The Cost of Cars
Many millennials show little enthusiasm for cars and driving, but for “Gen Z” – those born from 2000 on – the jury is still out. Well, not entirely; one member of that generation – under my own roof – is intent not only on driving but on owning a car.
For those on the cusp of adulthood, a car represents so much more than an amalgamation of metal, plastic and what waste managers colorfully call “auto fluff” – the upholstery, soundproofing and insulation that get shredded and landfilled when vehicles are salvaged. Wheels can symbolize freedom, that long open road leading from the confines of childhood into the wider world.
I understand that iconic power and the marketing muscle that fuels it. Who hasn’t felt the tug of automotive ads that depict the exhilarating rush of soaring past stunning scenery? (Of course, they don’t show someone stuck in traffic, breathing in exhaust and looking out on a mall-strewn wasteland; reality TV shows might entertain us but not reality advertisements!) Acquiring my first car at age 20 did bring an undeniable thrill. Never mind that it was a far cry from the sleek models featured in ads – being a boxy, high-mileage sedan in a putrid mustard hue. It let me take to the highway, heading off to a summer job 500 miles away.
The enchantment with my new wheels lasted exactly three days. Then the engine went dead, and I had to pay for the car’s first tow. More repairs followed, and I soon came to see the vehicle as a necessary evil (owning a dog ruled out most public transportation).
So while I sympathize with the lure of freedom on four tires, car ownership leads down a rocky road – inflicting personal bumps and planetary bruises.
Starting with the financial tab, no possession short of a house comes with such a cumulative weight of annual expenditures: fuel, insurance, repairs, maintenance, tires, registration and potentially finance charges. A house might actually gain value over time but a vehicle will steadily depreciate, dropping by some estimates 15 percent of its market value each year.
Some of the associated costs can be whittled down, but only so far. Logging fewer than 9,000 miles per year (the average for American drivers is about 13,500) in a 12-year-old, fuel-efficient car, I still spend more than $2,500 each year on related expenses. That figure is well below the annual average of $8,469, according to the American Automobile Association (AAA), but for younger drivers it still could be prohibitive – particularly for those in school or those carrying student debt.
Unfortunately, the cost of car ownership extends far beyond the bounds of personal budgeting, particularly for young drivers. While adolescents understandably resent generalizations about their peer group, it’s hard to argue with actuaries. Teen drivers crash four times more than adults, the AAA reports. Crash risks, always elevated during the first months of independent driving, are greatest among youngest drivers. For every mile on the road, drivers aged 16 and 17 are nine times as likely to be involved in a crash as those 18 or older.
Car ownership endangers public health indirectly too, adding to a plume of particulates and to the greenhouse gas emissions that are raising global temperatures to untenable levels. Climate change represents a classic “Tragedy of the Commons” scenario – where car owners focus on their individual desires for freedom and convenience, overlooking how their choices diminish shared resources like air quality.
Collectively, we also tend to forget how many global resources (like petroleum and metals) go into American cars, which represent a fifth of the planet’s fleet even though we constitute only 5 percent of the world population. Cars, light trucks and motorcycles burn up nearly two-thirds of the energy used by the whole U.S. transportation sector.
To Americans coming of age now, acquiring a vehicle might seem like a right. But before long, it could look more like an historic anomaly. The car-crazy culture that emerged following the Second World War appears less and less tenable by the day.
Fortunately, alternatives like lift services and car-sharing make it easier to navigate into adulthood without the extravagant costs of a personal vehicle. Even in Maine, where a low population density necessitates more driving, there’s an increased commitment to public transit.
A decade from now, the counsel on car ownership may be more like the guidance given to young people concerning sobriety: Don’t purchase a vehicle until at least age 21 and then act responsibly – mindful of the risks.
© Marina Schauffler, 2017. All Rights Reserved. Column reprints available upon request.