This is an old concept, first proposed by a writer named Ivan Illich in his book Energy and Equity.
The model American male devotes more than 1600 hours a year to his car. He sits in it while it goes and while it stands idling. He parks it and searches for it. He earns the money to put down on it and to meet the monthly installments. He works to pay for gasoline, tolls, insurance, taxes, and tickets. He spends four of his sixteen waking hours on the road or gathering his resources for it. And this figure does not take into account the time consumed by other activities dictated by transport: time spent in hospitals, traffic courts, and garages; time spent watching automobile commercials or attending consumer education meetings to improve the quality of the next buy. The model American puts in 1600 hours to get 7500 miles: less than five miles per hour.
The numbers are a bit out of date, so I thought I’d look up some contemporary figures. The results I found varied depending on the source, but generally clustered around the numbers I’ll use here.
Your average American drives about 13,500 miles annually and earns $31,250.
The average speed for a car in an urban area is between 20 and 25 miles per hour. It’s hard to find numbers for rural areas. In one sense they should be higher due to fewer stops and less congestion, as well as more time spent on highways. Then again, here in Vermont we spend a lot of time on unpaved back roads and in town centers where 35 mph is the limit. Most people are commuting less than 10 miles to work, most of which is on class 2 roads, not interstates.
The average cost of owning and operating a car these days, according to the Automobile Association of America, is $8,766. (That’s for a sedan. An SUV cost $11,239)I looked up a number of studies, and they all gave costs in the $7,500 to $9,500 range. This is, of course, the direct costs to the owner; purchase, maintenance, gasoline, taxes and fees. The fact that we drive polluting vehicles on subsidized roads with subsidized fuel and regularly smash into each other adds hidden costs spread across society. (More on that later) One problem: AAA used $2.88/gallon for fuel cost. The national average is around $3.27 (again AAA numbers) as I write, 13.5% higher. That increases the annual cost of driving for an average sedan by around $234, bringing the AAA annual cost right up to $9,000.
If our average American is driving 13,500 miles annually at, let’s be generous, 30 mph, that’s 450 hours per year in the driver’s seat. That same person is earning $15.62 hourly, so that $9000 cost is sucking up 576 hours at work. It is interesting to think that most Americans spend much more time earning money to drive than actually driving. There is other time associated with driving, including waiting around at the repair shop reading a 2002 issue of Bass Fishing Magazine, but I’ll be optimistic and add only 24 hours a year of general screwing around time. The grand total is 1050 hours, which works out to 12.86 miles per hour. That’s twice Illich’s estimate, but still not particularly impressive.
Your mileage may vary. A person with a high hourly wage and a small cheap used car driving a lot of highway miles will do better.
Then again, the hidden costs do change the picture dramatically. Various studies have pointed out that we do not directly pay the true cost of driving. Our taxes (property, state, and federal) subsidize road construction and maintenance, subsidize oil companies, and pay for the treatment of people with lung disease. We also pay for an aircraft carrier battle group cruising around in the oil shipping lanes of the Indian Ocean and generally mess about with oil producing countries around the globe. I have found numbers for the hidden costs of driving, if paid as a gasoline tax, from three to thirteen dollars per gallon.
Running the numbers again using the $3/gal hidden cost figure, the annual cost of driving jumps to $10,800, or 691 hours at median income. This brings our true miles per hour down to 11.6. Driving an SUV would bring it solidly under 10. You could do that on a bicycle.
To go back to Illich and complete his thought:
In countries deprived of a transportation industry, people manage to do the same, walking wherever they want to go, and they allocate only 3 to 8 percent of their society's time budget to traffic instead of 28 percent. What distinguishes the traffic in rich countries from the traffic in poor countries is not more mileage per hour of lifetime for the majority, but more hours of compulsory consumption of high doses of energy, packaged and unequally distributed by the transportation industry.
576 hours is 28.8% of a 2,000 hour work year. 691 hours is 34.4%. Think about that – working over a quarter of your time for your car, mostly to get to work.
It makes me think of the Librarian, who doesn’t own a car and walks or bicycles a few minutes to work. She has a really beautiful bicycle, but it cost her perhaps one tenth of what a decent used car would cost. The maintenance costs are almost nil, and she’d have to spend money on fuel anyway. She is effectively saving herself about $10,000 a year.
Well, you say, all right for her, but there is 20 miles of car-clogged highway between my home and place of work, and the weather doesn’t always cooperate. True, but back to the Librarian. She lives in an apartment building that was built to house people who worked at a small factory (now housing) just around the corner. We used to do that in this country. Our urban geography was designed for people without cars. That was a policy of necessity. Later our legislators made the decision to zone workplaces separately from residences and to subsidize the infrastructure that supported automobile-centric policy. This was a decision, not inevitability. Such decisions can be reversed.
Such decisions will be reversed. The geology of oil will require this. It is inevitable. Given the amount of our lives we presently dedicate to supporting our automotive habits, it might not be so bad.