July 31, 2022

Last day of of a hugely hectic month. I’d rather be writing… or sailing. I’ve had precious little time to do either this summer.

Slower Traffic will be back in August with new content. Stay safe out there, everyone. Slow down, be ever alert for the possibility of a bicyclist around the next curve, get out of the car and walk, use public transportation when you can, and enjoy life.


Use What’s Already Here

One thing I haven’t done in the 21st Century is finance a car.  My Ford Aerostar van was already paid off when I hauled two kids, a dog, a cat, and a U-Haul trailer from California to Maine in 1999, and moved back to the state where I grew up. There was one more vehicle: a piece of junk I bought from my son when he went to college and for which I handed him $600 in cash. For my six hundred bucks I got about three months of driving. That was in 2006; I haven’t owned a car since.

Thus I have no personal experience with what it costs to buy and keep a car today. I suffered a bit of vicarious sticker shock recently when I picked up the AAA Explorer magazine and read an article about car loans.

Apparently, there’s something called the 20/4/10 rule. Make a 20% down payment, pay off the loan in four years, and keep the cost of payments and other car expenses below 10% of your monthly household income.

According to the article, the average price of a new vehicle is now north of $47,000. Part of this is because Americans love to drive big pickup trucks and SUVs even as they complain about the cost of the gas they guzzle. Financing a $47,000 vehicle by the 20/4/10 guidelines would mean a down payment of $9,400 and a monthly car payment of $846 at 3.85% interest for 48 months.*

Yikes. Several years ago, AAA estimated the average annual cost of owning a car at $9,000 per year. It has surely gone up since then, as these numbers would seem to indicate. Giving up car ownership is like earning a $10,000 raise. So why aren’t more people doing it?

“I couldn’t live without my car.” You will hear variations on this theme whenever you present the idea that car ownership is a choice, not a requirement. “How will I shop for groceries, or take my dog to the vet, or get my guitars and amps from home to gig and home again? How will I get to work? What if one of my kids gets sick, or my aging parents have an emergency?” All these and more are valid concerns for individual car owners who have bought into a car-dependent life. It’s not a question of money; it’s a feeling that there are no alternatives.

But when you peel back the assumptions underlying our mass car culture, you begin to realize that it doesn’t have to be this way. We don’t all need cars all the time. Why can’t cars be time-shared, like condominiums? Why do veterinarians have to set up practice on the outskirts of town? Why can’t employers incentivize carpooling and the use of public transportation? Why can’t we use the gas tax to finance more buses and bus drivers? Why can’t we build walkable, interconnected communities instead of strip malls, suburbs, and parking lots?

Maine is rural, and rural residents balk at paying taxes for public transportation they don’t use. But city taxpayers finance roads so that rural commuters can drive thirty or more miles to work. 

Yes, Maine needs more public transportation. But the political problem is that the majority of Maine voters don’t use it. That’s why it’s important to use what’s already here, even if it’s inadequate. Think of your car as a last, not first, choice. Go to that Sea Dogs game by Concord Coach bus and skip the parking. Use their once-a-day coastal bus service to attend one of the many summer events in the Rockland area. Take the Community Connector to work, especially if your employer incentivizes it, as mine does.

There is a huge groundswell of people who want to throw off the yoke of car payments and car ownership. But many of them feel trapped by the infrastructure we’ve created that caters to the automobile rather than the human beings who, often reluctantly, drive them.

By establishing that people will use public transportation even when it’s difficult, we can demonstrate the demand that will make it easier in the future.

* – All figures are from Drive Smart: The Perils of Protracted Loans, by Peter Bohr, AAA Explorer, page 10, July/August/September 2022 issue.

The High Cost of Cheap Gas

I have to come clean about all the driving I’ve been doing. Personal matters have necessitated several targeted trips, and an ongoing relationship with the rental car company. And while I haven’t left Maine since returning from Bulgaria three years ago, it’s a big state, and without a car it can be difficult to get there from here.

Every year I rent a car maybe half a dozen times. This year I’m likely to double that. It’s still cheaper than owning one. The break-even point is at about 75 days. 

So yes, I’ve noticed the gas prices. I’ve paid them. I’ve winced at the pump when the cost to fill the rental car comes out close to the rental itself. And I remain thankful that I don’t use a car to commute to a job, or to run small errands, and that I live in a place where car ownership is not the necessity most Americans think it is.

Everybody likes to blame politicians for gas prices. Even people with environmental bumper stickers on their hybrids are going to take a financial hit if they live out in the country and drive more than 20 miles to and from work. But as I careened down Interstate 95 at more than seventy miles an hour, with other humans whizzing past me in their own isolation chambers every few minutes, I reflected that the price of fuel is but a skim of oil on the surface of a deeper problem.

The interstate highway system was born the year before I was, with the stroke of a pen by President Dwight D. Eisenhower. Funded almost entirely by taxpayers, the Federal-Aid Highway Act was a massive subsidy to the automobile and truck industries. It spawned suburbs, shopping malls, and bedroom communities miles from centers of employment. Cheap gas and postwar prosperity brought two cars in the driveway, cars as graduation presents, and the expectation of a lifetime of car ownership.

Sixty years on, many of us are locked into lives that depend on our ability to get to destinations quickly, sometimes on short notice. Some of us drive great distances to work; others juggle busy schedules punctuated with drive-through breakfast and banking, and grocery stores far from home surrounded by parking lots. Whatever your situation, if you depend on your car on a daily basis, you are at the mercy of gas prices. You have to pay them. No one likes feeling helpless.

The last time gas prices spiked, in 2008, Americans looked for alternatives. Public transportation saw a significant increase in ridership. That’s the way it’s supposed to work, right? If the bus fare is competitive with the price of gas, you get to vote with your dollars. But this time around, we had the pandemic. People withdrew into their cars and drove faster and more dangerously – with bad results for bicyclists and pedestrians.

Public transportation is the future, though, and if the high cost of gas spurs a few more Americans to give up their cars, then I can live with it. As I’ve noted in previous posts, American gas prices are lower than in most of the world. We should be paying more – gas taxes are at a historic low. I’ll pay six bucks a gallon to fill up my rental car if some of the money is invested in public transit. I think a lot of us want to live less car-dependent lives. People just need a little encouragement. 

Still, it’s painful in the short term for those who have little choice but to drive. I sympathize. I’ve been there. But the problem isn’t the cost of gas. It’s the cost of our automotive lifestyle.

Note: I cribbed the title of this post from The High Cost of Free Parking, a book by UCLA economist Donald Shoup. He argues that subsidized parking encourages more parking lots, which encourages zoning friendly to cars and hostile to pedestrians. This is a gross oversimplification, but you get the picture. By keeping gas prices artificially low, we have created a car-dependent culture, and escaping from it is like trying to escape from Alcatraz.