Get Rid of Your Car! The First Argument – Cost

You should get rid of your car!

I would like to prove this relatively simple proposition of policy in a series of simply argued posts.

Last fall Brooke and I both got rid of our cars.  We now live in a densely populated area of Chicago which is adequately served by public transportation.  We were somewhat apprehensive about this at first – and so got rid of one car.  After about a month of leaving that car in our parking spot for like 27/30 days, we took the plunge and got rid of the other car.  Viewed from almost every possible angle, it has been an unambiguously positive experience, one which we celebrate nearly every day.  I want you to try to it too!Summary

Over the next weeks I’d like to lay out a series of arguments against car ownership.  I’ve come to the conclusion that mass, daily reliance on cars by the bulk of the American population is unambiguously bad, in fact catastrophic in its consequences, both individual and collective, and is therefore almost entirely morally indefensible. I wanted to try out some of the arguments here.  There are a lot of arguments – from cost, quality of life, health, safety, and environmental responsibility. There are also a lot of objections – inconvenience, overdemanding-ness and impracticality being the main ones.  I’ll try to take these arguments and these objections on one post at a time.  What’s really shocking to me is how straightforward the arguments are in almost all instances.  Perhaps I’m just missing something really big – but – I think this is just one of those instances where we’re just all collectively engaged in stupid behavior, we’ve let ourselves become the proverbial children all jumping off bridges because everyone else does.  Our world would be a far better place with far fewer cars.

The Argument from Cost

I decided to start with a relatively straightforward argument for getting rid of your car: the cost you end up paying is higher than it would be without it.  I’m starting here because it seems the least controversial argument, and also the least likely to provoke clashes with moral intuitions, global warming skepticism, etc.  It’s not really a moral argument at all – it’s just an appeal to self-interest.

To head off an objection right away: if you don’t live in an urban center, you most likely will not be able to take advantage of the cost savings I’m about to describe.  The logical way to solve this is for you to move to somewhere you can.  I know this brings a lot of other considerations to the fore but – just viewing the cost arguments in a vacuum, and assuming you’re not upside-down on a mortgage right now, you could save a lot of money in the relative short term by moving to a similarly priced rental or purchased residence relatively close to the middle of a large city.

The argument from cost is very simple: it costs an individual far more to own and rely on a car than it does not to.  Therefore, you should sell your car, and keep the money you save for better things.

I’ll start with a simple question you may be unable to answer:

How much does relying on your car cost you each month?

I’ll admit (and my wife could attest) that I’m generally not the most financially responsible person.  In general, I’m unaware of the costs of things.  I usually content myself with the idea that overall, my demands are modest, and I have a decent job, and other than that, things generally work out.  I know that’s naive and presupposes a lot of privilege.  I’m just starting here to point out that I don’t always know how much my life costs me.

With cars, I think a lot of us are in this boat (even those among us who consider themselves extremely cost-conscious and frugal).  The reason is because many of the costs associated with car ownership are built into the background of our lives, and tend to be relatively invisible.  I’ll use myself as an example.

We owned a 2008 Honda Civic hybrid and were paying around $200 a month for it.  I suppose, to be fair, I should not consider the monthly payment at present – I should compute some “cost of ownership” amount that factors in the down payment, if any, the fact that I will own the car at some point free-and-clear, etc.  Working with the actual monthly payment, though, seems like a reasonable simplifying assumption.  I’d be really surprised if that adjusted “cost of ownership” was orders of magnitude different from the monthly payment.  But if someone else wants to do the work, I’d love to see what the actual figure is.

I think a lot of people tend to see their “car payment” (for us, $200 – perhaps below average for a new car?) as the main expense involved in owning a car.  That’s probably true, but there’s a lot more that can fade into the background.  We also paid around $35/month to insure that car.  I commute roughly 30 miles to work (I know this is above average) and gas costs something around $4.00/gallon here in Chicago (also nationally above average I think).  I probably bought a 13-gallon tank of gas 4 times each month. That’s an estimated $204 on gas each month.  Also, since in Chicago now, most parking spots are metered, I paid another amount of money for this.  This is tougher to calculate because it comes in little bits and pieces, and I’d have to scour my debit card record to really see the true cost.  Let’s say I spent $10/week on parking = $45/month.  I think we spent an average of $50/month maintaining the car, assuming regular oil changes, flat tires, larger tune-ups, etc (though that may be low). Then there are taxes and fees associated with car ownership.  A city sticker in Chicago is $120/year, so $10/month.  The Illinois vehicle sticker is about $80 I think, so $7/month or so.  Totaling up all these expenses, I get $551 each month.  That’s a lot more than the original $200 “car payment” that so many people experience as an albatross around their neck until they get it paid off (but it’s still surprising how many people still move on to get another car almost right away when they’re done).

So, it costs $551 to own an operate a car in the city of Chicago.

How much does it cost me to get around without a car?  It’s way easier to calculate.

My monthly Metra pass costs $150.  I spend between $50-$100 on the CTA.  So my transportation costs about $200-$250/month.  In other words, it’s at least half as expensive to live without a car than not to.  There are some other costs it’s harder to figure, or decide whether they’re fair to count.  The largest of these?  We now rent the parking space in our unit for $250/month.  You’ll notice covers THE WHOLE of my other transportation costs.  But not everyone has a parking spot to rent.  Also – if everyone got rid of their car, no one would want to rent a parking spot. My profiteering depends on taking advantage of others’ car-dependence.  I’ll just leave the parking spot part out of my calculations (but – for the foreseeable future, it does actually save me that money!).

