Our Beloved Cars

What A Price We Pay

One of the articles in We Can Do It! (IC#33)
Originally published in Fall 1992 on page 8
Copyright (c)1992, 1996 by Context Institute

Most of us are aware that automobiles have negative impacts: air pollution from carbon monoxide, water degradation from oil spills, dependence on foreign oil, etc. But are we fully aware of the costs of our reliance on cars?

The Going Rate: What it Really Costs to Drive, just published by World Resources Institute, reveals that if the hidden, subsidized costs of our private-vehicle-dominated transportation system – at least $300 billion a year – were instead passed on to the motoring public, it would raise the price of gasoline by several dollars a gallon.

According to Going Rate authors James MacKenzie, Roger Dower, and Donald Chen:

Motorists today do not directly pay anything close to the full costs of their driving decisions. However steep the bills for cars, insurance, automobile maintenance, and gasoline may seem to drivers, federal and state policies spare them many other costs. The net effect is to make driving seem cheaper than it really is and to encourage the excessive use of automobiles and trucks.

Why is public transit in the US so poor? Why do European cars get so much better gas mileage? There are no controls, no incentives to limit the ever-increasing rise in auto-mobile use precisely because the costs are not borne by the user.

Americans drive 2 trillion miles a year: double the distance of those in other industrial countries. With less than 5 percent of world’s population, we consume a quarter of the world’s oil, half of which is burned in motor vehicles. We drive more and more: per capita motor vehicle use has tripled since 1950. And one car is just not enough: in 1990, there were 23 million more vehicles than licensed drivers.

Some of the costs are conspicuous. Traffic congestion strangles our cities. Los Angeles now has freeway speeds averaging less than 31 mph. It results in lost time, lower worker productivity, more accidents, wasted fuel, and increased auto maintenance.

Constant highway construction and road improvement is another obvious cost. But who pays for this? We spend $200 million a day building and rebuilding the nation’s roads. Gas taxes and other user fees covered only 60 percent of the $33.3 billion spent on building, improving, and repairing roads in 1989.

Also not covered by user fees is the $68 billion spent annually on services such as highway patrols, traffic management, and traffic accident policework. Truck owners pay only 32 percent of national highway disbursements, yet it is estimated that a 50-ton, 4-axle truck can cause an estimated $6 per mile worth of damage to a rural arterial highway.

Other costs of our automotive obsession are associated with the 47,000 people killed in motor vehicle accidents each year. These deaths, and 5 million additional injuries annually, result in medical expenses, lost work time, and other costs not directly covered by user insurance.

Parking costs are a normal cost of operating a motor vehicle. Yet free parking, e.g., at the mall, effectively subsidizes this expense. Shoppers who walk or take public transportation pay for spaces they do not use, while drivers are deprived of a reason to carpool. Ninety percent of all commuters park at no cost and receive this fringe benefit tax-free.

Other hidden costs are the secu-rity costs of importing oil. Motorists use half of the imported oil, and arguably should pay half the $50 billion annual cost of maintaining a US military presence in shipping lanes. (This figure excludes the costs of the Persian Gulf War.)

Due to our heavy reliance on petroleum and lack of alternative fuels, we are vulnerable to fluctuations in oil prices and interruptions of supply. The costs are inflation, unemployment, and declines in productivity.

Another impact is land loss. In the US, more than 60,000 square miles have been paved over – including wetlands, scenic areas, and historic areas, not to mention farmland. Nearly half of our urban land is covered with asphalt.

In response to regulation, efforts have been made to lessen automobile emissions. But any improvements have been offset by more miles and vehicles driven. The costs are real: acid rain, chronic health problems, forest damage and reduced agricultural revenues.

Motor vehicles have a major role in global warming, climate change, and ozone depletion. Unchecked, they will have incalculable, perhaps incomprehensible, effects.

