The automobile trap

Last week I had to go to a friend’s house that I couldn’t bike to after work. There was a drizzle, it was rush hour and the maybe 10-mile drive took more than half an hour. By the time I got there I was doubly ready for that glass of wine (and I know a lot of people have longer commutes than that). It made me grateful to have the option of cycling or even walking to work, and sad that it’s something so many people don’t have. This feeling was only intensified by reading an article on Time’s website (via), that went beyond the psychological effects of commuting to explore the financial impact. It was an interesting read in the wake of my recent flirtation with a car-free life. The article, in a nutshell:

The study estimates that a family earning $50,000 to $60,000 per year pays around $10,000 annually in automobile costs—including gas, insurance, and other related expenses. According to the Department of Commerce, that family is paying more for transportation than health insurance or taxes.

Author Brad Tuttle goes on to explain how this happened and why, unfortunately, there’s not much the average American can do to change their situation. Many people chose to live in communities outside the urban core in the days of cheap oil because houses were more affordable, or because the schools were better. Now the current economy, job and real estate markets make it nearly impossible to move closer to where you work or work closer to where you live. Public transportation? Sure, if you’re in one of the 10 or 12 cities in the country where comprehensive public transportation exists. If not, you either don’t have the option at all, or exercising it would make your commute even more difficult. The only flaw in this article was that he didn’t mention the option of bicycles as transportation—but the things that keep people from using public transportation are often obstacles to cycling as well.

And that’s if you even want to try, or are willing to acknowledge the financial impact of driving. Most people look the other way exactly because of this catch-22 situation. Or because driving is, quite simply, the most convenient way of getting around for probably 90% of the population. Or because they just hate thinking about money, and figuring out the exact cost of owning a car is a complicated thing. I actually love road trips and I have a sentimental attachment to my current car because my dad rebuilt it for me. But having the option of whether or not to drive it, at least on a daily basis, is so valuable to me. Much is made of the equation of car=freedom, but how much freedom has the automobile culture given people when it comes to choosing their mode of transportation? Maybe economic pressures are finally going to make that start to change.

About these ads

20 thoughts on “The automobile trap

  1. Stephanie says:

    This was one of the very top reasons I got rid of my car five years ago. It just felt like owning a car was sucking the money out of my bank account all the time. Granted, ever since then I’ve chosen where to live based on transit and bike accessibility, but those places are usually where I’d have wanted to live anyway. It’s nice to see this issue articulated.

    • Steven Vance says:

      I got ride of my car because not having one was easier than having one – I moved to Chicago from the suburbs and got rid of it after one or two months. It wasn’t worth the hassle of shoveling snow from it, or driving around looking for parking. My dad brought a bike to me, and I’ve never looked back since. If it wasn’t for that, I’d probably be in a boring job making maps or zoning recommendations. Now I’m consulting for bike parking and writing Grid Chicago.

      Money had little to do with it, but that might be because my family helped pay for a lot of my car expenses.

  2. Stephen Hodges says:

    You’ve made some good observations. I think for still too many, it’s simply a lifestyle choice. They have been effectively brainwashed by decade of advertising that can be boiled down to: No car = Loser. The good news is that a lot of younger people (I’m 53) are rethinking the idea that they MUST have a car. New car sales are way down, yes, because of the Great Recession, but because people simply aren’t as excited about car payments as they apparently used to be.

    I still have and use a car–it’s hard to go to public meetings at night in a suit and tie on a bicycle when the weather is non-cooperative, or to carry a PA system and a guitar and two mandolins to a gig on the weekend–but I’ve probably cut my driving at least by a third or more by commuting several days a week, or by utility cycling on weekends. But it’s still a lonely ride. Too many cars, too many unthinking people, too many people terrified to step outside their expensive, polluting, metal box whose costs are invisible stones hanging around their necks.

  3. Gordon Inkeles says:

    Interesting! Do you have figures on the total cost per mile of owning a car?

  4. Anonymous says:

    I was just reading an article from Tree Hugger about the gradual death of the suburbs we’re seeing now—as oil prices rise, the wealthy(ish) are abandoning their homes in nowheresville and coming back to the city (which goes some way towards explaining the gentrification of urban neighborhoods across the United States). If enough of this happens, we may see an acceleration of bike infrastructure as the people with money fill in the places where it would be needed. I’ve got my fingers crossed.

