by Bruce Wark
We love our cars and woe betide the journalist who tries to tally the immense costs of that love, not just in the deaths and injuries this most personal mode of transportation brings, but also in its elephantine social, financial and environmental costs.
Auto makers and their dealers spend billions persuading us that we need the speed, power and glamour of their products and perhaps because car ads are a dominant source of their income, mainstream media show little inclination to investigate the true costs of car culture. There are also ideological reasons for this lapse. The business-oriented economists most frequently quoted in the news see private spending as a source of growth and prosperity, while public spending is portrayed as an economic drag, a necessary evil at best. Since cars are classified as private, household commodities, the more we spend on them the better—or so the myth goes.
In what follows, I’ll try to calculate some of the true costs of automobility, not because I hate cars (I drive one myself), but to show that car culture is a lot more costly than we think.
I’ll begin with the figures I dug up in 2003 when I co-authored an article on car costs for GPI Atlantic’s quarterly publication Reality Check. “How much does your car really cost?” presents the main findings. The article appears on page three. It shows we spend more on cars than we do on food.
Judging by my most recent research, not much has changed. Spending on cars is still the single, biggest category of household spending. We also continue to spend more on the care and feeding of our cars than we do on our entire health-care system, though you’d never know it if you depend on the mainstream news media for your information. In the media, health costs are always “soaring” and are frequently described as “unsustainable.” Automobile spending is never described in these terms.
Let’s look at 2009, the last year for which I could find good, comparative figures.
- The Canadian Institute for Health Information (CIHI) estimates that total health care spending in 2009 was $182.1 billion. Taxpayers contributed 70% or $129.1 billion to pay for hospitals and doctors, while private spenders paid the other $53 billion mainly for drugs and other health professionals. As I’ll show below, we spend far more on our automobiles than we do on health care and a hefty chunk of our health bill results from car crashes.
- Since health care is considered more public than private, it’s easy to get precise, year-by-year spending figures. But since car costs are considered more private than public, it requires a bit of sleuthing (and guess work) to calculate them. According to Statistics Canada, car dealers and the sellers of auto parts, accessories and tires had retail sales of $88.5 billion in 2009 while gasoline stations’ retail sales amounted to $42.1 billion, for a total of $130.6 billion.
- While those figures are interesting, they’re not all that precise for figuring out what car owners pay. For example, companies buy parts, accessories, tires and gasoline too for their vehicle fleets. On the other hand, those figures are also likely too low because they don’t capture other kinds of car spending such as outlays for insurance, taxes, registration and licence fees, financing costs and depreciation. To calculate total car costs as accurately as possible, we must turn to the Canadian Automobile Association’s 2009 brochure on Driving Costs where we find that the total annual cost of owning and operating a 4-cylinder Chevrolet Cobalt LT four-door sedan that is driven 16,000 km is $8227.25 or 51.4 cents per km. The total cost of owning and operating a 6-cylinder Dodge Grand Caravan four-door passenger van that is driven 16,000 km is $10,928.95 or 68.3 cents per km.
- A 2009 report from Natural Resources Canada tells us that there were 19,755,945 light vehicles consisting of passenger cars, (about 58%) station wagons, SUVs, vans and pickup trucks (about 42%) in use in Canada for an average of 1.47 cars per household. (Statistics Canada reports the number of households in 2009 at 13,417,000.) The average light vehicle was driven 15,336 km. Here are the calculations: Cobalt LT: $8,227 X 19.8 million X .58 = $94,478,000,000 or $94.5 billion. Grand Caravan: $10,928 X 19.8 million X .42 = $90,877,000,000 or $90.9 billion. The Grand Total = $185.4 billion.
- The social costs of auto fatalities and injuries are rarely calculated. In 2007, however, Transport Canada released a study based on figures gathered in 2004. The study showed that in Ontario alone, the social cost of collisions amounted to $18 billion. Fatalities cost an estimated $11 billion, injuries $4 billion and property damage $2 billion. Other costs included health and hospital costs, traffic delays as well as spending for police, fire and ambulance services. The study estimated that for Canada as a whole, the social costs of the 613,000 car crashes in 2004 came to $63 billion.
- The costs to build, repair and maintain Canada’s million kilometres of roads are also considerable. Transport Canada reports that in 2009-2010 alone, those costs amounted to $4.5 billion.
- Finally, over the last 10 years, federal and provincial subsidies to the big automakers came to more than $15 billion including the $13.7 billion that General Motors and Chrysler received during the 2008 economic crisis.
The list could go on—subsidies for fossil fuel extraction, for example, as well as the costs associated with smog, climate change, air and water pollution and habitat destruction, but for today, let’s end here. An extensive report on all costs in Nova Scotia is available online in the 2006 GPI Atlantic Transportation Report.