In the U.S. driving is usually tagged at 56 cents per mile in 'predictable costs.' (link) But when we look at the various unexpected costs that go with a daily driving addiction, we realize that the picture is much bigger than people realize. (link) (link)
A similar study out of Copenhagen finds that the cost of cycling is six times lower than that of driving even when the slower speed of the bike is taken into account.
The full cost of driving is a massive elephant in the room that typically doesn’t become clear until someone is in an 'accident' or has a breakdown.
People take out loans to pay for a car that constantly loses value, and yet they pay enormous amounts both in the principal and the interest. The average monthly car payment in the U.S. is $563 for new vehicles, $397 for used vehicles and $450 for leased vehicles. Collectively, drivers in the U.S. owe a wopping $1.4 trillion on their cars. (link)
A loan officer revealed to me that one of the key reasons many young families & individuals don't qualify for home loans is because of car payments, which increase their debt-to-income ratio. I didn't know that was an issue.
Even before looking at tax subsidies, the personal cost dwarfs any other travel option (except maybe a helicopter). People that I talk with tend to dismiss the costs of car use as a 'necessary evil' but fail to realize how unnecessary it is. Proof of this came during the Covid pandemic when millions of people bypassed trips that they normally took and telecommuted to work. Cost savings in 2020 were between $3000-$4000 in one year even without giving up the car.
Below we’ll look at the many ways that cars, meat, and the industries that provide them are costing all of us an arm and a leg.
For anyone that’s circled the block for several minutes looking to find a parking space, the dream of having a cheap parking lot is highly attractive. But whether you use a paid lot or a curbside space, the costs are still higher than you think.
According to researcher Donald Shoup, the cost of parking spaces ranges from $4000 for a curbside spot to $40,000 per space in a parking structure.
He further states that the total cost of parking in the U.S. exceeds the value of all the country’s vehicles and perhaps the roads as well. (link)
The same goes for housing. Required parking minimums increase the cost of large apartments and condominiums, making it difficult for people to find affordable housing simply due to the cost of constructing so much parking. (link) (link)
Think about it this way, when you go to the store, there is no cost for parking.
Yet the store owners and apartment building owners had to pay for that lot to be built, and the land doesn't get used for anything besides car storage.
We don't realize that we're paying for this land. Because the high cost is slipped quietly into every item that we buy (link) (link). And the cost is diluted among each of us, in every city; whether you drive a car daily, monthly or not at all. So a ‘free’ parking spot isn't just a burden to you alone, but a drain on every single one of us.
I wish people who were against bike lanes could agree on whether they're bad because they make a neighborhood undesirable by taking away parking or because they make the neighborhood too desirable by taking away parking.
Remember when we discussed the huge amount of space devoted to roads?
Well as with space consumed, drivers experience massive consumption of time and cause inconvenience to others through traffic delays. Depending on the city, drivers can spend 38 to upwards of 90 hours every year just searching for that elusive parking space. (link) (link)
All that driving around in search of a spot also makes traffic worse for everyone else in cars who want to keep moving.
This is yet one more way that transit, walking, and cycling bring us all incredible savings. Buses and trains don't need parking at a market or library. They just keep providing service the rest of the day. As for bikes, the parking takes up 1/12 as much space as what a car needs. (link)
"People shirk at the idea of free transit while viewing free parking as normal and acceptable."
There's another cost to driving that takes up even more time then getting a place to park. That's traffic.
If there's one thing that everyone in the world can relate to (except me), it's sitting in traffic. In the U.S. this cost ranges from $124 billion to as much as $305 billion every year, and it continues to grow.
A report by AAA estimates the national cost of traffic congestion at roughly $800 per year for every person in the U.S. (although the more recent Statista estimate raises that to $1377/person)
In every city around the world, people trapped inside their cars grumble at the frustration of sitting behind a creeping line of people in the same rut as them.
It seems to have no cause, no ringleader, and no clear sign of relief. Even worse, the time lost has its own cost.
