True Costs of Antiquated Automobile Based Transportation

Invariably summers bring about rises in gas prices. In years like now where the prices are already high like this year, the news stories begin pouring out about how the cost of gasoline is putting a crimp in the budget of North Carolina families. To me the coverage misses four important points: (a) that gasoline is only a fraction of the costs of driving an automobile; (b) that the car is an antiquated form of transportation; (c) that families and our society would be a lot better off if there were alternative transportation options; and (d) that it is North Carolina's public and leaders for the last few decades that force us to rely on this antiquated form of transportation (and the inaction of government now that means we will need to rely on the automobile for decades to come).

(a). Gas is over $3 a gallon as we speak. Obviously it is difficult to fork over $45 to fill up my sedan (and around $100 to fill up a large SUV); however, according to all studies, the cost of gasoline is only a fraction of the cost of driving.

In this analysis, I will use numbers from AAA found here.

AAA estimates that it costs an average of 53 cents per mile to drive an automobile when gas cost $2.25 (4wd SUV's topped out at roughly 82 cents per mile). Of that 53 cents only around 10 cents or 20% of the costs were directly related to gasoline. The other costs include depreciation on the car, financing, repairs, parking, and maintenance. If gas doubled to $4.50 per gallon, the total cost of driving only changes from 53 cents a mile to 63 cents a mile. And if gas were free, it would still cost 43 cents a mile to drive. So the fluctuations in gas prices should only be a minor concern in discussing the cost of driving. On a yearly basis AAA estimates that driving costs around $10,000 per year for the average driver (try doing that below the poverty level).

Further adding to costs are the serious injuries and deaths that occur each year from driving automobiles. I could not find accurate numbers on these injuries and deaths in North Carolina, but nationally roughly 40,000 people die a year in automobile accidents. This translates to roughly one death for every 7,000 drivers (much more likely than hitting the lottery). While you do not want to put a price on life, certainly the loss of it at such a high rate should be held against driving.

Nor does this cost include the amount of time wasted while driving. The average daily commute in the US is 24 minutes each way or an hour total each day. With roughly 200 working days, this adds up to 200 hours lost per employee per year. When driving all attention must be focused on the road, when using public transportation at least some of the time can be used productively. Let us estimate that people's time is worth about $25 an hour. This totals another $5,000 per employee per year in lost time.

So driving is costly regardless of the cost of gas and that does not even take into account each drivers 1 in 7,000 chance of dying each year.

(b). One reason that driving is so costly and dangerous is that it is an antiquated form of transportation. The model A was designed in a time when cars were not being driven 12,000 miles per year and when there were not millions of automobiles on the road. Also, consider that when it was first built, the car was meant as a way to get between short distances and other transportation was used to move between cities. Now cars are everywhere; we have to drive them whenever we want to leave our house. Of course there have been numerous design improvements to the automobile over 100 years, but none has replaced the fact that these are metallic or plastic boxes traveling at high speeds. The incremental safety improvements being offset by the increased speed that we travel.

(c). Of course reality dictates that we are going to be driving for the foreseeable future. But in a world where there were options open to citizens, the advantages of alternatives to the automobile are obvious. The costs would be much lower to the user; even if each trip on alternative transportation cost $10 (an unreasonable price), the costs would be less than half that of driving an automobile (estimate 700 trips or $7,000 versus the $15,000 for driving). Also, accidents are much less likely than when driving. If I wanted to push this farther, the benefits of public transport include connecting with the community and the benefits of walking, biking, etc. is better health. I will not dwell more on the cost/benefit of automobiles, but clearly these are issues that need to be discussed in articles.

(d). So why are we stuck driving with no other options. The answer is: nothing. North Carolina politicians and leaders have been shortsighted and have relied on the what they know: transportation dominated by the automobile. What resulted is that these leaders did nothing to move the state towards an alternative to an automobile. As years went by and no alternative to the car was developed, the costs of such a system just continued to increase. As we look now, it would cost a lot to develop a viable alternative transportation system to individual automobiles (of course that cost is much less than the total spent on building and maintaining roads and the costs to the individual discussed above). But when we discuss the added cost of driving, including higher gas, we should think about what want as a transportation system in 2010, 2020, 2030, and 2040. With this timeframe, it is obvious that we need to move to alternatives at some point.

