Auto opponents tend to ignore the many benefits provided by automobiles
while they charge huge costs against them. Yet they usually distort or
exaggerate these costs.
The Subsidy Myth
Myth: Autos are popular only because they receive huge government subsidies
Reality: More than 90 percent of highway costs have been paid by highway
The federal and state governments have spent hundreds of billions of
dollars on highways in the last fifty to eighty years. Auto opponents
often label this spending "subsidies" and claim that it justifies
spending more billions on public transit. But the vast majority of spending
on highways has come out of gasoline taxes and other taxes and fees that
are explicitly collected as highway user fees.
During the 1990s, highway user fees equaled or exceeded highway spending
by both the federal and state governments. Local governments did spend
more on roads than they collected in user fees. When everything is totaled,
however, user fees account for more than 90 percent of highway expenditures.
Moreover, American roads are so heavily used that the remaining subsidy
is tiny when measured per vehicle mile or passenger mile. The subsidy
per passenger mile is typically around 0.1 to 0.3 cents each. By comparison,
transit subsidies average 45 cents per passenger mile, 150 to 450 times
For the past thirty years, U.S. subsidies to transit have far exceeded
subsidies to auto driving, especially when it is considered that, unlike
transit, highways also carry nearly a trillion ton-miles of freight each
year. If there are any imbalances in transportation funding, then they
are tilted in the direction of transit, not roads.
The Cost of Driving Myth
Myth: Auto ownership is costly and getting more expensive each year.
Reality: As a share of personal income, the amount Americans spend on
autos has steadily declined since at least 1960.
Auto opponents often cite data showing that the cost of auto ownership
exceeds the benefits to many people. Many Americans own autos, it is
claimed, because they are forced to do so by poor urban design
and inadequate transit systems. In fact, the cost of auto ownership is
low and has been declining for decades.
Opponents typically assume that someone buys a new car, pays the maximum
finance charges, drives it only about 10,000 miles a year, and then replaces
it as soon as they have paid for it. This produces costs as high as 40
to 50 cents per mile.
Such costs are greatly exaggerated. The average age of cars on the road
in the U.S., for example, is nearly nine years. When divided over the
life of a car, finance charges are only going to be about a fourth as
great as if the car is junked as soon as it is paid for.
Anyone can significantly reduce the cost of auto ownership by buying
a used car, paying cash for their car, continuing to own it after they
have paid for it, or driving it more miles each year. After paying fixed
costs such as depreciation and insurance, the average cost of driving
a new or used vehicle is typically only about 12 cents a mile.
In addition to serving as low-cost transportation, automobiles can also
serve as status symbols. This can make them more costly than might be
thought necessary if people buy fancier cars than they need or replace
cars before they are worn out. But this is a cost of the status symbol,
not a cost of transportation.
Despite the fact that we drive more each year, the total cost of auto
ownership and operations has steadily declined as a share of personal
income. In 1960, Americans spent 12.5 percent of their personal incomes
on autos. Today they spend only 10 percent. Since the average American
drives two-and-one-half times as many miles today as forty years
ago, this is a phenomenal bargain.
The Social Cost of Autos Myth
Myth: Autos impose huge costs on society that aren't paid by auto users.
Reality: Nearly all of the social costs claimed by opponents are exaggerated
Auto opponents often wildly exaggerate the social costs of automobiles.
University of California economist Mark Delucchi observes that most calculations
of the social costs of autos "rely on outdated, superficial, nongeneralizable,
or otherwise inappropriate studies."
Writing in issue 16 of Access magazine (196-kb pdf), Delucchi
estimates that subsidies and social costs of autos together average less
than 7 cents per passenger mile today. That compares with transit
subsidies of 45 cents per passenger mile -- which doesn't even count
the social costs of transit. Since buses and commuter rail can produce
as much air pollution per passenger mile as autos, the true discrepancy
is even greater.
Below we review the safety, air pollution, land use, and other social
ills that autos are alleged to impose on society.
accidents killed fewer than 43,000 people in 2003. While every premature
death is tragic, when compared with the huge amount of highway travel
autos are relatively safe and getting safer.
fatalities peaked at 55,600 in 1973. Since then, they
have declined by nearly 25 percent even though Americans drive more than
twice as many miles a year. Fatality rates peaked at about 450 per billion
vehicle miles way back in 1909 and have declined steadily ever since
to about 17 today.
Comparing fatalities with vehicle miles on various types of roads reveals that urban roads are considerably safer than rural ones,
and urban freeways are the safest of all. In 2003, fewer than 4 fatalities
per billion passenger
miles were reported for urban interstates, compared with 11 for rural
interstates and 10 for other urban roads.
Using data from the Bureau of Transportation Statistics to compare fatalities with passenger miles for various forms of transit reveals that urban interstates are much safer than light
rail and commuter rail,
each of which caused about 8 to 16 fatalities per billion passenger
miles over the last decade. Buses and heavy rail are almost as
safe as urban interstates.
Automotive air pollution is disappearing due to improved technology.
Controlling pollution at the tailpipe has always worked better than trying
to convince Americans to drive less. For more information, see the section
on air pollution.
Auto opponents claim that autos have led to "cookie-cutter" suburban
residential areas and "placeless" strip-mall developments that
look the same everywhere. In fact, suburbs vary tremendously from
one part of the country to another. The old story of commuters not being
able to find their homes because they all look alike is humorous, but
untrue. Even in early post-WWII suburbs in which all the houses were
identical, owners quickly gave each home its own identity through painting
Strip malls may not be especially beautiful, but they are extremely
serviceable for local users. The kind of "boutique" shopping
areas that are so attractive to tourists are usually avoided by locals
due to traffic congestion, not to mention the fact that they usually
focus on serving niche markets, not the day-to-day needs of local residents.
Proposals to restrict auto-oriented retail developments would limit competition
and drive up consumer costs.
Other Social Costs
Other social costs claimed by auto opponents are often exaggerated or
fabricated. Some writers count road tolls, insurance, and traffic congestion
as social costs when in fact they are costs paid by road users. The notion
that America's military presence in the Middle East is a social cost
of the auto is belied by America's military actions in many other parts
of the world, such as Yugoslovia, that have no oil.