This is a redraft of a previous post (with additions towards the end)
Giving up the car is the single most significant thing the average person could do to save themselves money and achieve early retirement. I personally refer to cars as money sinks, at least when I fancy a change from my preferred label for them which is ‘pollution and death machines’.
This was one of the unexpected findings from my statistical analysis of average consumption patterns (E R E for infographsBLOGv3) is that an irrational addiction to the motorcar is the single most significant factor which locks the individual into having to work until they are 68. Giving up the car and moving to within cycling (preferably walking) distance of work and most other places you want to go is the single most significant thing you can do to save money and make early retirement possible.
The average-consumer’s crazy car habit.
According to the National Travel Survey 2012, the average distance travelled per person in 2012 was 6,691 miles, with 78% of these miles being travelled by car, which means roughly 5000 of these miles were travelled by car. If we assume that someone makes an economically rational choice and purchases a relatively cheap car, then using the AA’s Motoring Costs Survey 2014, the overall average standing costs of the cheapest category of car (up to £13K in this survey) stood at £1913, with a running cost per mile of £18.56. If we factor all of this together, the average cost of running a cheapish, and thus probably small car in 2014 was £2841. (See endnotes 13-14)
This works out at £277.77 a month or £3333.20 a year, which rounds up to a staggering £110 000 over 33 years, equivalent to 5.2 years worth of earnings on the median salary.
I was first alerted to the incredible economic inefficiency of the motor car by Andre Gorz’s excellent 1973 essay ‘The Social Ideology of the Motorcar’. Following Ivan Illich, Gorz made the point that the average American spent four hours a day devoted to their car, either sitting in it (moving or not-moving), or working to pay for the various services associated with driving. He calculated that if you added up all of these hours and divide by the average distance travelled by car, the average American travelled at an average speed of 3.5 miles an hour, or the same as walking pace, but thousands of dollars worse off and probably a lot more stressed as a result.
In Britain today, the statistics aren’t quite as bad as this. If we take the approximate average distance travelled of 5000 miles a year, and divide by the average speed of 24.6 mph, this makes a total of 203. 25 hours spent driving. If we then add to this the 212 hours it would take you to pay for one year’s worth of motoring costs, the total amount of hours we get is 415.25, which when divided by 5000 miles gives us an average speed of 12 mph.
Given that this is comparable with the speed of a bicycle, and that I am being quite generous in my calculations (the bigger your car, which won’t go any faster in all that traffic, the more local your journeys, the more of them are in peak hours, and the lower your wage, then the more time inefficient the car becomes), all in all I’d say the car is, for your typical person, a total waste of money and of 5.2 years of a precious human life.
It is possible to give up the car!
Although such experiments are not widely publicised, if you type in ‘how to live without a car’ into Google, the search returns a number of case studies of people who report positively on their experience of going car free.
The first search return (all accessed Summer 2014) outlines the case of an individual who went for an entire year in 2013 without even sitting in a car, while traveling around much of the country, moving house and even attending a wedding by a combination of bike and public transport. At the end of the experience she reports a £2270 saving compared to doing the same activities with a car, which is broadly in line with my own savings projections.
The second return, written by a motoring journalist, is somewhat less optimistic, but the author did note a saving over two just two weeks of £106, and her arguments for having a car included socialising, and needing to get to a job interview, all while living in a rural area.
After a third return in which an individual reports managing to hold down a decorating job while being on a bike, the fourth return outlines the story of a family in Edinburgh who have gone car free, albeit with the use of a car pool on occasion, saving about £1200 a year.
All in all I was quite surprised by the positive tones of all of these responses, but it does seem that in order to give up the car then you need to make sure of the following – (a) live in a region with decent public transport links, (b) be prepared to cut down on your social life, (c) break the norm, be rational and save yourself £100k over 33 years – Yes, that’s £100 000!
What is also important is changing your attitude towards transport – Instead of thinking you and your life are so important that you need a car because you must be able to get to so many places as quickly as possible, take a step back and slow down, realise that you don’t need to do so much at such a pace and enjoy the journeys you take – walking and cycling are wonderful ways to travel if you approach them in the right way, and if you limit your bus or train use to a few times a month and are well-organised with your timings, even this can be pleasurable.
You’ve probably heard it before, and it might be something of a pseudo-spiritual cliché – but the journey is as important as the destination. Why on earth anyone would want to pay £100K to avoid being reminded of this everyday is beyond me.
If you like this sort of thing – then why not my book?
Early Retirement Strategies for the Average Income Earner, or A Critique of Curiously Ordinary Life of the Everyday Worker-Consumer
Also available on Amazon, but for £1.99 because I’d get a much lower cut if I charged less!
The National Travel Survey
AA’s car costs