The real cost of cars
Time to check our blindspots and pump the brakes
This week, we start with a story. It’s taken from Edward Humes’s Door to Door: The Magnificent, Maddening, Mysterious World of Transportation. (Btw, the stats below without a link come from there.) As his book opens, Humes describes an L.A. weekend in July 2011 when Interstate 405, which carries 400,000 people each day, was slated to close to start the $1.3-billion addition of another lane onto the chronically traffic-jammed asphalt ribbon. Angelenos predicted the disruption would cause a surge of spillover traffic onto side streets, a spike of accidents, an increase in smog and general anarchy so extreme they called the impending closure Carmageddon.
But the weekend the 405 went silent was instead a surprise: smog was at 1/10th its normal levels, and locals breathed in air that was 25% cleaner for a week afterward. No traffic jams, no accident spike. People biked, walked, took transit, ride shared, or hung out at home. Instead of Carmageddon, they got Carmaheaven.
The scene is uncanny to read right now — it seems like something straight out of the #stayhome playbook. As we look out on silent streets, it’s an interesting time to think about our relationship with our cars and all the “essential” trips we might make in a day. Driving is one of our biggest blindspots, yet it’s a vital lever in slowing global warming.
A 2017 study by Seth Wynes and Kimberly Nicholas analyzed the results of individual climate actions from 10 different countries, which are summarized on the chart coming at you. For fun, before you look at it, guess what the most important thing you can do to slow the climate crisis might be. One of the points of this study was to see if we’re emphasizing the right interventions. (In a room full of greenies, most of us, including me, got it wrong.)
There are a ton of interesting insights here: the way children break the scale and the difference between an American and a Japanese child, for instance. You can also see lots of things I’ve talked about here, like recycling, laundry, flying, and meat. But one thing you’ll see showing up a lot: cars.
Turns out the freedom we associate with vehicles comes with heavy costs. Let’s break down a few of them:
Financial: The average American pays $1,049/month for fuel, ownership, and operating expenses (plus an extra $1,908/ year for SUVs). Something that is unused for about 22 hours a day is their second largest expense, after housing. Using these numbers, by not having a car in the last 12 years (starting when I graduated from grad school), I’ve saved $151,056. (And if I’d invested that instead, with a conservative return of 4%, I’d have $193,634!)
Environment: Cars and light trucks weigh in at 11% of Canadian greenhouse gas emissions. Cars don’t just spew carbon, they also release volatile organic compounds (VOCs), nitrogen oxides (NOx), particulate matter (PM), carbon monoxide (CO), and sulphur oxides (SOx) that worsen their environmental impact.
Health: VOCs and NOx are respiratory irritants, and 53,000 Americans die prematurely every year from vehicle pollution, losing a decade of life on average. (These people are also more likely to be nonwhite; Black, Indigenous, and people of colour are exposed to 37% more air pollution — one of the many manifestations of environmental racism.) According to the WHO, in 2012, 1 million people in China, 600,000 in India, and 140,000 in Russia died from air pollution (which is not all from cars, but cars are a contributor). Air pollution kills three times the people as AIDS, TB, and malaria combined. Right now, because of the coronavirus, air pollution is at its lowest levels since World War II. And let’s not forget about car accidents, which have lifetime odds of killing 1 in 112 Americans — that’s almost 1% and the 7th most likely way to die. Driving is the riskiest thing we do in our everyday lives. One year of car fatalities in the U.S. is greater than all the American dead and wounded from the World Wars, Vietnam, Korea, Afghanistan, Iraq, the War of 1812 and the Revolution.
Functional space: Parking uses up to 1/3 of urban space that could be devoted to housing, parks, bicycle infrastructure, etc. (Plus, 30 to 60% of traffic is just people looking for parking.) Also for those with garages, your car gets its own room in your house for its 22 hours of rest. My cat sleeps that much and does not have his own room.
Since I’ve been banging on about externalities lately, it’s worth noting that if we paid the real health, environmental, and infrastructure costs of gas, it would cost $2.50/L, or $10/gallon. “Mass transit isn’t the most subsidized mobility option, as most Americans believe,” writes Humes. “Your car is.”
Now, we currently live in a world designed around cars, and it’s no wonder so many of us rely heavily on them. People in rural settings, for example, can’t just hop on a streetcar. But a major shift is crucial if we’re going to meet important greenhouse gas reduction targets (even green leader Germany is missing the mark by not tackling the car). If we’re going to avoid a climate disaster, we need a major overhaul of the way we move people and goods. But in the meantime, there are lots of everyday strategies that can help bring us closer to Carmaheaven.
When this is over, we all might sooner put on a sweater made of killer bees than have to sit through another Zoom meeting, but telecommuting really is a useful tool. For a long time, people argued that in-person meetings achieved better results, but as life marches on, we’re seeing that telecommuting can do the trick for a lot of purposes, whether it’s work, catching up with friends, or seeing the doctor. Drawdown calculates it could reduce emissions by 1 to 3.8 gigatons by 2050, with net operational savings of up to $4.3 trillion. If your company embraced remote working policies during the pandemic, when regular life resumes it’s the perfect time to ask to work from home part of the time.
