2006/04/03

The Car, Systematically Impoverishing America

Owning a car is quintessentially American, right? It's necessary, even fun. These beliefs have probably kept more people poor than any other notion of our time, but setting aside all of the other issues with cars--pollution, traffic, vehicular manslaughter--consider just the costs or car ownership.

A garden variety $20,000 US built sedan, with a typical 4 to 5 year loan, will cost $25,000 over the loan's lifetime. Add to that, gas maintenance, and insurance, another $3000.00 per year. If you live in a big city, add parking at $2000 per year minimum. That means you're shelling out between $8,000 and $10,000 a year. Do you own an SUV? Tack on another $1000 to the fuel (that's even if the average SUV only cost $20,000, and it doesn't). How about a $35,000 sports car? That's $1000 extra for the fuel and $500 extra on the insurance--a whopping $12,000, or so, per year. Do you own multiple cars that you bought new, then multiply these numbers for each. Truly staggering.!

But what does $8,000 per year really mean economically? Well, for starters, it's the difference between being poor and being lower-middle class. It's also:
Defenses of car ownership are pretty common. An often quoted WSJ editorial entitled The War Against the Car (reprinted at Out of Control) has columnist Stephen Moore lamely arguing that cars are a liberating invention allowing one to go anywhere, anytime. Well this is true--sort of--but there is a fair argument to be made that without cars, suburban sprawl would not force people to travel extreme distances for life's necessities. Mr. Moore also argues that cars bridge the gap between the rich and the poor, and on this point I'd have to agree. Cars are an economic anchor that shackles us, all of us, to a lifetime of debt and wasted opportunities.

13 Comments:

I agree. Unfortunately, most U.S. cities likewise refuse to revolutionize their public transit systems. If I were to attempt to utilize public transit, I would spend 4 hours a day on a bus or train and waiting at transition stops. And that would just be for my job alone. I wouldn't be able to make it to law school in a timely manner, so my chances at actually working full-time and going to school full-time would be shot. Unfortunately, for some it has become a practical necessity, although I'm not the type to drive everywhere if I can avoid it. If I could bike to work, I'd be a happy camper; unfortunately, the only adequate job I could find is quite far away. Until better alternatives are found, most of us will be found bound to our cars, because for someone like me, if it's the choice of saving $8,000 a year and making nothing a year or spending that money and bringing in a solid salary, I'll opt for the salary.
Excellent post.

I would also argue that cars have done more than any other invention to advance Republican thinking. They insulate drivers from the world around them. They cultivate the illusion of independence and promote an every-man-for-himself psychology, as opposed to the we're-all-in-it-together nature of public transportation. They are responsible for the rapid growth of suburbia...breeding grounds of Republicans.

Albania was right to ban private automobiles back in the day. Where's Enver Hoxha when we need him?
Great post!

It's depressing how much of a cash drain these things can be.
Unfortunately, for some it has become a practical necessity, although I'm not the type to drive everywhere if I can avoid it.

Echrai, you're right. There is no question that some people need cars. Unfortuantely we're about 80 years to far down the line to worry about what could have been if cars had come to dominate transport, but the numbers don't lie. America has been taken to the proverbial cleaners by the rise of the automobile.

The point is to think more carefully about whether or not a car is really necessary. What if everyone living in a major city who could give up their car, did? What if every multi-car family gave up one of every 2 vehicles? How far would that go toward helping the US achieve energy independence? How many wasted dollars would go into savings and investment?

I think the numbers would be astounding.
I really wanted to keep my older car after it was paid off. Circumstances changed and I felt the need for the greater saftey features of a new vehicle, so ...

Ideally, I will be a mostly carless guy. I'd certainly like to once again make greater use of public transportation, as I had to do in my college days.

Thanks for a great reminder of how much of a choice our values and dependancies actually are.

Now it's time to drive the 35 miles home from work. {sighhh}
Very provocative post, Kvatch. Yes, I think it's easy for people to dig themselves deep in debt through bad car choices.

But overall, I have to disagree with you. Cars have expanded our options in so many ways - where to live, where to work, where to go to just get away from it all. Sure it all comes with a price, commensurate with its very high value. But overall, cars have enriched us, both economically and in the quality of our lives.

The effect of cars on the environment - that's another matter entirely. We've got to get a handle on that, obviously. I'm no engineer, but it surprises me that in our high-tech society, we still depend on 100-year-old technology to run our cars. I can't believe there isn't a better, cleaner way.
Cars have expanded our options in so many ways - where to live, where to work, where to go to just get away from it all. Sure it all comes with a price, commensurate with its very high value.

Well you're right we don't agree. Though I was careful to note that I object to car ownership, not cars in general.

There's no doubt that the United States would be a very different country if it weren't for the car, but I dare say that it would be a better one. However, setting that aside, not owning a car is no barrier to using a car.

Even the frogette and I take out a car when we need one for those big items that you just can't schlep on public transit. (We belong to City Car Share in Babylon by the Bay), and when you need to get away, you can always rent a car.

I believe that it's a myth that the car has expanded our options. What the car/suburbia embrace has done is expand our desires. Would an average family of 4 need 3 or 4 cars, a 3500 Sq. ft. home and a half acre of land if cars and freeways hadn't made it possible to acquire such luxury out in the 'burbs? Probably not. The plain fact is that people can live much more modestly and with the same level of comfort and satisfaction. The car culture has skewed our perspective...and not for the better.
We nickname our cars for christs sake! So, yes. They are a burden and I happen to have recently written a poem about forms of transport... It's called Horsepower Dream...

Be that as it may... nice post!
..cars bridge the gap between the rich and the poor, yes both show how shallow they can be when it comes to owning a staus symbol to inflate their sagging egos.
...both show how shallow they can be when it comes to owning a staus symbol to inflate their sagging egos.

That's something I've never understood about the L.A. "car culture" where so much status is invested in one's car. In other words, how is it that one's priorities are so screwed up that you live in a sh*tbox but drive a $50,000 Beemer?
Life is what you make it. If you design it without a car, you won't miss it much.
Life is what you make it. If you design it without a car, you won't miss it much.

Romunov...No truer words. The cool thing is that after I gave mine up (first time for 5 years), I felt an incredible sense of liberation.

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