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NESTOR RAMOS

The Massachusetts car economy is costing us $64 billion a year, and we barely notice it

A new report from the Harvard Kennedy School reveals what car culture costs us all.

An aerial view of morning traffic during morning rush hour on Route 93 northbound in Boston, Mass.
An aerial view of morning traffic during morning rush hour on Route 93 northbound in Boston, Mass.David L. Ryan/Globe Staff

It’s Thursday morning, and millions of cars are parked in millions of driveways all over Massachusetts, gassed up and ready for their daily commutes. Car payments, insurance, E-ZPass and gas: These are the kinds of things most of us think about when we consider the cost of driving.

But the real price Massachusetts pays for its vehicle economy is much, much higher. Now, thanks to an ambitious research project by a team of graduate students at the Harvard Kennedy School, we have an idea of just how high: $64.1 billion a year.

That astronomical estimate includes all the things we don’t often think about when we get into our cars — costs that extend far beyond what we pay at the dealership or the pump. And the biggest slice of that giant pie gets paid for before anybody actually signs a lease or gets behind the wheel.

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So many of the expenses associated with cars and roads are borne by the public that the average family in Massachusetts is on the hook for about $14,000 a year, whether they own a car or not, the study found. For those who do own vehicles, the average annual costs nearly double.

“We never talk about the costs of driving,” said Rep. Seth Moulton, who suggested the study to Linda Bilmes, the Kennedy School public policy professor who oversaw the work. “We always talk about subsidies that go to railway passengers, but never the subsidies that go to drivers. ... We are subsidizing the least efficient way to get around."

The average family in Massachusetts is on the hook for about $14,000 a year, whether they own a car or not, the study found.

The costs we all bear include everything from the maintenance of road surfaces across Massachusetts ($1.4 billion) and the estimated annual value of the land we’ve paved for roads and parking ($8.7 billion) to the indirect but very real costs of productivity lost due to time sitting in traffic ($4.6 billion) and as a result of injuries and deaths on the road ($10.5 billion).

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Once you know where to look, you see the cost of the motor vehicle economy everywhere,” said Stevie Olson, the lead author of the study and a graduate student studying public policy at the Kennedy School. “Often times we’re presented with the high costs for infrastructure for public transit but we never consider the true cost of operating the road infrastructure.”

Indeed, when we talk about the T and the sorry state of our public transit system, we often talk in dollars, whether that’s billions for a rail link between North and South Stations or a $50 million cash infusion in the wake of the latest safety report. At the highest levels of state government, we come back again and again to the levels at which taxpayers subsidize transit.

But when we talk about state highways and city streets, that calculus gets much more complicated, the various costs so entrenched and diffuse that they are practically invisible. Beyond the portion we pay for directly at the pump, the roads sometimes seem free.

But they aren’t free — far from it.

“You may not pay a tax that covers the pollution from your car, but people that are breathing that in and people that are getting asthma and other related afflictions end up at the doctor. Someone is paying for that,” Olson said. “If you take the T to Stop and Shop, you’re still having to pay for that business to upkeep its parking lot. Those costs are embedded in consumer products.”

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When was the last time you considered how much extra your home cost because of the land value of the driveway? How about what could have been done with all the valuable land that has been given over to storing cars overnight?

“The amount of land committed to roads and parking is enormous, and it’s something that we take for granted. All that land could be something else," Olson said.

Moulton has long advocated for high speed regional rail in Massachusetts, but the study does not compare cars to transit, or advocate for any particular way forward. Instead, it provides an important and often missing piece of the ongoing discussion about how Massachusetts can grapple with a transportation system in crisis.

It is too easy when we talk about expensive new transit projects to consider them in vacuum, as if the cost of doing nothing is, well, nothing. But the status quo isn’t free by a long shot — it’s costing us billions of dollars and hundreds of lives every year. When a report on the MBTA’s dubious approach to safety was unveiled this week, the public was understandably aghast to learn that, in the words of the report, “financial considerations take precedence over operational performance and safety.”

Clearly, the T must address the shortcomings detailed in the report. After all, imagine if someone was killed because the T wasn’t safe.

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OK, now imagine if someone was killed every day.

But you don’t have to imagine: That’s what happens on our roads, where 360 traffic fatalities occurred in Massachusetts in 2018 according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. The costs associated with all that death and destruction don’t usually show up on balance sheets, but we all pay them nonetheless. That’s just part of the price of the $64 billion status quo.

That’s the big blank space in our critical regional conversation about transportation that the study begins to fill in. Maybe even when all the real costs are considered, we’ll still think it’s worth it when we walk out to our cars. But at least we’ll be thinking about it honestly.





Nestor Ramos can be reached at nestor.ramos@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @NestorARamos.