Sustainable Commuting

The True Costs of Commuting by Car

The second piece in the series about sustainable concerns around commuter mobility, taking a closer look at the full spectrum of what it costs to commute everyday.

August 2, 2022

As of 2022, 76% of American commuters get to and from work in their own cars, making it by far the dominant commute mode. Car commuting overwhelms other modes for a multitude of reasons, but one of the key factors behind our continued reliance on SOVs is that its true costs are often either obscured to drivers themselves or borne by others. In this next post in our series on sustainable commuting, we take a look at the true costs of car commuting - looking beyond what’s paid at the pump to consider the environmental, psychological, social, and additional financial costs associated with driving alone to work. 

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The American commute is dominated by cars. Alternatives to single occupancy vehicles have become more popular since 2019, but cars still overwhelm any other mode by an enormous margin. As of 2022, 76% of American commuters get to and from work in their own cars, while only 11% of commuters use public transit and 10% bike. The price of fuel is the first thing to come to mind when thinking about how much it costs to drive, but the full spectrum of costs incurred by car commuting is actually much higher. We tend to underestimate the true costs of car ownership and use – first, because many of the costs are incurred over time, making them less immediately apparent than operating costs like fuel, and second; because a significant share of the costs are indirect, social costs. Capturing a complete picture of what we’re actually paying to drive rather than commuting via alternative mode is the first step to empowering employees to leave their cars at home. 

Costs to the driver

The first and most obvious cost of car commuting is the financial burden of car ownership and use to the individual driver. Purchasing a car alone is an enormous upfront cost- the average down payment on a new car in 2022 is $6,000, with monthly payments over $600 a month. Add to that depreciation, loan interest, vehicle maintenance, and fuel, AAA estimates that a vehicle driven 1500 miles a year costs over $800 per month or $9,600 a year. The US Department of Labor’s Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates the even higher annual figure of $10,742 to own and operate a car. These numbers don’t even include the cost of parking, which averages about $3,000 per year

Beyond these considerable financial costs, drivers are burdened with high physical and mental health costs. Car journeys are subject to a high degree of unpredictability due to traffic jams, construction, bad weather, etc. Unpredictable journeys make drivers feel out of control and heighten stress. Live data from drivers showed higher heart rates, blood pressure, and anxiety. Research even shows that driving leads to negative interpersonal relationships - higher rates of driving were associated with lower tolerance for others in the immediate environment. Car commuters also experience higher body mass index compared to those who commute by walking, cycling, or even on public transit. More driving is correlated with more sick days and visits to the hospital. 

Costs to the employer

Employers suffer when their employees commute to work by car, too. Car commuting is linked to more lost work days, late arrivals, higher employee turnover, and decreased job satisfaction. Employers also tend to shoulder the cost of parking. Whether they own their own lots or lease, the price per parking space is considerable: basic surface parking spaces cost between $5,000 - $10,000 to build, while structured parking costs between $25,000 and $50,000 to build. Average monthly parking rates in a city cost from $250 in a place like Washington, DC., to a whopping $770 in New York. 

Costs to the community

Even with the steep price of car use and ownership outlined above, drivers don’t even come close to paying for the full costs of driving. Society as a whole shoulders the majority of the costs of road construction and maintenance, and tolls and gas costs are severely underpriced. A 2015 report titled “Who Pays for Roads?” succinctly lays out the way the costs of driving are distributed among drivers and non-drivers alike:

“Aside from gas taxes and individuals’ expenditures for their own driving, U.S. households bear on average an additional burden of more than $1,100 per year in taxes and other costs imposed by driving. Including:

These costs represent significant subsidies to car owners and users from society and further highlight the fact that, even with its high cost, drivers do not pay the full cost of driving. There are also costs that go beyond transportation: Nearly universal off-street parking requirements drive up the price of commercial and residential development for everyone. 

Perhaps the most grave social cost incurred by driving is the toll it takes on our environment. Transportation accounts for 29% of total greenhouse gas emissions in the US, making it the largest single-source GHG contributor. Between 1990 and 2020, GHG emissions from transportation grew more than any other sector. GHGs are driving global climate change, and degrade air quality. Air pollution, which is caused overwhelmingly by fossil fuel combustion from road vehicles, undermines public health and is the primary environmental cause of premature death. Exposure to air pollution from cars is associated with a wide range of human health effects including respiratory illnesses, asthma, heart and lung diseases, and these effects are greatest among children and vulnerable populations. 

Conclusion

Promoting alternative commuting has widespread benefits from the individual level to the community as a whole. Reducing the need to drive to work allows developers to devote less space to parking, resulting in more efficient land use. It allows us to devote space to human-centered uses–bike lanes, parks, pedestrian walkways, plazas–that make cities more liveable, safe, and sustainable. Empowering commuters to leave their cars at home creates demand for public transit, carpooling, micromobility, and active modes. And fewer cars on the road means less traffic and better air quality for everyone. 

Alternative mobility is rapidly becoming a part of modern workplace culture. By creating opportunities for commuters to take advantage of active or shared mobility options, employers not only save money but they also make an enduring investment in their communities. 

Schedule a demo with us today to learn more about how you can promote smarter, more sustainable, and ultimately more cost effective commuting options with Fleet.

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