    I still have a car, though I rarely use it any more. Fill up about once a month which, considering I live some 17 miles from work, is damn good. My situation is a twist—I live in the city and work in the suburbs—so between my bike, my car, the train, and carpooling, I make it work. It isn’t feasible for me to give up my car entirely so I am still paying for car insurance, but I’m doing what I can. And it’s a ’97 Camry my parents purchased new and sold to me two years ago, so no car payments!

  5. lowercase_see says:

    I was just reading an article from Tree Hugger about the gradual death of the suburbs we’re seeing now—as oil prices rise, the wealthy(ish) are abandoning their homes in nowheresville and coming back to the city (which goes some way towards explaining the gentrification of urban neighborhoods across the United States). If enough of this happens, we may see an acceleration of bike infrastructure as the people with money fill in the places where it would be needed. I’ve got my fingers crossed.

    I still have a car, though I rarely use it any more. Fill up about once a month which, considering I live some 17 miles from work, is damn good. My situation is a twist—I live in the city and work in the suburbs—so between my bike, my car, the train, and carpooling, I make it work. It isn’t feasible for me to give up my car entirely so I am still paying for car insurance, but I’m doing what I can. And it’s a ’97 Camry my parents purchased new and sold to me two years ago, so no car payments!

  6. Karen says:

    This is such an important topic, I’m so glad to see you write about it. The cost of driving is insane! When I was in graduate school I was driving 70+ miles a day, and made a vow after that to live much closer to where I work once I graduated. So far that has been my number one priority and I for both jobs I’ve lived within 3 miles of my work place. Initially I thought about buying a Vespa for transport and getting rid of my car, but when I saw the $7000 price tag, and realized I’d have to pay for insurance and gas and maintenance that maybe spending $500 on a decent bicycle would be more wise. That was one of the greatest decisions of my life! Sure, getting around on a bike has it’s limitations, but there are so many wonderful advantages, physically, mentally, environmentally…Living in Chicago, not only do I save money on gas, car upkeep and insurance, but I don’t have to pay $120 a month parking. Not to mention cars lose their value over the years and you put all this money and gas into something that will be worth very little. Biking to work gets you a pretty good return on your investment. Even if you buy a bike that costs $1500, it will last many years and there is no fuel needed. And commuting on a bike in lovely weather or when the sun is setting or when the leaves are falling from the trees is far more enjoyable than sitting in a metal box in traffic!

  7. anniebikes says:

    Yes, the cost of driving is expensive, that’s why I hope others are realizing it enough to cut back some. We own two cars. I am not proud of it. We really only need 1.5 cars. I use one for winter driving instead of cycling. We live in a nice walkable, bikable community yet my husband lost his job two years ago which necessitated another car. He got a lesser paying job, yet has to car commute much of the time because of the increased distance. Financially we have gone backwards. I think many others are facing a similar dilemma. Both of us are actively looking for other jobs that are closer to home, but this economic climate is tough. I know we are not the only ones going through this. Thank goodness that we both can bike commute, at least half of the year. (Husband can partially drive/bike commute.)

  8. aem2 says:

    James Schwartz at The Urban Country blog wrote about this in May:

    http://www.theurbancountry.com/2011/05/americans-work-2-hours-each-day-to-pay.html

  9. Dr J says:

    Money saved on giving up driving may be the most convincing argument to put Americans on bikes. While it is not for everyone, it should work well at least in large cities. What we really need is more bike infrastructure and a national campaign to change the image of bike-commuting as an oddity and cyclists in general as “French gay treehuggers”.
    My family owns 2 cars, while similarly to anniebikes we would really just need 1.5. I think that most of the year having just 1 car would be absolutely enough (For those long family weekend trips, vacations, etc). I did some quick estimate to realize that getting rid of that extra car would save us about $2000 a year, plus money from the sale.

    http://bostonbybike.blogspot.com/

  10. Scottk says:

    A folding bike made it possible for me to go car free. Even in Seattle, you can’t get everywhere by bus, but the combination of bike and bus (and occasionally Amtrak) greatly extended my range. The buses here all have bike racks, but every now and again you run across a full rack. You can take a folding bike right onto the bus. Problem solved.