Traffic costs each of us through reduced productivity as tired and frustrated workers struggle to shake off the morning commute, through increased health insurance from traffic-related stress and injuries, by more expensive convenience food bought on the go, and by pushing up the price of the things we buy since truck drivers are sitting in the same traffic.
Congestion costs us all not only in lost fuel and time. It also makes travel times uncertain, causes loads of pollution, and adds stress to everyone's lives. (link)
So what is the actual cost you say? Well that depends on where you live. Drivers in Rio De Janeiro pay $43 billion per year. In the U.S. congestion costs $300 billion, and $33.7 billion just for New York City alone. (link)
The issue has become so severe recently that many companies are actually paying their employees to find other ways of getting to work besides driving. (link) (link) (link)
"In Copenhagen, to go from the central station to our friends in Vanlose (~ 5 miles), using the Metro during rush hour takes 9 minutes. The same distance in Seattle could take more than 30 minutes."
But strangely enough, there are also some benefits to traffic. The main advantage being reduced speeds which leads to crashes being less severe.
We'll see in the next section how vehicle speed is a huge factor in how likely you are to survive a crash or cause harm to someone else.
|Hwy Level of Service Rates|
|D||Typ Cty Peak||46-54mph||1550-1850|
|Vancouver Transport Policy Inst.|
|Hwy Level of Service Rates|
|D||Typ Cty Peak||74-87kph (46-54mph)||1,550-1,850|
|Vancouver Transport Policy Inst.|
As you can see, when the number of cars per lane goes from 1600 to 1900, the traffic speed goes down by 25%. That small reduction can mean the difference between getting injured in a crash and going to the emergency room. (link)
All of this expense is dwarfed by the monstrous cost of constantly fixing damage from car crashes (usually called ‘accidents’).
According to the Federal Highway Administration, a single fatal car crash carries a $6,000,000 price tag. Total costs each year range from $300 billion to almost $1 trillion. (link) (link)
As with parking, this crushing burden isn't paid for only by the drivers, it's weight falls on every one of us.
Insurance companies pay about half the costs. Crash victims pay about one-quarter, while third parties and health care providers pay about 14%. Overall, those not directly involved pay for nearly three-quarters of all crash costs - mainly through insurance and delays. (link)
All of this damage continues despite the huge investment in traffic signals, enforcement, and signage. (link)
It’s interesting to realize that when people ride bicycles or walk, there is almost no need for expensive traffic management devices.
The slower speeds allow plenty of time to prepare for potential hazards.
This adds to the dramatic cost savings for non-motorized travel.
On top of these costs to you personally are the costs to the planet which only deepens the carbon cost of driving.
A single car crash can result in between 7 and 50 tons of climate warming emissions. (link) So despite the massive number of signs, traffic signals, and enforcement intended to limit the damage, road vehicles still weigh heavily on our collective purse-strings.
"Have you noticed that anyone driving slower than you is an idiot, while anyone driving faster is a maniac?"
Roads, like parking lots, are a service that many people don’t think about paying for.
The 7 billion miles of roads in the U.S. requires a whopping $181 billion dollars each year to build and maintain. This whopping cost is heavily tilted in favor of car use. In fact, the U.S. government provides larger subsidies for car infrastructure then all other options combined.
The subsidies are estimated at $1,100 per household even beyond the known cost of owning a car. (link) It turns out that despite the oft-repeated myth that ‘drivers pay for the roads,’ the few costs that drivers are aware of don't even provide half the cost of construction and maintenance for roads in North America. (link) So why is it that with all of this investment, your road is still riddled with potholes?
The reason is that most DOTs have a strange focus that prioritizes new construction over repair. (link) This is related to the presentation here describing how suburbs have to constantly expand in order to pay the debt from their own construction.
On the other hand, when cities improve spending on bicycle, bus and light-rail, then not only does ridership go up, but all of the problems brought up earlier become less of a burden. Bicycle travel in particular has the smallest impact on a road surface of any vehicle using the road. (link)
In the end each and every one of us stands to save thousands of dollars per year by embracing simpler and more efficient transportation.
So with all of these costs and consequences, why do we keep seeing more parking lots and wider roads?
