Many people have tried to calculate the “true” cost of driving, and the resulting numbers can vary dramatically. Before even attempting to add the costs up, one needs to figure what should even be included. How far do you go?
Portland Afoot has a great breakdown of how they reached their estimate of $8,390. That’s $16/day plus $0.17/mile driven. But this number does not factor in the healthcare costs associated with driving, which are substantial. Elly Blue wrote about the economic savings associated with bike infrastructure and health in a recent column for Grist:
A recent analysis of the health savings resulting from the bicycle infrastructure in Portland, Ore, came up with stunning results. If the city builds out only the infrastructure it currently plans, the researcher found, it will break even by 2015. By 2030, Portland will have saved $800 million — partly in fuel costs but primarily in health care and the value of reduced mortality. For every $1 we spend, $5 is saved.
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But even factoring in direct out-of-pocket costs and health care costs get us nowhere close to the true cost of driving. In Seattle, the vast majority of our road costs come out of property taxes, not the gas tax. In fact, gas taxes only accounted for 4 percent of SDOT’s 2009 budget. When you look at which funds went directly to paving, the results are even more extreme. What we learn is that even people who unable to or chose not to drive pay significantly for those who do. From Publicola:
The SDOT budget office sent me their 2009 arterial and non-arterial paving expenditures. They spent $29,377,725 for arterial and $261,000 for non-arterial for a total of $29,638,725. The arterial revenue sources breakdown as follows:
Bonds: $14,748,947 (50.20 percent)
Bridging the Gap Property Tax: $9,693,410 (33 percent)
Bridging the Gap Commercial Parking Tax: $4,801,062 (16.34 percent)
Gas Tax: $129,981 (.44 percent)
Grants: $4,325 (.01 percent)
But we are still nowhere close to the true cost of driving, and the task of adding it all up is becoming more and more overwhelming. And we have yet to even factor in the costs of driving-based land use policies. For example, when so much land is dedicated to parking, the space left for commercial and residential space becomes that much more sparse and, therefore, expensive. We pay for that in higher rent, property taxes and retail prices. Our workplaces also pay, making it harder to make ends meet, give better pay or expand the workforce. Or they may cut back on health benefits (see above).
As for environmental costs, I am not sure it will ever be possible to calculate the cost of releasing so many toxins into the air on such a large scale. What is the economic cost of global warming, for example? At a certain point, arguing economics becomes absurd.
Is biking as fast as driving?
So let’s take just the costs directly paid out of pocket by someone who owns and drives a car to work and think of it in terms of time. If the median American income is around $44,300 with 1.3 household earners, that’s about $34,077 per earner per year. Assuming 40-hour work weeks, that would be about $16.40/hr. Using Portland Afoot’s estimate that the average annual cost of driving is $8,390, the average American spends 512 hours per year earning enough money to pay for a car. Given that the average annual vehicle miles traveled is 16,550, and an ABC News poll showed Americans spend about 100 minutes per day driving, you get an average speed traveled of 27.2 miles per hour. Add the time spent earning the money to drive that car, and you get an average of 14.8 miles per hour. Bicyclists in the US average between 10-20 miles per hour.
So drivers travel around the same speed as bicyclists, yet end up over $8,000 in the hole every year.
I don’t claim that the math above is perfect. There are so many different estimates for average driving times and costs of driving that it is difficult to get exact math. Costs, wages and drive times are also likely different in Seattle compared to national averages. I also dropped calculus in high school and never looked back (luckily there were no derivatives involved in the calculations above). However, for the sake of thought experiment, it’s a good starting point.
The question is: Is it worth hundreds of hours of your life every year in order to own and operate a motor vehicle? Choosing to go by bike results in either more money or more time available to do with however you choose.