As we think and complain about higher gasoline, we need to focus on overall costs of driving, how we can build better systems than the antiquated car, and what we need to do to have a system for the future.


A problem that I see

for us to address is public transportation in rural areas. I have a post on rural america I have been working on, and the costs of driving that you brought up seem to be fairly constant. That is to say that there is not going to be much of a difference in terms of normal cost of living differences that we see between rural and urban, meaning it makes even less economic sense for rural America to drive.

It seems like though, that we already have addressed the problem of a car alternative in many places. Between the trains in Europe and Japan, and buses and subways in big cities we already have the problem solved.

But, what do we do where the population density does not justify "mass transportation" ?

Another problem is more of a psychological problem. Faced with 25 minute commutes, if we were to make things safer by changing the speeds at which we travel people would revolt. The safer we make travel the faster people will go, so long as that safety is technology based.

You have definitely raised some big questions for me. Good diary.

Draft Brad Miller-- NC Sen ActBlue

"Keep the Faith"

I often imagine

that if the wheel had never been invented, we'd all be transporting ourselves through telekinesis by know. The wheel may have suppressed our true ingenuity for the past umpteen thousand years.

The population density

in the Triangle and the Triad (and soon all points between) is more than enough to sustain a public transit system, preferably combining rail and bus. Even easier (and cheaper) to implement would be an aggressive incentive-based carpooling program, utilizing tax credits, free muni parking, etc.

But here's the problem, and it can't be legislated away: we have now adapted car ownership and usage as an extension of both our need for freedom and our need for some kind of "control" in the hectic world we live in. Just because these feelings don't hold up under the microscope of common sense, it doesn't mean they're not powerful or even valid in a psychological framework.

Could/would we adapt to a public transit system if it was provided? Of course we could, but it would take some time. The big question is: would enough of us freedom-loving car drivers support the monumental cost of building something we don't think we need?

Mass transit is very popular in cities.

My technician at work lived in NYC until she was about 12, when her family moved to Durham. They never had a car until after they got here. Owning a car in NYC is prohibitively expensive, with paying for parking and gas and taxes and ... so most people take the trains or buses. Ditto the San Francisco area. Or, hell, most mid-sized towns or larger in Europe.

The biggest problem I currently have with existing mass transit (TTA, mostly) is that it doesn't run often enough or to places that make it useful for me. It doesn't run late enough. It's not convenient. I could spend over an hour TTA/DATA-ing to work (plus the drive to the bus stop) and get there an hour before I need to, or I can drive 20 minutes and get there right on time.

I lived in Germany for a year and never drove once. There was a fairly extensive bus system that ran to my dorm until about 1230 am, and a pass was included with my tuition (which was about $90/term. Seriously.) that covered city buses, regional buses, and the train down to Frankfurt (and up to Kassel.)

The train service in Germany is mandated by law to serve every town and village in the country every day. The tiny farm villages in the middle of nowhere get the slow trains a few times a day, but the trains do come, and they can get to bigger stations with fast trains and go anywhere in Europe. I really miss that.

American towns are not designed for public transportation, and the American psyche has evolved around cars and freedom and sprawl. It's highly unfortunate, because making a massive shift to public transit requires a lot of paradigm shifting.

Mecklenburg is trying

but the Republicans are fighting them every step of the way. They do not want public transportation. They do not want tax dollars used to help transport people to jobs, to run their errands or to visit Char-Mecks many attractions. Each of these activities serves to support the economy of the area, but the local Republicans are so fixated on taxes and simply making noise about something they don't seem to be able to see this.

Vote Democratic! The ass you save may be your own.

Reverse the Spin

something sent to me by accident:

"the only real problem in this area to me is the
lack of roads. It creates bad traffic patterns at certain times of
the day. They are just growing faster than they can keep up with plus
there are liberals in govt who seem to believe that if you don't
build roads, people will ride buses inside of drive."