    I bought my folding bike (a Brompton), then kept the car for another year and experimented with getting around without it. At the end of the year, I’d driven fewer than 2000 miles, and a lot of those were garbage miles–trips that I could easily have taken by other means, but I was lazy. I sold the car and, because access to reliable bike transportation was suddenly much more important, I took part of the proceeds and bought a second folding bike. Apart from fleeting regret the day I sold my midlife-crisis car, I haven’t been sorry that I no longer have the expense or bother of a car. Of course, part of that is the sheer pleasure of riding a Brompton, which I described recently: http://practicalbiking.org/2011/08/why-i-ride-a-brompton-folding-bike.html. And no, I’m not a Brompton dealer. ;-)

  11. The cost of driving is much higher here in the UK. So much so that I’ve never owned a car in my 27 years.

  12. Carolyn I. says:

    I’m so glad that I live in a smaller city (75,00) and live fairly close to work. A 20 minute walk or 5 minute bike ride. I’ve never owned a car because I live in a central area and the cost of living is pretty cheap where I live.

    Of course I’d love to live on the outskirts sometimes, but that would make commuting to work in the Winter a lot more challenging. I suppose that if one wants to live in Suburbia, or even in the country, you have to sacrifice yourself to the car. I love the country, but living there without a car would be almost impossible, especially during Winter.

  13. marthapampel says:

    I’m now looking back on 20 years of commuting, many of those years by public transit, and a few of them (20-mile jaunt to corporate offices in the suburbs) in an old, beat-up, paid-for, dependable subaru that some of my colleagues openly mocked. Then there was the classic office party conversation where a coworker vented about how much money she had just paid to buy her athlete-son a car to drive to work – because what was he going to do, ride a bike to the train or something? (You mean, like I do?) Anyway, it is really hitting home over a couple decades what that savings has meant – extra money that went to pay down my mortgage and live the rest of my life. Cars cost real money and create real debt, and I am thrilled to see this evaluation finally being done.

  14. Scott Thompson says:

    both my parents are blind. most of the time they have to ride the bus or a cab. when they can, they ride in a car.

    i dont see cars as a problem except in highly populated areas it MIGHT be safer overall to have people wait at train and bus stations than on a highway traffic jam in car. and certainly better bike (or actual) bike lanes would promote cheaper bicycling.

  15. Anton Tutter says:

    I wonder how that number was calculated. I recently calculated the TOTAL cost of ownership of my last car, which I bought new and owned for 4 years, almost to the day (July 30, 2006 – July 28, 2010). After trade-in, the TOTAL cost of ownership (taxes, license fees, finance interest, depreciation, maintenance, repair, insurance, gas… am I missing anything?) came to about $12800, or $3200/year. Far cry from the study figure of $10,000/year. This was for a NEW car which I financed, not leased. And my household income was about double. Perhaps people are buying the wrong car (expensive car with high depreciation rate? car that consumes too much gas? car with ridiculously high leasing terms?), or people are just driving too much. We need a car in our family, despite being car “lite”, but I’m really curious how that $10,000 figure was estimated.

    • LGRAB says:

      I think they are counting on the average family being a two-car family, and probably driving more miles in a year than someone who considers themselves “car-lite.” That said, I do think a lot of people are buying cars that are too expensive and/or not as fuel efficient as they might be, given what is selling out there.

      ~T

  16. Anton Tutter says:

    I wonder how that number was calculated. I recently calculated the TOTAL cost of ownership of my last car, which I bought new and owned for 4 years, almost to the day (July 30, 2006 – July 28, 2010). After trade-in, the TOTAL cost of ownership (taxes, license fees, finance interest, depreciation, maintenance, repair, insurance, gas… am I missing anything?) came to about $12800, or $3200/year. Far cry from the study figure of $10,000/year. This was for a NEW car which I financed, not leased. And my household income was about double. Perhaps people are buying the wrong car (expensive car with high depreciation rate? car that consumes too much gas? car with ridiculously high leasing terms?), or people are just driving too much. We need a car in our family, despite being car “lite”, but I’m really curious how that $10,000 figure was estimated.

  17. Bethany Klug says:

    “But having the option of whether or not to drive it, at least on a daily basis, is so valuable to me.” That’s what it’s all about for me. I’ll be looking for new office space in the next year and it must be a bike-able distance from my home. I don’t see a future where I can go car-less as long as I live in Kansas City.

  18. toyota viet nam…

    [...]The automobile trap « Let's Go Ride a Bike – life on two wheels: simple. stylish. fun.[...]…

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 43 other followers

%d bloggers like this: