Automobile Poverty - Part 1

small, poorly-built home with five cars parked in front, apparently because every member of the family must own a car to survive

   A substantial number of Americans will soon be forced to live in poverty conditions because they live in sprawl, and this number will expand as fuel costs continue to rise even more. Here’s why:

Direct Costs

   The average cost of owning and maintaining a car (payments or lease, insurance, taxes, repairs, washing, oil, gas, parking, etc.) varies between $7,000 and $10,000 per year, depending on where you live. My auto insurance quadrupled, for example, when I moved to Miami where there are more wrecks. Fortunately, we were able to get rid of our second car because South Beach is so walkable, so that helped a lot. But in most places, that’s not possible.

Huntsville, Alabama traffic jam

   If you live in sprawl, you are not economically viable without a car because you must drive everywhere. And your kids aren’t socially viable without one, either, so as soon as they turn 16, expect them to be clamoring for their first car. This means that a family of four with everyone 16 or above most likely has 4 cars.

Cars vs. Houses

cars and trailers in Huntsville, Alabama

   If you’re frugal and stay near the bottom of the range of total car costs, then that’s still 4 x $7,000 = $28,000 per year for your cars! Today, if you’re able to get a mortgage on a house, converting that $28,000 per year to home mortgage payments would buy you a house worth at least $350,000. So a family of four which owns a $150,000 house in sprawl (it’s hard to find one less expensive than that in the sprawl of most markets) could afford a $500,000 house in a highly walkable place where they need no car, all other things being equal.

From Car-Free to Homeless

nearly-empty parking lot at Huntsville, Alabama power center

   Going the other direction, a family of four which owns a $350,000 house in a highly walkable place where they need no cars would suddenly find themselves homeless if they moved into sprawl where everyone needs a car! But at least they could live in those cars, right?

   Here’s another way of looking at it: the poverty line is just over $22,000 for a family of four in the 48 contiguous US states. That family of four living in poverty in a highly walkable place would suddenly have to make over twice as much money to maintain their poverty-ridden standard of living if they decided to move out into sprawl. What a burden sprawl really is!

When Gas Goes Up

inhospitable sidewalk between arterial thoroughfare and parking lot on sweltering summer afternoon in Huntsville, Alabama

   Here’s one more direct cost to consider: what happens when the cost of gas goes way up? 2-1/2 billion people are now moving into the city in China and India (and many millions are doing the same in other populous countries as well.) Here in the US, we have a little more than one car per person, not counting work trucks and buses. If China and India do 2-1/2 times as well in their need for cars as the US, then there will be over a billion cars on the road in a few years, just in those two countries. I don’t care what you think about Peak Oil... this is economics 101. Pure supply and demand. Even if the supply does remain steady and Peak Oil doesn’t kick in, we’ll have a billion cars competing with our 300 million cars. You do the math.


traffic on an arterial thoroughfare in Huntsville, Alabama

   I don’t know how soon gas will get to $10/gallon, or to $20/gallon. What I do know is that going from $5/gallon a couple summers ago to $20/gallon is only a factor of four. I can remember when I was a kid in the early 1970s, just before the first Arab oil embargo, that gas regularly got as low as $0.299/gallon, and during a “gas war,” it could go as low as $0.199, or just under twenty cents per gallon. (Curious how “gas war” has taken on an entirely different meaning now, isn’t it?)

traffic on an arterial thoroughfare just outside Huntsville, Alabama

   Going from there in the early 1970s to $5/gallon is a factor of 25 times. So if it does what it’s been doing since just before the embargo (25 times higher in 38 years,) it’ll get to $20/gallon (four times higher) in another 6-7 years... and that’s without the Billion Car Effect.

   When gas gets that high, how many other people will be forced into Automobile Poverty? Will you be one of them? Sprawl is quickly becoming a burden too great for America to bear.

See Part 2 of this post for more reasons our cars are making us poor.

   ~Steve Mouzon

Legacy Comments:

Monday, February 28, 2011 - 04:59 PM


   I live in Washington, DC.  I sold my car 3 years ago.  I am happy in my decision to be carless, but I would like to point out that your analysis of car vs house completely omits all transportation costs. Even in a walkable place, you are bound to need to get farther than you can walk. I spend about $80 a month in bus/train fare and I budget $75 a month to a Zipcar membership. That comes out to $1860 a year. Also add into the mix that in the 5 years that That, by no means competes with the price of owning a car, but that knocks 25% off of the calculation of comprable affordability of housing right off the bat. 
   Another factor is moderate distance travel. The reality in this economy is that in order to find good jobs, you can't often stay near your family. The absence of a car creates the need to fly places that would otherwise be a reasonable drive or leaves you the choice of completely foregoing visiting places without public transportation. (i.e. national parks, weekend trips to visit family, etc.) This choice either limits your standard of living or further shaves off affordability, particularly for a family of four. For me, flying home to the midwest for christmas often runs around $450, which is steep for one, but totally unreasonable for a family of four at $1800.
   I am all for walkable living and don't ever want to live otherwise, but if comparing apples to apples, carlessness may not be an automatic magic bullet. One can't calculate cost of living completely free of transportation cost. It seems to me that the most reasonable reality for a family of four would be similar to the comprimse that you and your wife have found. Live in a walkable place, but retain one car for shared transport and budgeted mobility at longer distances.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011 - 08:44 AM

