Automobiles Are a Bargain

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An anti-automobile group called the Surface Transportation Policy Project (STPP) recently charged that the high cost of driving threatens the American dream for working families. People would be better off, the group claimed, if we invested more in transit and less in highways.

I would rather ride a bicycle or take the train than drive any day, so I would be attracted to STPP’s ideas — if they worked. But the group’s claims about driving costs are wrong, and its urban transportation goals will only make cities more congested, more expensive, and less livable.


STPP claims that transportation is costing an increasing share of American family incomes, and it blames this on the increasing cost of driving. But data published by the U.S. Department of Commerce tell a different story.

In 1950, says the department’s Bureau of Economic Analysis (, auto driving consumed 9.8 percent of the average American’s personal income. At that time, Americans drove an average of about 3,000 miles a year. Today, the average American drives almost 10,000 miles a year, yet spends only 8.5 percent of his or her personal income on autos and driving.

Of course, we spend more dollars on cars, but we get a lot more too. Thanks in part to our increased automobility, average incomes have more than tripled since 1950 even after adjusting for inflation. Cars get us to higher-paying jobs than we could reach by transit. Employers pay more because cars give them access to more highly skilled workers. Cars also give us lower-cost consumer goods; without cars, stores like Wal-Mart, Costco, and Safeway couldn’t exist.

STPP says transit is better than driving because the average auto commuter spends $1,280 a year on commuting while the average transit commuter spends only $765. What they don’t mention is that auto commutes tend to cover greater distances than transit commutes. Given equal distances to work, cars cost little, if any, more than transit.

More important, STPP ignores the huge subsidies that support transit. Nationally, for every dollar transit riders pay in fares, taxpayers pay an average of nearly $3 more. Factor in this cost, and that $765 a year becomes $3,000 a year.

Admittedly, roads are subsidized too. But most road costs are paid out of gas taxes and other user fees, and the remaining subsidies are tiny relative to transit. In 2001, subsidies for highways, roads, and streets averaged just 0.3 cents per auto passenger mile. By comparison, subsidies to transit averaged more than 50 cents per passenger mile, or 150 times more.

STPP wants you to believe that America once enjoyed a Golden Age of transit, when everyone was as mobile as we are today, but by streetcars and commuter trains. If we only spent more money on transit, STPP urges, we can have that Golden Age again.

This Golden Age never existed. In 1920, when America’s cities had the world’s most extensive network of streetcars, the average American traveled just 1,000 miles a year by transit. This is less than 10 percent of the travel we do today by car.

Transportation expert Wendell Cox estimates that it would cost 110 percent of a region’s personal income to build and operate a rail system competitive with the automobile. By “competitive,” he meant transit that could connect any two points in an urban area in no more than 50 percent more time than it would take to drive. A bus system competitive with the auto would cost 22 percent of the region’s personal income.

In this light, spending 8.5 percent of our personal incomes on cars is a real bargain. Automobiles don’t threaten the American dream; they make it possible.

We need efficient transit systems for people who can’t drive, but the sort of transit STPP wants — expensive rail transit aimed at attracting a few people out of their cars — doesn’t work. STPP’s ideas are especially harmful to poor people, who tend to live in the most congested areas and see automobility as their best hope for getting out of poverty.

Automobiles give us higher-paying jobs, lower-cost consumer goods, rapid-response medical care, access to distant friends and relatives, and all sorts of recreation opportunities. STPP’s prescription for urban areas would stifle these advantages by building rail lines that few people use while letting the highways become increasingly gridlocked. That’s a prescription we can’t afford.

”’Randal O’Toole is the director of the American Dream Coalition. See its Web site at:”’ ”’He can be reached via email at:”’ ”’The Thoreau Institute is located in Bandon, Oregon. See its Web site at:”’