U.S. Cars: Now Devouring $1.5 Trillion a Year

I’ve been busy trying to finish my book about corporate capitalism’s addiction to perpetuating cars-first transportation in the United States, no matter the cost.

As part of this work, I just updated my estimate of the annual expenditures we Americans are compelled to make on this arrangement. The number is now at $1.5 trillion dollars a year.

Here are a few thoughts on that staggering figure:

Only 7 countries on Earth have a Gross Domestic Product (i.e., an entire national economy) that exceeds $1.5 trillion per year.

The gargantuan U.S. expenditure on autos-über-alles is actually substantially lower than it properly should be, if the maintainence and construction of automotive roads and bridges were keeping pace with the technical requirements for non-worsening operation.  How extreme the shortfall in road-building might be is something to contemplate in your next traffic jam.

Note that the $1.5 billion figure excludes the indirect costs imposed by autos-über-alles: increased medical and legal expenses caused by car crashes, for example.

Overall, the vast economic wastefulness of the whole arrangement is matched by equally huge missed opportunities.  As the great Jared Diamond says:

Much American consumption is wasteful and contributes little or nothing to quality of life. For example, per capita oil consumption in Western Europe is about half of ours, yet Western Europe’s standard of living is higher by any reasonable criterion, including life expectancy, health, infant mortality, access to medical care, financial security after retirement, vacation time, quality of public schools and support for the arts. Ask yourself whether Americans’ wasteful use of gasoline contributes positively to any of those measures.

Or as I myself argue in my the forthcoming book:

As our schools crumble, our library close, and tens of millions of us go without health insurance, we Americans in 2008 spent 1.5 trillion dollars buying, equipping, fixing, fueling, parking, insuring, and road-building for our cars.i What kind of Charlie-and-the-Chocolate-Factory transportation system would we now have, had we spent on railroads, bike paths, and pedestrians-first cities even half what we’ve spent on automobiles over the last century? How nice would our towns, schools, hospitals, and insurance programs be if we could stop squandering so many resources on automotive goods and services?

$1.5 trillion, by the way, is more than 60 times the annual expenditure of SNCF, the French national railroad system, which is widely regarded as the most comprehensive and luxurious in the world.