Steve Mouzon

   Thanks for the very thoughtful comment, Lindsay! And yes, you're right... there's no such thing as complete walkability, at least given today's expectations and assumptions. So given those, your estimation that about a quarter of the benefits are negated by the need for longer-distance transportation sounds fair. The only caveat is that if we're talking about people on the edge of poverty, they likely don't have our assumptions and expectations. In other words, a family of four on the edge of poverty is far less likely to get everyone in the car for a cross-country trip. Given that highly financially stressed people behave differently from others, I maintain that the net effect could be a lot closer to 100% than 75%.
   As for Wanda and I, we'd gladly give up our Smart if ZipCar would ever get out to South Beach. And if we really had to, we'd get better bikes and bike to the few remaining things we drive to now. Currently, we have a couple of 1-speed "island bikes," which aren't so good for long distances or tall bridges.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011 - 09:51 AM

Steve Mouzon

I just thought of a clearer way of describing this: there's essential travel, and then there's discretionary travel. Traveling across the country to visit friends is discretionary: you do it because you want to, not because you have to. For example, the last couple years have been tough for Wanda and I financially. During that time, we have not taken one single discretionary trip outside of Miami. Not one. Within Miami, it is our choice to drive once or twice a week rather than bike across town... but we COULD bike across town if we had no car. So our only automobile expenses are those we choose to have. They are not forced upon us. But if we lived in sprawl, we'd have no choice because you simply "can't get there from here" safely with self-propelled modes of transportation. So if you consider discretionary travel, then yes, the effects in this post are probably close to 75%. But if you consider just essential travel, then it can actually be very close to 100%.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011 - 10:30 AM


There is the european solution of small scooters.  50cc engines in most states do not require a motorcycle license or insurance. Connecticut does not even require registrations.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011 - 12:41 PM


   Having lived in one of the most dense cities in North America (Vancouver) for several years and now living in sprawling Calgary.  It seems to me like the prices seem to work themselves out.
   In Vancouver I never needed a car, everything I needed was within walking distance, groceries, hardware store, restaurants, pubs, malls, etc.  I used a Zipcar membership for weekend trips about once every 2 months or so, and had a 15 minute walk to work.  My transit costs were probably averaging $20/month.  The thing is that everybody living in downtown Vancouver has the same sort of expences and for an average income that means that people have more money to put towards real estate.  ie the money you would save by not having a car is kind of moot because housing costs rise to make up the difference.  There is still huge savings however in time - which should not be undervalued.  A 15 minute walking commute vs 40 minute drive works out to a massive difference to both heath, happiness, and time with your family.  It's also a huge win for the city - which can collect much more taxes given the increase in real estate value, while having less road to maintain, possibly fewer services (condo buildings provide their own garbage collection in Vancouver)
   The comparison in Calgary was that I needed a car, but I could afford a house. but it worked out to be about the same amount of stress on our budget - less proportionally going to housing costs, more to transit costs.  There is an additional risk exposure to fuel prices now that I depend on a car, there's more lost hours every week commuting, and I gained 20 lbs.
   Living in a small condo in Vancouver had a number of other benefits. It makes you want to get outside and go for a walk or bike ride every evening.  Living in sprawl I see almost nobody out walking/running/biking so there is little social pressure to do the same.  Having amenities in the building like a swimming pool, and gym gave people things to do even when the weather was too terrible to go outside.  Part of this is cultural of course - but I think it's also a result of the environment they've designed.
   I don't watch much TV, so a side benefit of living in Calgary has been that I get a lot of work done on personal projects at home - time that I used to spend exercising, or walking outside is now spent reading, and working on the computer.
   In my experience, the costs wash out.  The real value to living near work, in a walkable city, close to all amenities is the time you save everyday which can be put to use increasing your health, happiness and quality of life.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011 - 08:55 PM

yosh hash

(I made this same comment at, hope that's ok.)
The real problem is this pervasive idea growing up to think that you HAVE to get a car in the first place, not even considering other options because it is too uncool (I'm willing to bet that is over 90% of kids- it was 100% where I grew up). Like that first hit off a crack pipe, you begin to sacrifice more and more resources to feed your car, including buying an "affordable" house out in the 'burbs. I was almost one of these statistics, not sure why I'm not. I guess I can thank the internet and sites like treehugger for finding other freaks like me.

Thursday, March 3, 2011 - 04:28 AM


just a quick note from a cyclist in china: the rising number of cars on the roads is a SERIOUS problem (one that was caused by a number of factors, and one that is starting to be addressed by the government, though perhaps not satisfactorily to some of us). because the infrastructure has not kept up with the pace of new car ownership, drivers are starting to claim the bike lanes and the sidewalks as their road/parking space. the city i live in is flat and small enough to be completely bikeable but still people want their cars. however, congestion is already horrendous here, and that's with a tiny fraction of the population owning cars. there is no physical way that car ownership rates could climb to those of the u.s. without a massive infrastructural overhaul. there's just simply not enough room for all those cars. and you only need a pair of eyes, not a degree in economics or physics or engineering, to figure that out.

Thursday, March 3, 2011 - 09:30 AM

Rob Evans

Dear the Original Green;
You make people think which is always very important. My son, Russell, lives downtown and refuses to buy a car when he can use Public transit/a cab/rent a car for a weekend. 
I have retired and we are in process of selling my car. My wife, Nancy, is still working and she uses her car. When she retires we will be a one car not two car family. My wife bought a small economical car as gas prices are going up in the near future and never going down.
Rob Evans, Toronto, Ontario,Canada, Mar. 3, 2011.

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