The Costs of Auto Dependency

By Lisa Schreibman

We are paying dearly for the American love affair with the car. We pay through taxes and out of our pockets. The environmental costs are staggering, and the toll in deaths and injuries is comparable to the casualty lists from major wars.

Automakers tell us their products are increasingly safe because they have anti-lock brakes, side-impact airbags and lots of other gimmicks. But what they don’t tell us is that dependence on cars means we are driving more, thereby negating the benefits of safety improvements.

The cost of cars and trucks should be compared with their benefits. The benefits: goods arrive cheaply, jobs get created and formerly remote places become more accessible. But since auto advertising reminds us on a daily basis of these advantages, I will refrain from doing the same.

Economic Costs

In 2002, the federal government will spend $27 billion on transportation. Of that, only $3.3 billion will be dedicated to pollution-reducing transportation modes–mostly transit. $200 million will go to planning, $500 million will go to recreational trails and the rest will go to roadway spending. The money to pay for roads comes mostly from taxes on gasoline and tolls on roads and bridges. According to Stephen Goddard in Getting There, however, 40 percent of all the funds necessary to build roads come from general taxes levied on people regardless of their use of cars.

With the exception of interstate highway maintenance and a few pork projects explicitly mandated by federal transportation policy, most federal money is allocated by the states. The states’ modal choices vary widely. In 2000, Mississippi spent just 4.1 percent of its federal dollars on non-automobile modes, translating to $.07 per Mississippian for bicycle and pedestrian projects and $2.96 for transit. New York State, on the other hand, led the way in spending on alternatives to the private automobile, spending 47.5 percent of its federal funds on these modes. Per capita, $.48 was spent on bicycles and pedestrians and $45.02 on transit.

And that is just for capital construction. Car owners and goods purchasers–in other words all of us–also pay to operate vehicles. According to the Surface Transportation Policy Project (STPP), the average US household purchased $7,118 in transportation services in 2000, accounting for 18.7 percent of the average household budget. That made transportation second only to shelter as a household expense. For households in the Houston-Galveston area, transportation costs now make up 22.1 percent of the average family budget and cost $8,840 annually–more than the cost of housing, which is $6,536 or 16.3 percent of the average family budget. Of total transportation costs in Houston, a mere 1.1 percent was spent on public transportation.

These operating costs do not impact everyone equally. According to Jane Holtz Kay inAsphalt Nation, “In large cities 60 percent of mass transit riders are women, and 48 percent are African American or Hispanic, more than twice their number in the population…The 9 percent of households that own no car comprise one-quarter of the population with the lowest economic strata and the most oppressed minorities among them.”

Of course, if the only costs of auto dependency were to personal finances, supplementing lower-income household budgets–similar to a food stamp program–might solve the problem. The societal payments, however, go far beyond cash outlays for roads, cars and gas.

Inefficient Mobility

The Texas Transportation Institute’s 1999 Mobility Report found that Americans spend 6.2 billion hours stuck in traffic. The Federal Highway Administration figures that time to be worth about $43 billion. Other economists give price tags as high as $168 billion.

It’s not easy to build our way out of the congestion mess. When delays are caused by highway widening projects, the time delay for present motorists may never be made up by the time savings of future motorists. According to STPP, the four-year project to widen I-15 in Salt Lake City, Utah from six to ten lanes will delay motorists fifteen minutes. When complete it will save drivers only seven minutes and take seven years to break even. An interchange project in northern Virginia that will widen I-95 is estimated to cause half-hour delays for eight years and save motorists only thirty seconds when complete. And this project will never break even.

Destruction of Open Space

Cars are reshaping land uses. The advent of the car allowed commerce, jobs and housing to be separated. As a result, compact urban cores have been replaced by suburban shopping malls, and dense neighborhoods by suburban sprawl. Each year from 1992 to1997, 2.2 million acres of open space was developed for housing, according to the Department of Agriculture. That rate was 50 percent higher than in the previous decade.

Even in places that we do not associate with cars or trucks, roadways are being cut at a dizzying rate. According to the National Forest Service, there are 380,000 miles of roads crossing just 300,000 square miles of forest land.

Resource Depletion

Roads have tremendous impact on wildlife. According to Matthew Braunstein, writing forAutoFree Times, US drivers kill or maim 400 million animals each year–more than all hunters and animal experimenters combined. Roadways built in forests disrupt ecosystems and housing scattered across the landscape brings people and animals into conflict, with animals always losing.

Cars use energy resources. Again in Asphalt Nation, Holtz Kay estimates that in the United States more than 50 percent of oil, 64 percent of rubber, 33 percent of iron, 27 percent of aluminum and 20 percent of electronics and carpeting goes to producing and maintaining cars and trucks. To make cars run, we buy 133 billion gallons of gasoline a year.

Pollution and Health

Cars cause asthma attacks. A study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association in 2001 found that acute asthma care events for children–those that required hospitalization–dropped by 41.6 percent in Atlanta when the city banned many passenger cars from the central city during the weekday morning peak period. That policy was instituted to keep traffic moving during the 1996 Olympics. As a result, the number of vehicles decreased by 22.5 percent and the ozone levels dropped by 27.9 percent.

Auto emissions also trigger emphysema attacks and cause lung cancer and a host of other maladies. The American Lung Association calculates the medical cost arising from auto pollution at $50 billion per year.


Driving kills people. According to the US Census Bureau, in 1998 auto crashes caused six million injuries, two million of which were maiming and 42,000 of which were deaths. The West Nile virus, by comparison, will kill a few dozen people this year. Yet there will be no large-scale government-sponsored programs to eradicate cars and warn people of their danger.

National Transportation Policy

Although most of the news about auto use is bad–miles driven annually is up and costs for transportation are rising–federal policy has been moving in the right direction.

Transportation policy over the past ten years has shifted away from focusing solely on the automobile. In 1991, the Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act (ISTEA) for the first time let state and local governments use federal dollars for a broad range of transportation investments. Federal funds spent on transit almost doubled, from just over $3 billion in 1990 to close to $6 billion in 1999. The amount of federal money spent on bicycle and pedestrian projects grew from just over $7 million at the beginning of the decade to more than $222 million by 1999.

At the same time, spending on road repair increased from $5.8 billion in 1991 to $16 billion in 1999, growing from 39 percent of the federal transportation budget to 49 percent. Thus there was a dramatic reversal of using the vast majority of highway dollars to build new roads. With the federal shift, state and local money began to be spent on a wider variety of transportation uses. From 1990 to 1999, local and state funding of public transit grew by 34 percent, from about $5.8 billion in 1990 to $7.8 billion in 1999.

In one of the most progressive government policies, Fannie Mae, the largest source of financing for home mortgages, recently began a two-year $100 million experiment that allows banks to lend more money to people with lower transportation costs. The brochure for what has come to be known as Location Efficient Mortgages (LEMs) compares a non-car owning household to a car-owning one, explaining that car owners have more costs and therefore should qualify for a smaller loan, assuming that incomes and properties purchased are equal.

But transportation policy doesn’t exist in a vacuum. Dependency on autos may continue even while these new federal transportation policies evolve. Housing decisions must also support sustainable transportation, but because many housing policies are local by nature, decisions are made state by state, community by community. And as more federal transportation functions are shifted to the states, it will be more difficult to develop a sustainable national transportation system. We will continue to pay the price for auto dependency.

Lisa Schreibman, AICP, is an adjunct lecturer at Hunter College, City University of New York.

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