It’s often argued that the only way Americans will drive less is if driving becomes more expensive, through something like higher taxes or rising oil prices. A pointed blog post this week by David Levinson, a transportation systems expert at the University of Minnesota, suggests an even more straightforward approach: Show people that driving already costs a lot more than they realize.
Levinson begins with the fact that in Minneapolis, the car sharing company car2go charges $.38 a minute. That seems like a lot if you think of the cost of operating your own car as merely the cost of gasoline—at current prices that’s about $.05-$.10 per minute. Of course, you’re also on the hook for the purchase price of your car, plus insurance, taxes, and maintenance. Levinson tallies those costs and estimates the true out-of-pocket cost of driving is around $.235 per minute. He goes one step further and figures that when you add in the costs of driving-related externalites like noise, pollution, and traffic—costs that are ultimately shouldered by society as a whole, rather than any one person directly—driving costs $.34 per minute.
At that rate, the decision to hop in the car starts to look a little diffrent. The “true cost” of a 25-minute drive to mall comes to around $8.50, and another $8.50 the other way. That’s $17 for a trip to Best Buy.
Levinson wonders how much less people would drive if they took this all-in view. We know that when the price of gasoline doubles, people tend to drive about 5 percent less. If suddenly you revealed that each driving trip has been costing almost six-times what we thought it did, Levinson estimates we’d all cut our driving by 29 percent, nearly overnight.
Or maybe we wouldn’t. For one, it’s probably not fair to assume people are completely oblivious to the non-fuel costs of driving—we might not think about our monthly car payments every time we take a trip to the store, but that cost certainly factors into our decision to own a car in the first place. And second, as Levinson allows, there’s some amount of driving we’d do almost regardless of how much it costs. This isn’t to say that higher fuel taxes wouldn’t push people toward mass transit (they almost certainly would). The lesson might be, as Levinson suggests, that “pay-as-you-go” driving would reduce our use of cars—but it might equally be that driving is deeply embedded in our culture and our daily routines, and Americans are willing to pay seemingly irrational amounts of money to keep it that way.Kevin Hartnett is a writer in South Carolina. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.