That's a complicated question that we'll touch on here.
The simplest way to see this is to understand that politicians and bureaucrats, the people who have the most influence on road planning are not the people who use bikes or buses. (link) These public servants are heavily influenced not only by their own way of seeing things, but also by business owners who suffer a surprising disconnect regarding how their customers arrive.
A group of 12 studies from around the world prove that the group which spends the most at local businesses are people who travel by bicycle.
This flies in the face of the beliefs held by business owners, city mayors, and state leaders.
According to this study for Travel Oregon, bicycle tourists contributed $400 million to their state’s economy. Meanwhile the EU has determined that cycling contributes €500 billion to the European economy.
There are so many planners and business owners who fail to recognize the numerous opportunities that they miss out on by using this model. (link) (link) (link) (link)
On top of the regular cost that goes directly to cars and roads, there’s also the enormous amount of money distributed to oil companies.
Estimates for the U.S. government subsidies range from $10 billion to $15 billion or even $20 billion (USD). This doesn't include the cost of the wars fought to secure this oil (more on that later). But the U.S. isn't the only country 'makin it rain.
Nations around the world collectively spend $400 billion dollars subsidizing drilling and shipping that 'black gold' from the wells to the gas stations.
Sadly, these are only the direct subsidies for drilling, shipping, and paying for equipment. Other damage like pollution of the air, water and soil are left out. Along with other handouts, these bump up the estimated cost into the trillions.
Time after time, study after study, the same results occur. Car use and car-dependant neighborhoods are more expensive and require higher tax subsidies to maintain. In this video, Strongtowns points out the reasons why dense and walkable properties provide more revenue and help to prop up more car-dependant suburbs.
As with fossil fuel subsidies, the US government gives large handouts to those breeding cows and other animals for food. (link)
In addition to the US, countries like Brazil also give huge incentives to people who clear forests to grow animal feed.
I have not found studies focusing only on the cost of a western diet and the variety of food choices is very large. So I share with you the cost of the most common diseases associated with a meat-heavy western diet - heart disease, osteoporosis, and cancer. It is my personal belief that a number of other diseases are caused or made worse by eating foods made from animals. There’s more on that in the next section, but the impact isn't as clear as it is for the ‘big three.’
A single heart bypass procedure can cost $100,000 (USD) Cancer risk is more evenly spread around the globe and affects western and non-western countries alike.
Estimates for the cost of cancer around the world range from $895 billion to over $1 trillion in a single year. (link) (link)
Osteoporosis, which is closely tied to the nutrition imbalances of dairy can actually have a higher economic impact than most types of cancer. For the regions where information is available, I found that the cost of osteoporosis on us directly or to society is €37 billion in Europe and $19 billion in the U.S. Heart disease does most heavily affect smokers and/or people who eat meat, and osteoporosis is closely linked to diet as well. Cancer, on the other hand, is linked not only to diet but to pollution, and toxic elements like asbestos, and aluminium.
(more information on health impacts can be found here)
"It is no coincidence that the same diet that helps prevent or cure diabetes also causes effortless weight loss, lowers cholesterol and... cleans out the arteries, and returns the body to excellent function. But no matter how much research appears saying the same thing over and over again, the tide is unlikely to change because of the economic incentives for the medical establishment of continued illness and profitable treatments."
On top of all this, the cost of our increasingly destructive weather related to climate change has barely been addressed.
Climate cost affects the cost of living, the cost of goods, and even the cost of repairing the damage from worsening storms and floods. Though the USEPA tagged the cost of GHG emissions at $51 per ton of CO2 equivalent, other estimates are much higher. Unfortunately none of the professionals can actually nail down the true cost of climate damage because this is something that's literally never happened before in human history.
Many European countries have similar costs to polluters. But the actual cost goes far beyond these political estimates. The wide range of estimates ranges from $90-$500 per ton released. At the higher end, cost impact can range as high as $800/ton. (link)
So if you think that ‘hippy food’ is too expensive, or that cities shouldn’t spend tax dollars on bike lanes, consider how much worse off we would be if more people decided to embrace 20th century values.