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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.

How to Become Car Free And Not Become Annoying

How the hell do you compete with this?

Most would-be agents of behavioral change frame their arguments on external effects with a bit of a self-righteous air. Environmentalists are the worst offenders; Deforestation reduces reduces bio-diversity and increases carbon in the atmosphere. Large corporations act with impunity in polluting our air and waterways. Cars are responsible for X number of cases of asthma. Arguments like these have been repeated ad nauseum.  Well meaning people spend a lot of time making other people think they care about how their behavior impacts the world. Some do care, but most don’t.  This is a politically incorrect thing to say at dinner parties, but this is a blog, not a dinner party. And I’ll be the first to admit I sold my car for personal benefit, not to save the planet.

In making arguments for behavioral change, the more we focus on personal benefits, the more the message resonates; How do you benefit from eating local food?  How do you benefit when polluters are regulated? How do you benefit from taking transit? Framing the argument in descriptive terms (If you do x, then y will happen), rather than prescriptive terms (You should really do this) makes an audience less defensive and more open to dialog. In general, you cannot change someone by trying to change them. But there is a small chance you can inspire someone to change by setting an example.  This is a Buddhist argument about the dangers of being attached to outcomes, but I think it fits here.

I’m trying to find a balance as well.  Promoting, in what my opinion, is a better lifestyle in living without a car, but avoiding the typical environmentalist arguments and self-righteousness.  It’s easy to fall into these traps, though.

While we’re on the topic of promotion, car companies collectively spend hundreds of millions of dollars on advertising every year. Not only is the U.S. designed for cars, but there are non-stop messages everywhere telling us that owning a car is expected of us as a sort of rite of passage.  It’s not enough to have transit that runs flawlessly and great walking/biking routes. These modes have to be culturally accepted, without stigma, and create an emotional response just like car commercials do. Thinking of alternate modes as a product, and not just as a default choice for a dedicated few, may be a start. And getting “opinion makers”, as Malcolm Gladwell calls them in his book The Tipping Point, involved at a grass roots level may help in turning the tide.

Also, it would help if we could create transit advertising that looked like this. But maybe that’s too much to ask.