How can we stabilize automobile use and reduce its effects? Shift the costs of motor vehicle use to the drivers. Imposing user charges that reflect the full costs of driving will almost certainly have direct and lasting effects.

One method is increasing existing state and federal fuel taxes. Fuel tax revenues expand directly with fuel consumption. One proposal is a phased-in tax on fossil fuels, reaching $60 per ton of carbon in the year 2020. It would cut US carbon dioxide emissions to 80 percent of the 1990 level by 2005 and hold it at that level indefinitely. This would translate to a price increase of 20 cents per gallon at the pump. Another idea is to raise charges on trucks according to weight-per-axle and annual mileage. They would then share the cost of road maintenance more equally.

Pay-as-you-go is another concept. Levying road tolls based on time of day helps reduce congestion. In Hong Kong, electronic number plates are scanned by sensors at the toll site, and bills are sent out monthly to each driver. Similar systems are in place in San Diego and Dallas. "Congestion tolls" would range from 25 cents to $1.25 for a 10 mile urban trip.

True medical costs could be incorporated into insurance premiums, or insurance taxes paid at the pump could be placed in an insurance fund.

And employer-paid parking can be reformed; companies could offer a tax-free travel allowance instead of free parking.

Significant public policy changes are also needed. Reforms in zoning and land use planning should result in a balanced transportation system. Zoning can be used to encourage densities suitable to public transit. The Going Rate‘s authors note:

European cities are living proof that a high standard of living is compatible with a reduced need for cars and that the key is fairly high residential densities combined with mixed zoning and integrated public transportation planning.

A doubling of residential population density is associated with a 25 to 30 percent reduction in the number of miles people need to travel by car. Densities of over seven housing units per acre are needed for cost effective bus service; nine for light-rail service. Communities must design for bikes and pedestrians.

Fortunately, there is a growing awareness of the problem and a trend toward finding solutions. The work of World Resources Institute is complemented by the efforts of many others.

Amory Lovins of the Rocky Mountain Institute suggests:

  • perpetual transit passes instead of free parking spaces provided by multi-unit housing projects

  • "commuting efficient mortgages" to allow a bigger mortgage (reward with borrowing power) those buying homes close to work

  • a downtown peak-hour driving pass that can double as a free transit pass

  • the abolition of tax-free status for company-owned employee cars.

David Morris of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance suggests promoting telecommuting, the use of video conferences, and flextime to allow employees to commute at varying times.

Wolfgang Zuckerman, a researcher at EcoPlan International in Paris, offers additional solutions in his book, End of the Road: The World Car Crisis and How We Can Solve It:

  • Close damaged roads and turn them over to nonmotorized transport.

  • Use "cells" and mazes to protect local areas from through traffic. Ring roads would allow vehicles to enter separate zones, but not traverse the urban central cell. Vienna, for example, treats its entire historic center as a cell.

  • Impose total, partial, or temporary car bans in city centers. This has proved successful in over 11 Italian cities including Bologna and Milan. In Florence, pollution levels dropped by 20 to 30 percent after the municipality applied restrictions.

  • Radically redesign the conventional car.

  • Place restrictions or a total ban on car advertising, since $5 billion a year is spent on glorifying the car – and hiding its effects.

  • Utilize taxis more effectively: promote ride-sharing in taxis; use radio linked computers to keep empty taxis positioned around town more efficiently; reduce taxi "cruising ."

As Zuckerman sees it, even hitchhiking deserves its rightful place in an integrated solution to our transportation woes.

The US is beginning to see a change in attitude toward the car. New Jersey canceled $1.2 billion in new highway projects and will instead double its investment in mass transit. Ford recently ran recruitment ads for its "revolutionary" electric car project.

The problems of automotive transportation will be resolved, however, only when the real costs of our love affair with the automobile are uncovered – and passed on to those of us who have been smitten.

For more information, contact: World Resources Institute, 1709 New York Ave NW, Washington, DC 20006.

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