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Driving is far more expensive than most realize, and the government funds most of it

Harvard students have calculated the price of keeping cars running in Massachusetts: about $64.1 billion dollars annually, and more than half is paid by public funds. Per household, $14K is spent by the government and $12K is spent on personal car expenses every year.

You can read Harvard’s report about it here.

We tend to associate car transportation with individualism and low public cost. People assume that the price of other transportation options is why they can’t compete with cars. But this only holds if transportation is a real market, and if our enormous car infrastructure exists for free.

Once you factor in the massive amount of land that the government must consume (usually acquired from individuals) to fit ever-widening roads, the “free” parking lots that the government either provides or forces private businesses to provide, the nonstop construction and maintenance, the traffic policing, and the fact that every driver is only permitted on the road with a government license, then the costs quickly add up. This doesn’t even include the stress that our car infrastructure causes on public health, climate, or social fabric. Once you erase those from the equation, then cars seem cheap indeed.

But the real budget shows why we let cars dominate our communities: their massive government investment. If the government pays you $14K to drive and you only have to pay $12K personally, then it seems like you’re getting a great deal. If you choose to walk or bike, then you’re missing out that $14K of benefits. Sure, we can’t see the price tags directly, but we still love the “free” parking lots, widened lanes, law enforcement, and all of the other things we take for granted when we drive around. Without any of those seemingly-free services, a lot more people would be walking.

The Harvard study only looked at Massachusetts, but its authors hope that people can recreate it in other states as well.

In an era where every public agency has its budget scrutinized, our transportation system has so far evaded mainstream criticism. We need to better publicize the real monetary costs it imposes on the public, and we need more leaders willing to challenge it.