Owning a car doesn't cost the average person $9,000 a year

Every year, the auto club AAA releases a study titled " Your Driving Costs" that--you guessed it--calculates the average cost of driving for various vehicle types. And every year, urbanists and other transit, walking, and bicycling advocates point to it as evidence of how expensive it really is to own a car. This year, for the first time, that average yearly cost exceeded $9,000.

The problem with this, as anyone who's ever simultaneously owned a car and earned less than $80,000 a year can tell you, is that it's completely untrue.

Owning and operating a car is indeed an expensive venture, but for the average person $9,000 per year is a pretty wild exaggeration, and for most of us the truth of that is obvious. Sharing this study without appropriate qualification is irresponsible, and especially so for those of us working toward a healthier, safer, more efficient and less restrictive transportation system. When car owners are told what they may perceive to be a lie about the cost of their driving, they're not likely to be receptive to any of your other arguments.

Before I stopped driving I owned a 1995 Toyota Camry for about five years. It cost me $5,000 to buy and I ended up running it into the ground before its time, but even with fuel, maintenance, insurance, and everything else the annualized cost of ownership couldn't have exceeded $4,000--and that was a lot of money for me at the time! (Actually, it'd be a lot now, too.) It didn't come anywhere close to the AAA "average" though. And, in fact, even the average fully-employed adult doesn't spend so much.

AAA's annual study [PDF] is widely reported on every year, by organizations ranging from transit advocates, to local government, to the AARP, to CNN. Given its automobile-oriented mission, it's taken for granted that AAA is not going to misrepresent the truth by artificially inflating vehicle ownership costs. The report itself even says that their goal is to "promote the interests of motorists and travelers." So what's the deal?

 Cost estimates from AAA's "Your Driving Costs"

Cost estimates from AAA's "Your Driving Costs"

One possibility is just poor modeling. The study calculates the cost over five years, assuming the owner is driving 15,000 miles per year. Implicit in the study is the assumption that the average driver is buying a new car every five years. In reality, new-car owners hold onto their cars for closer to six years, and those cars aren't usually headed to the junkyard after the first owner is done with it--the average age of vehicles on the road is roughly 11 years. Over the next five years, the auto industry is also only expected to sell about 70 million cars to more than 200 million drivers. Used cars still rule the road, but they're being entirely overlooked in this report.

The study assumes that these cars are being paid off in five years, which is pretty typical. It completely fails to account for any of the years afterward, however, when the car owner is no longer making car payments (and the rate of depreciation has decreased). It's possible that AAA is really only interested in calculating the driving costs for people who purchase new cars every five years, but it's not clear why they'd desire such a narrow focus, and even if they do it's their responsibility to better communicate that fact. Mainstream news outlets aren't going to do the work for them, unfortunately.

Another, more charitable answer to this is that AAA is being selective about who they include in the study. Discussing their report's methodology (which is proprietary) they note: "It incorporates standardized criteria designed to model the average AAA member's use of a vehicle for personal transportation over five years and 75,000 miles of ownership." [emphasis mine] AAA has about 53 million members, and its likely that their members are somewhat more affluent than the average car owners, so it's possible that among AAA members average yearly costs really are around $9,000. The study limits itself to mid-priced vehicles like the Ford Fusion, Toyota Camry, and Honda Civic though, so this seems doubtful.

 "What about me?"--Tesla Roadster, From TopSpeed.com

"What about me?"--Tesla Roadster, From TopSpeed.com

As to why this matters, I've already noted that this is argument is a huge turn-off for those who drive older cars (just look at the comments section of any articles discussing the study). It's actually worse than that though: some families really are spending $9,000 or more per vehicle every year, but the type of person earning enough to buy a new car every five years is the last person you're going to convince to get rid of their car for economic reasons. For the most part, people who burn through cars that quickly are not hurting for money. The people who might actually be swayed by concerns about their transportation spending are exactly those for whom this number is least accurate.

Just to grind this point into the dirt, 15,000 miles a year is a lot of driving. If you drive that much, there's a good chance you live pretty far away from all you do: work, go to the movies, shop for groceries, visit friends, etc. The easiest and most likely car-to-transit convert is someone who lives closer-in, nearer to city centers where transit, bicycling, and walking access is much better. So again, if you want to focus on those people the 15,000 mile estimate (and associated costs) is probably way too high.

I've written about the impact of transportation costs on peoples' lives and think it's incredibly important that every car owner understands the true, full cost of driving. The way to do that, however, is not to offer a one-size-fits-all number, especially one that doesn't even fit anyone. If asked to calculate how much they spend on driving, including the cost of purchasing their car, maintenance, and all the rest, people are perfectly capable of doing so. The problem is that not enough people are being asked, or asking it of themselves.

Whatever the cost is for the individual, the question then is whether the freedom of movement they get from owning a car is worth that amount. Is that freedom worth $4,000 a year to you, even in light of the health, safety, and environmental benefits of more active forms of transportation (assuming those things matter to you)? How about $6,000? Even if $6k a year could buy you a home worth $100k+ more than your current one, or pay off your loan ten years early? These are questions that can really change a family's thinking on transportation. Starting off that discussion with what amounts to a lie can shut that conversation down before it's even begun, so we need to be careful when communicating costs to those who know them best.