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 owning an automobile. A recent article by Stefan Goessling, published in the journal "Ecological Economics" and discussed favorably in Forbes Magazine, highlights these incredible costs.
The average lifetime (50 years) price of owning small, inexpensive cars is $689,000. The government subsidizes $275,000 of this (using your tax dollars), leaving you with a personal tab of $414,000. If you buy more expensive cars, the lifetime bill is more than a million. Double this figure if your family owns two cars.
The cost is much more than just the purchase price plus fuel (which is unnaturally low here because Americans are quick to scream when asked to pay the full cost of gasoline). There are also interest payments, depreciation, insurance, health and social costs arising from congestion, noise, emissions, road damage, parking (2 billion parking spots for 250 million cars) and costs to health systems (accidents, lack of exercise, bad air).
Philosopher Ivan Illich calculated in his 1974 book "Energy and Equity" that "The typical American male ... spends 4 of his 16 waking hours on the road or gathering the (financial) resources for it." In a similar vein, environmental activist Bill McKibben concludes in his book "Deep Economy" that "Households can save as much as $750,000 over a lifetime if the bus system works well enough to enable people not to buy a second car."
Such savings are one reason many people in Northwest Arkansas have pushed for a transit system that is sufficiently rapid, widespread and frequent to be practical for everybody. Slow, local buses won't cut it. To replace that second car, or to enable carless living, Northwest Arkansas needs commuter rail (preferred) or bus rapid transit with dedicated lanes, traffic signal priority, off-board fare collection and enhanced stations. Despite the cost, the net dollar savings for ordinary people over a lifetime could be a small fortune.
Walking has served humankind well for the past 6 million years. We need to stick with this, for our health and sanity. Cities that, thanks to cars, sprawl insanely are not well adapted to such old-fashioned ways. Fayetteville has slowed sprawl by promoting infill, but the city-killing automobile suburbs still proliferate.
Bicycles offer a respite and an alternative. Our region, especially its four leading cities, deserves praise for its magnificent array of trails and bike lanes. Northwest Arkansas has become a nationally recognized bicycling destination, and I'm deeply grateful to the city and donors such as the Walton Family Foundation for making it happen.
I've been bicycling since 1972. At 87 and retired, I bike a couple of miles to my beloved office at the university every weekday. The health benefits and joy are well worth the slight danger. Marie and I took a memorable three-day bicycle round trip to Bentonville, where we stayed two nights and visited Crystal Bridges. I enthusiastically recommend it. We've spent 15 summer vacations bicycling on Europe's wonderful trails. In addition to keeping us in shape, bicycling has saved us the better part of a million dollars by making it easy to avoid buying a second vehicle.
People make a disastrous financial choice, not to mention a poor choice in terms of health and just plain fun, by buying cars and driving instead of walking, bicycling, or transiting. Unfortunately, automobiles are an offer that's hard for Americans to refuse, due to unenlightened transportation priorities, unnaturally low gasoline prices and endless suburbs.
America, and Northwest Arkansas, can do better.
A footnote to my previous column about gun violence:
Shots erupted during Fourth of July festivities on Philadelphia's Ben Franklin Parkway, injuring two police officers and sending attendees running. Following the shooting, Mayor Jim Kenney spoke passionately:
"If I had the ability to take care of guns, I would. But the legislature won't let us. The U.S. Congress won't let us. The governor does the best he can. Our attorney general does the best he can. But this is a gun country. It's crazy. We're the most armed country in world history and we're one of the least safe. ... Until Americans decide that they want to give up guns and give up the opportunity to get guns we're gonna have this problem."
The shooting came just hours after gunfire killed seven and injured 30 at a Fourth of July parade near Chicago.