The Cost of the Car was written with reference mainly to Britain, although almost all the arguments presented would apply equally to any part of the rich world. While I would dearly like to compose a US edition, this is unlikely, given other commitments. (If anyone out there is interested in doing so then please leave comment below, or get in touch with the publisher.)
I can, however, recommend a report published back in 1992 by the World Resources Institute, named The Going Rate: What it Really Costs to Drive, by James Mackenzie, Roger Dower, and Donald Chen. If you want the kind of ammunition for the US that my book contains about the UK then it’s here, though now a little dated.
What I find most interesting is that you folk on the other side of the ‘pond’ suffer almost exactly the same blight, with the very same origin, but via a somewhat different route. In the US, almost infinite space, and absurdly liberal property law, allows sprawl to… well, sprawl… over a vastly greater area. The combination of distance and congestion results in an unreasonable amount of time spent behind the wheel (consuming energy, emitting carbon, denying more efficient and faster shared transport, etc.). On this side, it’s just congestion, but to the same effect.
Some things are much worse over there, however. You are around three times more likely to be killed in, or by, a car. Granting a driving licence at age 16, rather than 17, together with far wider access to, and need for, a vehicle, comes at a considerable cost. (Over 40% of teenagers have at least one serious accident.) You drive approximately twice the mileage driven anywhere in Europe, and you do so in cars that are only half as efficient. As a result, you are far more dependent upon foreign oil.
While there has recently been some improvement in fuel efficiency (due to a larger proportion of imported cars, and a belated response to increasing gasoline price), the trend in mileage is inexorably upwards (almost doubling every twenty years.)
Aside from chronic congestion, we share the myth that the car represents private transport. The WRI report contains enough facts and figures to annihilate any such belief regarding the US. The road network there, as here, has been paid for almost 100% by the State. Since it’s almost always free at point of use, what can we expect but long queues?
But there is another example here of the same problem via a different route. In the US, there is always space to build yet another “relief road”, to ease congestion. If you tried that here, you’d bang right into the neighbouring town (or the sprawl around it). As I make clear in my book, such roads are no solution. By Downs’ Law, they will simply induce additional traffic and fill up. Sadly, this leaves you somewhat deeper in the… mire… and with bloated taxes to boot.
One of the things that has always astonished me is the way so many people can be so two-faced about the market. Here (and perhaps over there also) farmers would ceremonially hang their family rather than vote anything but Conservative — a party which exists to champion the (unregulated) free market. And yet they would hang their local MP if he raised the slightest question over agricultural subsidy and bail-out. Similarly, the road lobby is strongly identified with the same ideology, and yet threatens to shut down the economy almost at the mention of any direct charge for road use. Yet, without market tolls, there will always be congestion. It’s a simple matter of supply and demand.
The WRI report includes useful (and frightening) figures for the cost of US congestion, which appear a bit lower than ours, but this may be due to the continuous addition of temporary relief. If that is so, then it represents merely a transfer from the congestion bill to the tax one.
One red herring is the idea of a fuel tax. We have that here and it makes not a halfpenny-worth of difference, though it does attribute taxation where it is due, to meet some of the costs of roads and road use. Accounting for the fact that things are closer together here, we use cars every bit as much with a heavy fuel tax, as you do without one.
The ultimate answer to excessive car and road dependence is to offer people an alternative habitat where they can walk, cycle, or take a tram or train, to make their trips. As I make clear in my book, this can be offered without denying any freedom to use the car. It’s about adding liberty, not taking it away. If there’s one thing we Euros admire about you lot, it’s your love of liberty. We’re used to rather less of it, and seem to accept any abuse with a shrug. It’s my hope you guys will show the way.
Of course, you have a problem. If the road is sacred to the holy car here, it’s quadruply so over there. (I’m surprised it hasn’t replace that eagle on the bank notes.)
I wish you luck.