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What You’re Spending On Your Car And Why It Doesn’t Matter

Sometimes I get carried away with writing about other things and forget why I originally started this site.  I started it because I am living without a car in a city which was was originally designed around horse carriages and trolleys. Then the guys in the white shirts and bowties came in during the 50s, 60s and 70s and tried to make the city all modern and sleek with expressways, highway ramps, and fast roads. Take my example of Cold Spring Lane and trying to walk from the light rail station to Roland Park. On a smaller scale, try walking the short distance from the Fitzgerald apartments to Penn Station.  It’s like trying to peel an apple with an Orange Juice maker.

But you know what? It’s better than the alternative. I drove the car I sold for 3 years. It was a Prius. Reasonably affordable to maintain and probably the most fuel efficient car on the road.  This is what I spent on the car during that time:

  • $1500 on maintenance, including things like oil changes and tires
  • $3600 on insurance
  • $1000 on gas
  • $200 on parking

That’s not including the actual price of the vehicle, tax, and tags.  I’d rather not even add these numbers up. 33% of Baltimore’s population doesn’t own a car, and this is mostly why. For me, it’s a choice. For most of that 33%, they just can’t afford it. Extrapolate this scenario across the country, especially in the suburbs where a car is a necessity, and a huge amount of time and money (on average, about 20% of annual earnings) is spent on something which has questionable long term value and a bunch of negative externalities. I’m also willing to bet a good chunk of people who buy new-ish cars stretch themselves financially to have them. In an economy with persistent high unemployment, rising poverty rates, and tepid recovery, the American Dream needs to shift to something more sustainable.

But there is cultural pressure to own things in the U.S. And cultural norms often outweigh logic. In a great book by Everett Rogers called Diffusion of Innovations, which I read at Clemson University under the tutelage of Dr. Anne Dunning, Rogers breaks down the process of adopting a new idea into five stages; Knowledge, Persuasion, Decision, Implementation, and Confirmation. While this process is too boring to explain here, a key point is that research shows people are influenced by mass media and interpersonal channels, with interpersonal channels being extremely influential during the persuasion stage.

I can lay out the cost benefits of being car free, but if everyone in your social circle owns a car, how likely is it that my words will stick? Not very.  While there are infrastructure barriers to walking, biking and transit use, social marketing may have just as much influence over travel behavior as building a new bike lane.  And changing behavior is more difficult than hiring a director to do a shot of an SUV on a mountaintop.