Bill McKibben concluded, “Households can save up to $750,000 over their lifetime if the bus system works well enough that people don’t have to buy a second car.
And “Mr. Money Moustache” – real name Pete Adeney and who blogs to 350,000 regular readers, advising them on how they can retire when they’re young and still live comfortably –said that a typical American couple who commute to work in separate cars and spend $19 a day on direct driving and car ownership costs would have paid $125,000 each after ten years.
Living closer to work and biking there would net the couple $250,000.
Cars suck in more money than most people realize. On an average income, half a week of work goes towards paying the costs associated with driving an automobile, philosopher Ivan Illich calculated in his 1974 book Energy and equity.
“The typical American spends more than 1,600 hours a year on his car”, wrote Illich.
“He spends four of his sixteen waking hours on the road or gathering his resources for it.”
And working on the labor needed to buy and fuel the car to go 7,500 miles equates to an average speed of less than five miles per hour, Illich said.
Counting the total and real cost of a means of transport that is more expensive than expected is a calculation that can hurt. The bruise was first caused in the 1850s by American essayist Henry David Thoreau who urged citizens to think about the real costs of the railways through the labor used to build them.
“We don’t ride on the railway; it rides on us,” he explained in his simple living book, Walden.
More recently, Adam Ozimek, chief economist at Upwork, tweeted that mass car ownership does not make economic sense.
“Spending $40,000 on a car strikes me as the kind of thing you intuitively do when you have a few million dollars of wealth and are making $400,000 a year,” he wrote.
“But perfectly normal people do it all the time! Blows me.
Gössling, a German academic working for Linnaeus University’s business school in Sweden, is also stunned by the acceptance that owning an expensive car is considered normal, even for low earners.
Yes, much of the built environment ingrains car use, but notoriously many people drive pitifully short journeys when it would be just as easy – and certainly cheaper and healthier – to walk.
Getting people out of cars isn’t something most politicians want to tackle, Gössling told me.
“It’s a transportation taboo; you can’t touch it politically because you’ll get burned.
A good example is road pricing. The UK Parliament’s Transport Committee tweeted last night that ‘it’s time to have an honest conversation about car taxes’ and, in a meaty new reportsuggested that the time had come for the pay-per-kilometre automobile.
Cue the “war on the car” slurs from the shock-jocks. It’s an emotional subject. In 2007, 1.8 million British motorists signed a petition against road pricing, fearing the cost of cars would rise.
To avoid such arguments, the transport committee report stressed that road pricing would not be used as a mechanism to reduce miles travelled. On the contrary, MPs reassured themselves most motorists would end up paying “the same or less than they currently do”.
Who recovers the shortfall? We all do. The company pays in car subsidies, which is unfair to those who don’t drive.
“One in five households in Germany does not have a car,” Gössling points out, “and yet all of them subsidize car travel.”
“For someone making a lot of money, none of that is relevant,” Gössling said.
“Where the difference is is for those with low incomes, because for them [paying huge sums over a lifetime for car use] can really hurt.
Instead, he argued, countries and cities should be designed so that “people can be mobile without cars”.
However, he warned, “automakers are very concerned about people having ideas about not owning cars.”
“In our research, we’re not saying start taking cars away from people, we’re just saying it’s probably more prudent, economically, to invest in infrastructure that costs less, like active mobility. , and where people will make a change voluntarily.
“Cycling is growing rapidly in Germany,” said Gössling.
“It wasn’t forced on people, it’s what people want. People want to be healthier. Numerous studies show how active travel is not only good for physical health; it is also beneficial for mental health. And the bike is ideal for cities; it is often much faster than driving.
“Change can come quickly,” he said.
And change could be accelerated by a better understanding of total automotive costs, especially for those who can ill afford such debauchery.
“Most low-income households and many moderate-income households are harmed overall by policies that favor automobile travel over more affordable and resource-efficient modes,” Gössling’s study concludes.
“Such policies force many households to own more vehicles than they can afford and impose significant external costs, especially on people who rely on walking, cycling and public transport.”