The cost of driving, and not driving...

The cost of driving, and even not driving…


The average person’s second biggest expense is usually their car, after their dwelling place. At least your home is occupied somewhere around 30-40% (that’s my guess – while it could be lower for some people, it could be as high as, maybe, 80-90% for others?), and besides that, you do need somewhere to live (I realize that many people are both alive and homeless, but let’s keep this within reason)….

You don’t need a car to live. Alright, some people do, I guess, but then, some of those people could also choose to live closer to where they work, or work closer to where they live.

To make this easier, let’s limit this discussion to many people living in a reasonably urban environment.

I also want to make abundantly clear that I am not against cars or driving in principle. I take a certain amount of pleasure in cars and driving them (though that’s usually out of town on a winding road, or fast and on a closed circuit), even if I do so rarely these days. I also want to make clear that I think that they are fantastically useful in many circumstances.

Anyway, it seems as though while your primary expense in life is essential (to a certain point), most/many people’s second largest expense is discretionary. That, in an of itself, is pretty… not alarming, but it’s… interesting?

They cost us more than the money we spend on them directly, though. Cars need roads, which are costly to build, and they are costly to maintain. That’s a fair chunk of your taxes (everyone’s – not just “motorists”, if anyone still hasn’t come to grips with this). They pollute in a variety of ways, which costs us money, sure, but it’s costing us our environment and health, aside from the fact that even without the pollution it is helping to keep us sedentary and at risk of obesity, heart disease, blood pressure, stress, and all the rest.

In the UK alone, inactive people are “costing the NHS £1bn a year as diseases linked to physical inactivity rise“.

Oh yeah, did I mention that they cost us our lives? In the hundreds of thousands (actually, well over 1 million each year just in accidents, nevermind deaths from long-term health problems).

Cars and the space required for them can cost us our shared spaces and disrupt our communities.

Now, that’s all pretty bad, but here’s the really amazing part: these objects that we spend so much of our income on, that cost us an enormous amount of our time while earning that income, that cost us our health and quality of life, that cost us our shared spaces  – these objects sit, unused, for 95% of their lives.

Think about that.

Is that not absolutely absurd?

I’ve never considered that before, probably like many of you haven’t. We spend an enormous amount of resources on, and even give our lives for, a depreciating asset that to a certain extent we don’t need, and that we use for only 5% of the time!

Even if you limit this to waking hours, it’s still only about 6.5%.

Roads take up an average of 25% of urban spaces, which is quite a lot of space dedicated to continually draining our resources and taking lives, but each vehicle actually needs at least two separate places for to sit while waiting to be used again – at home and at work, or wherever the other destinations ends up being.

The space we devote to these largely unused objects is pretty outrageous, even if we take the following as a very rough estimate:

in automobile-dependent communities with road and parking supply sufficient to keep traffic congestion to the level typical in U.S. cities, plus parking spaces at most destinations, a city must devote between 2,000 and 4,000 square feet (200-400 square meters) of land to roads and off-street parking per automobile. This exceeds the amount of land devoted to housing per capita for moderate to high development densities (i.e., more than 10 residents per acre, which means less than about 4,000 square feet per capita), and is far more land than most urban neighborhoods devote to public parks. This illustrates the problems that growing cities face if they try to develop automobile-oriented transport systems where most residents own a private car: they will need to devote more land to roads and parking than to housing

That’s a lot of space. On-street parking alone takes up to “5 to 8 percent of all urban land“, and off street parking many times that. More importantly, it’s a lot of space that could be put to much better use.

The cost of driving, and even not driving...

Downtown Houston. Mostly parking. source: Google Maps

Washington State has been encouraging businesses to take part in its Commute Trip Reduction program (which has been working wonders) and the “University of Washington, for instance, estimates that its U-PASS program to encourage non-drive alone trips has saved the school $280 million in parking construction and freed up $73 million worth of land for other facilities.”

Another effect that parking has is on the affordability of housing. Residential parking can increase rent by anywhere from 50%-62.5%, according to this rather interesting article from CityLab.

The environmental impact is another factor. “All of those paved spaces increase runoff into streams and wetlands, create heat islands, increase glare and light pollution… consider that there are 500 million surface parking lots in the U.S. alone. In some cities, parking lots take up one-third of all land area”. On top of that, the vast amount of concrete used for them is one of the world’s dirtiest building materials.

I could go on, but it’s getting late, and I think I’ve made my point. My point isn’t so much that cars are incredibly costly across all aspects of life (which they are), and it’s not even that they continue to cost us a staggering amount even when they are not in use, (which is a staggering amount of the time).

Sure, that’s what this article has been about and that is what I found particularly amazing today, but this new information (to me) simply puts even more weight behind the already painfully obvious position that we need to break the hold that personal, motorized transport, especially single occupant journeys that are within 5-10km from home, has on us.

We need, somehow, to convince our leaders to think beyond the next vote and stop subsidizing vehicles, their roads, and their places of storage at the cost of sustainable transport, and to put in place tougher laws to protect those who choose to use their own legs to get around.

We each need to make the choice to loosen our grip on a convenience that is actually costing us far, far more than it returns, and most definitely far more than we realize.

We need to stop seeing the bus, train, our own two feet, and cycling as only for the poor and the pathetic, rather than one of the ways that we can take control of our personal lives, personal finances, our neighborhoods, cities, and our world.


Header image: source