Carpooling isn’t just for getting the kids to that 5:30 a.m. swim practice. It saves you gas money and wear on your car, plus give you some of that low-stakes social interaction even the introverts are realizing we need. Carpooling requires zero investment and starts saving you money and preventing pollution instantly. Drawdown speculates that a rise in carpooling could reduce emissions by 4.2 to 7.7 gigatons and save trillions of dollars.
Even if you still need to drive to work every day, you can lower your footprint by changing when you drive. If you avoid rush hour, you’ll not only skip sitting in traffic (where our brains perceive every minute as 2–3x longer), you’ll get to work faster, release less pollution, save money (heavy urban traffic means you use 20–45% more fuel), and reduce congestion for those who can’t time shift. Some cities, like London and Singapore, have embraced congestion pricing (like time-of-day pricing on your electricity), which is a huge boon for traffic flow.
Slow your roll.
In other words: don’t drive like an asshole. Accelerate gently, anticipate traffic, and coast to decelerate. Not only is this less likely to kill someone, it uses up to 40% less fuel. Driving at higher speeds (say 120 km/hr versus 100) also means higher wind resistance and more fuel burned.
Switch up your wheels.
There are lots of things to consider when it’s time to get a new car, and it can be a complex equation. A few things to factor in:
Size: Bigger most definitely isn’t better when it comes to the environment, but SUVs and pickup trucks are all the rage these days. If SUV drivers formed a country, they’d be the seventh biggest polluter in the world. Remember you can rent or borrow a car for rare occasions you need to haul a lot of people and stuff, so get a car based on your day-to-day needs.
Used or new: Like anything else, a lot of a car’s footprint is its manufacturing: 10 to 15%. So consider buying a used car a kind of footprint discount. But if you’re going to log a lot of miles, and the new car is significantly more fuel efficient, it would be a better purchase if you keep it for five or ten years.
Fuel: There’s a lot of talk about electric vehicles (EVs) and how green they are or aren’t. Yes, their batteries are energy intensive to produce and require mining rare metals (like most of the tech in our lives), but over the course of their lives they have a lower environmental impact. How big that impact is also depends on where your energy is coming from (electricity from coal obviously generates more emissions than electricity from wind, for example). As we switch to cleaner sources of energy, the benefits get even greater. There are also concerns about what happens to those batteries at end of life, but Tesla was already recycling its batteries by 2016, and as more people buy EVs, recycling will get better. For a quick comparison on EVs vs. hybrids vs. combustion-engine cars, here’s a Carbon Brief chart using data from the International Council for Clean Transportation:
Of course EVs still aren’t cheap and won’t be possible for everyone. Federal and provincial government rebates are available — be sure to check both. (Ontario offered a $14,000 rebate until one Doug Ford cancelled it and sales of EVs plummeted.) If you do buy an EV or hybrid, it’s also important to remember that the energy you use still has an impact, so don’t use your green car as an excuse to drive more — the other strategies here still apply.
Keep it tuned up.
Small changes to car maintenance can add up to big improvements in mileage:
Tires inflated correctly can get you another 2 to 8%
Being properly tuned up can mean another 4%
Using the recommended oil weight can get you another 2%.
That’s up to 10% more mileage, which with the price of gas, is no small thing.
Leave the car at home.
I’ve saved the best for last. There are many ways to get around that don’t require getting behind the wheel, including walking, cycling (which I devoted a whole newsy to), and taking public transit. Those first two are also good for you, free, and will make you happier. I know public transit seems a bit scary right now, but it won’t always be, and if everyone gets in cars as society reopens, we’re headed for worse traffic and pollution than ever. Even if you skip the car for one in every five trips, that’s still a win to be proud of.
You might be wondering how that extra lane helped traffic on L.A.’s 405. Well, turns out spending $1.3 billion made the average commute one minute longer. Humes concludes, “Call it the Field of Dreams syndrome: if you build it, the cars will come. Traffic abhors a vacuum.”
So let’s instead use that Field of Dreams principle for good: build robust public transit (buses are the cheapest and especially effective if they get devoted lanes), high-speed rail, and improve cycling and walking infrastructure. If you build it, they might leave their cars at home. Right now, some cities like Milan are using this coronavirus disruption to accelerate plans to expand walking and cycling infrastructure. It’s hella inspiring: safer, greener streets that put people and the planet first.
Want to shrink your carbon footprint? Driving less will have a major impact.
To drive as little as possible, try telecommuting, carpooling, taking transit, or get there on human power.
If you’re buying a new car, an electric vehicle has the lowest overall impact (though also the highest price tag). Otherwise, look at gas mileage, buy small, and consider used.
Try driving in off-peak hours and drive responsibly for big fuel savings.
Support expanding transit, bike lanes, and sidewalks. Expanding car infrastructure doesn’t make driving more efficient; it slows traffic and accelerates the climate crisis.
Wins of the Week
“Focus on the next right thing.” — “An Unlikely Superpower” on Invisibilia
I’m banging my pots and pans to celebrate:
Jordan, who is embracing the Guppy Friend and dryer balls.
Crissy, who is fermenting her own apple scrap vinegar.
Sarah Joy, who got her landlord’s permission to plant veggies on her front lawn and placed a sign in her window offering tomato seedlings and seeds to her neighbours.
Keep up the great work, green gang. And please tell me about it! In a world where so much is challenging, we need to keep celebrating the good.