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.