There are also a handful of times I’ve taken a cab – MAYBE $20/month.  We also rent an iGo car about once each week, so my share of that cost is about $60/month.  So going with the midrange estimate of my CTA cost, I get $305/month without a car, $551 with a car.  I now have almost $250 more each month with which I can go out to dinner more often, buy records, watch movies, whatever.

It’s arguable there are hidden costs I haven’t considered – that the structure of my life changes in some way without a car that might be more expensive.  Like – I end up spending more money shopping, for example, because it’s less convenient for me to get to stores with lower prices.  I walk to 7-11 (and other similar places) more often, to buy, for example, toilet paper, since it’s more of a hassle to get to Target or Walmart.  7-11 has a steeper markup on things like this.  I’m not sure how to count this cost, but I’d also like to point out that I was never much of a bargain shopper in he first place (see above) and probably was just as likely to go to 7-11 before than I was to plan the trip to Walmart to save money.  Also, it’s fair to set against this cost other more positive structural changes: there is a lot of spending I DON’T DO now, mostly because it’s harder for me to do it.  I can’t be sitting around on Saturday watching TV and all of a sudden convince myself that I need a carload full of home-improvement supplies, because I don’t have the car to load.  I can’t go to Best Buy and impulsively purchase a new TV.  In a lot of ways I’ve discovered, car ownership is a “gateway drug” – and not just where cost is concerned.  Owning a car facilitates other spending that not owning a car makes one less likely to do.  The amount more that I spend at 7-11 vs. Walmart can’t possible be MORE than I don’t spend because of my lack of access to suburban strip malls.

This is a fact I think Walmart’s marketing department would like none of us to think about – “everyday low prices” encourage a whole bunch of other spending that is likely far more expensive than what I saved on the marginal cost of toilet paper purchased at the Tinley Park Walmart instead of the Harrison and Dearborn 7-11.  The average suburbanite seems utterly unable to comprehend this.  Please note – this argument has nothing to do with morality; I’m not saying Walmart is evil – though it is, but my argument doesn’t require it – I’m just saying going to Walmart affects other behavior you engage in, and probably doesn’t save you all that much, if it saves you anything at all.  To put it simply – when you go to Walmart on a Saturday to earn huge savings, you’ve probably already wiped those savings out when you stop at Chili’s for lunch afterward.

And I’m not even considering health costs yet.  The long-term negative health impact that driving everywhere has must eventually make our lives more expensive, even if it doesn’t show up right away on a monthly basis.  I’ll discuss this issue at length in a later post.

I imagine a lot of objections will come to mind now – I know there are lots of other factors, and probably the main thing you want to say right now is “but isn’t your life really inconvenient?” or “I could never do that, I live in the suburbs/exurbs/country/a-city-with-terrible-public-transit-infrastructure.”  I don’t doubt that – I will address these claims in future posts.  For for now – considering how much lip-service Americans pay to “pocketbook issues” and how much time we spend pretending to be economical, on a monthly basis, it costs half as much to live a similar life but not own a car.

For now, all I wish to have proven is the following: the cost argument, in the absence of any other factors, would be decisive.

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3 Responses to Get Rid of Your Car! The First Argument – Cost

  1. Nates says:

    Looking forward to hearing more on this issue! I think the spread of Zipcar-type services has made being car-less in Chicago much easier. This is especially true down in Hyde Park, where the public transit options are not nearly as good as up north.

  2. Josh says:

    I mean, yeah, iGO/Zipcar is useful. The bigger problem with Hyde Park seems like a relative lack of on-foot shopping and restaurant options, that forces you into wanting to leave the neighborhood more often.

    The thing is though – if you live in Hyde Park, that’s actually a neighborhood you’re likely to live AND work in (which is actually pretty rare in Chicago). That means your transit needs are actually only limited to evenings and weekends for the most part, right?

    Sure – both the green and red lines are little further afield than is reasonable, since you end up traversing two legs of a right triangle instead of its hypotenuse to get downtown. But I don’t think the options from Hyde Park are all that awful, once you factor in the Metra and the buses. Hyde Park is actually served by several express buses, such that you can get between Roosevelt and 47th street in like 10 minutes. The 6, 10, and 2 buses are the main ones (admittedly, only the 6 runs late, and it gets less frequent later on).

    If you live in Hyde Park but work elsewhere, it’s a little different, but during the week and during work hours, there’s a ton of bus and Metra service. There are express buses that run on Cottage Grove and on Stony Island, which means you are no more than 1/2 mile (a 10 minute walk) from such a bus. The 10 (Museum of Science and Industry) runs express all the way to 57th, with no stop after Roosevelt. And the Metra is at Stony Island too.

    Sorry – I just think people who live in Hyde Park are too used to complaining about this issue 🙂 I’ve been a complainer in the past too, but if you look at how Hyde Park is serviced vis-a-vis most other neighborhoods on either the north OR south side, it’s really not so bad.

  3. Nates says:

    Yeah, east Hyde Park is easy. The #6 is pretty awesome, actually, for getting into the loop. But west Hyde Park’s a whole different story. I have to walk a mile (0.9 miles, strictly speaking) to get to the nearest #6 bus stop. There is a #2 express bus stop right on my corner, but it only runs during weekday rush hours — in other words, it’s never there when I need it. I think I’ve taken it once ever.

    That said, I’m not suggesting that you need a car in Hyde Park. After all, I’ve been here for many years without one! But it does involve some significant sacrifices in terms of convenience. Not enough to tip the overall calculus, but significant nonetheless.

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