And Charlotte was the city in question.

Yes, I am a shameless hussy for reproducing it here. In my defense, I plea - 'The Lord works in mysterious ways, His wonders to behold'

Light rail woman, light rail

:).....well, there are some buses involved, but they are the new hybrids or something. Not enough money to really do the job right.

The fact is, people will ride. I would ride....if it existed. I will not get rid of my car, but if we wanted to go downtown for the museums/library/lunch, I'd take the train from the University area....well...if there was a train. I can't stand driving downtown and trying to find somewhere to park.

Charlotte doesn't lack roads. We have PLENTY of roads. The only road left to finish is the now "too small for traffic needs" 485 loop. The only way to get more roads in Charlotte would be to either take land that belongs to someone else, go above the city or below it.

Or we can develop a sensible public transportation system that will ease congestion on existing roads. This will have the added benefit of reducing pollution and strengthening our economy for reasons stated above. :)

Robin Hayes lied. Nobody died, but thousands of folks lost their jobs.

Vote Democratic! The ass you save may be your own.

Give Me Light Rail or

( fill in the blanks with your own imagination )

I will continue to press for light rail from Johnston to Wake and beyond.

For the record - All my money will be gleefully spent within my own county and I will not cross the county line in to Wake except under duress or absolute necessity.

The last time I did was to get on a BUS - to visit Washington County.

Sure would like to visit the museums, though. S'okay. They have museums in DC and I can get there by train.

Public transportation is a blessing

For the first 6 years of my son's life, we lived in the suburbs of Pittsburgh, PA. In the winter, we drove the 1 mile to his child care center, parked the car there, said our bye-byes for the day, I walked up to the bus-stop, took the bus into the city, worked, came home, picked him up, drove the mile home. In the spring, summer, and fall, as long as the weather was fine, we walked that mile. It was less expensive, and made for a good family ritual as well.

We still needed the car, because not everything was on the public bus or subway route as far out as we lived, but for my daily commute, it was fine.

And what a relief not to have to drive in the morning traffic! I could read, or listen to my little radio - or even catch a little sleep. I doubt anyone would have trouble getting used to that.

The Den
It's your democracy; use it.

The Park/Ride model

could certainly be used in the metropolitan areas in NC.

People don't have to give up cars but there are trips that can be made on public transit.

For the last 20 years, when I've traveled to NJ via Pennsylvania, I've been dismayed at the comuter traffic flowing (very slowly most of the time) toward NYC in the mornings and away from the city in the evening. It's a solid line all the way to the PA border. It's horrible how wasteful that is.

With the increasing population, I think NC will look like that in another 20 years if we don't start building infrastructure now to stem the tide.

I love public transit,

and every city I visit (even if I have a car) I set aside some time to ride around in the buses, trains, light rail, etc. I lived in the near suburbs of Chicago for a year and a half or so, and was amazed that I could travel anywhere I wanted to go for a few dollars.

But the reality of most of those systems that do not serve a metropolitan community is that they are deeply subsidized by the taxpayers, the fares only account for a fraction (1/4 or less) of the costs of the system, and the ridership only draws a few percent of the drivers off the road.

All that being said, I still believe we should move forward, but it's by no means a "no brainer". Arguments for the system need to be compelling and reality-based, and the entities who are tasked with studies, planning and implementation need to be squeaky-clean and free of attachments to those who would stand to profit from such a system.

part of the problem

is that we do things halfassed. We make buses that run once an hour, and are never on time, and then wonder why people dont use them to commute. The bus routes only go to certain areas, and usually those areas are not where people are working, and then we wonder why no one uses the buses to commute.

I know there are buses that go from near me to some good shopping areas, but they never run on time and I would spend half the day to travel 10 miles. I wouldnt take one of those if you paid me. This is opposed to the buses that service State, which have a ton of different routes, are used by almost everyone, are on time, etc etc. All it takes is planning.

Draft Brad Miller-- NC Sen ActBlue

"Keep the Faith"

You're so right.

Arguments for the system need to be compelling and reality-based, and the entities who are tasked with studies, planning and implementation need to be squeaky-clean and free of attachments to those who would stand to profit from such a system.

