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Salon misunderstands report, comes away with cars having $1M price tag

Salon reports this week [1] that the lifetime cost of having a car can be as much as $1 million. But this is not so – this is the price of a transport system, perhaps.

That is, we have not found a reason to give up cars and design a truly integrated public transport system instead. We’ve found the cost of living life with our being able to move around which is a rather different thing.

The Salon piece [1]is based on a report – OK, a peer-reviewed scientific paper – in Ecological Economics [2]. There’s nothing “wrong” with that paper as long as the assumptions being made are understood.

A lot of what they say is entirely true. There are costs to other people of our having a car. It is necessary to build parking spaces, roads. There’s pollution to think of, the costs of accidents, congestion and so on. Other people do pay some of the costs of our having a car – society in general does. Just as we who have cars pay some of the costs of other people having cars of course.

Where the analysis goes wrong is in putting all of these costs onto “the car”. Far too many people want to get us out of our own, personal, mobile machines and into something public, societal. Light rail, Amtrak, or even something very much more personal like on a bicycle or our own two feet. The problem comes when people misstate the costs of one or other of these alternatives.

For a large number of these costs aren’t in fact costs of having cars. Take accidents for example – yes, this is one of the costs explained. If we all rode Harleys rather than drove cars, we might use less gasoline – well, with a Harley, maybe – but we’d pretty certainly have a higher accident bill. With congestion, if anyone really believes that light rail produces less of that then they’ve never been to the Big City. Less air pollution, well, when was the last time you were behind a bus pulling away from the lights?

What the paper does is put all of the costs of “transport” onto the one variation of transport, “cars”. That’s about what we’d expect from ecological economists but it’s not actually good economics. The costs of cars are the costs that are purely and specifically to do with cars, not transport more generally.

Salon is that news source for the committed and progressive left. It ranks near the top 70 for law and government sites for the U.S. and gains some 8 million visits a month. Within that progressive Left, it’s an influential source. All of which makes the hope that it will get its reporting right more important.

It is true that there are costs to us and everyone else having cars. It’s also true that there are costs to having a transport system at all. Good reporting would pull out those differences and inform us all.