The Guide to the American Dream


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Public Health & Safety

Automobile Myths

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 user fees.

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 as much.

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 or fabricated.

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 between autos and transit is even greater.

Below we review the safety, air pollution, land use, and other social ills that autos are alleged to impose on society.


Motor vehicle 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.

Annual highway 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.

Air Pollution

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.

Land Uses

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 and landscaping.

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.