I think interested citizens need to coalesce around this issue like we did around verifiable voting. That took one very smart focused citizen leader, Joyce McCloy, independent experts, sponsoring legislators and a large group of citizen activists to get the job done.

Can we break it down?

Who makes the decisions when it comes to where the resources are put?
The DOT isn't powerful enough to choose the projects that get funded and those that don't, is it?

Whose hand is on the wheel?

Can't blame it on DOT.

The fact is we have roads that need repaired, and they have limited funding. So, they use most of it to fix the roads. They do create more roads, but I think that money is appropriated for just that reason. My guess, is that if you want more public transit, you need to go through the local government. Things like bike lanes, you can go through DOT. But, they get their funding from state and federal and most divisions won't add bike lanes when it means they can't pave an extra road or two that needs it (and I do mean they need it).

One man with courage makes a majority.
- Andrew Jackson

Jesus Swept ticked me off. Too short. I loved the characters and then POOF it was over.

So, who in the local government

has the discretion to select a project that gets funded? The county commissioners?

Where is the democratic process in these deals?

Sorry I'm asking so many questions but I want to understand what we're up against if we wan't to bring change.

Well, first of all...

the link above is to the STIP (State Transportation Improvement Program) which only funds mega-bucks projects like making a two-lane highway into four-lanes and such. The TIP has taken a funding hit recently, PLUS the cost of road construction has gone up, which means little or no new projects are being funded. The time it takes to get a TIP project funded is forever + 1 day.
It's role in public transportation, there is a public transportation section, is less clear to me. If you look at the key, you will see that most of the bus purchases come from a combination of funding sources, but lean heavily on the feds. The feds have cut funding for projects that should be on the TIP in general, I don't know if there have been specific cuts to the public transportation aspects in particular.
It's interesting that in Division 5, Durham and TTA are getting funded for more and better buses (including hybrids), while in Division 7 the only thing funded is small vans for PART and Alamance county rural/disabled transit. Chapel Hill is buying 60 new buses, I will have to look into where those funds are coming from. (from wiki):

In October 2006, the Chapel Hill Town Council approved the purchase of 16 new Chapel Hill Transit buses at a cost of $5.8 million from Gillig Corp. Federal grants are providing about $5.2 million, and the town is providing approximately $600,000 in local funds. Three of the sixteen new buses run on gas-electric motors. The rest of the buses run on diesel fuel. The buses, to be delivered in July 2007, were meant to expand the system and replace older buses. The town has an additional $1.7 million in federal funding which would be sufficient to purchase four 60-foot buses, each with two sections that allow them to flex in the middle. All of the purchased buses are low-floor buses with interior floors at curb level.[9]

Another thing to know, these are not the only things that counties in the division WANT funded, these are the only things that made it on to the TIP. Once something is on the TIP it will be funded....eventually. But, it can take years just to get ON the TIP.

One man with courage makes a majority.
- Andrew Jackson

Jesus Swept ticked me off. Too short. I loved the characters and then POOF it was over.

Thanks, RobertP

It's going to take some time for me to absorb all that, but I'll try. It seems like a worth while thing to untangle and examine if we may.

I still haven't absorbed it yet.

The only thing as tortuous as highway construction funding, is Medicaid.

One man with courage makes a majority.
- Andrew Jackson

Jesus Swept ticked me off. Too short. I loved the characters and then POOF it was over.

Powerful enough, I think

The way they operate seems pretty weird. It appears they have access to both State and Federal funds, and deal directly with individual municipal governments to determine what needs to be done. They also seem to make these spending decisions arbitrarily, picking and choosing which ones to fund and which ones to ignore.

Like I said—weird.

With An "Asphalt King" In the State House ....

Ya'll's smart folks. Connect the dots.

Federal funds have historically been biased toward 'road building' for some unknown reason. (unknown to me, that is)

And who the **** keeps propping up Amtrak, et. al. while simultaneously ripping up lines? Although I do believe they've stopped doing that - I'm sure they've cut funding for 'Rails to Trails' as well. my knowledge...................