Home » Automobiles Cost Massachusetts About $64 Billion Every Year: Study

Automobiles Cost Massachusetts About $64 Billion Every Year: Study

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We like to think there’s a reason behind the way things are. And yet, in reality, our societies are shaped by arcane market forces and the maelstrom of actions by billions of individual actors. It raises the question—if we intentionally tried to change our cities, would it make a difference? A Harvard study in 2019 raises certain questions about the status quo of the automobile given the costs they incur for the Commonwealth of Massachusetts.

Many Western societies take the car as a default. The sprawling suburbs of the United States demand vehicle ownership as the price of admission. Far-flung shopping districts mean you can’t get food if you don’t have a car. Criss-crossed highways leave no room for pedestrians. A lack of alternative transport links means you need to get behind the wheel if you want to go anywhere, or pay someone to take you.

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These are all very real costs for both individuals and governments alike. Cars must be fueled and repaired, licenses bought and paid for. Infrastructure must be maintained, and ever more roads built in an endless losing battle against traffic. Add it all up, and for Massachusetts, the bill apparently came to a mighty $64 billion a year. Let’s look at how it figures out.

Leon Bredella Dvitkoi9aoe Unsplash
The study tells us automotive transport costs us directly, via gas, road budgets, and the like. But there are also indirect costs, like time lost in traffic, injuries, and so on. Credit: Leon Bredella via Unsplash license

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The study was undertaken by Linda Bilmes in her role as a senior lecturer in Public Policy at Harvard, and supported by graduate students at the Harvard Kennedy School. In its conclusion, the study states that relying on cars and light trucks costs $64.1 billion a year in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts.

That figure covers all the costs, both public and private, incurred in running and maintaining the 4.5 million passenger cars and light trucks that plied the state’s roads in 2019. It also takes into account infrastructure costs, such as capital costs to state authorities. Furthermore, the study measured social and economic costs from things like traffic congestion, pollution, and injuries due to road accidents. Land use impacts from parking lots was also considered. This can often be a blight on downtown areas, taking up great amounts of space and ruining walkability.

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“The numbers are surprisingly high, and should make us think twice about whether cars are the most cost-effective ways to connect,” said Bilmes. As a guide, the public costs of the car economy—around $35.7 billion in total—end up costing around $14,000 per family in the state. This is irrespective of whether or not the given family owns a vehicle. That’s in part because gas taxes and infrastructure user fees aren’t enough to cover the state’s budgetary costs. In Massachusetts, they covered only a third at best in the study period. This shortfall is thus made up from other taxation revenue.

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Gas taxes and user fees don’t come close to covering the transport budget. This is not uncommon.

Consumer costs make up the remaining $28.4 billion of the $64.1 billion bill, or roughly 44.3%. Families that own a vehicle spend an extra $12,000 of their own money on average, in direct costs like gas and vehicle maintenance.

Beyond consumer vehicle ownership, injuries and deaths come in as particularly expensive. At an estimated $10.5 billion a year, it’s a big handbrake holding back the state. These numbers are based on the calculations of the “value of a statistical life” (VSL), based on US Department of Transport methodology. There’s a very human cost when humans are injured or killed on the roads. There’s also an economic cost due to the loss of that person’s future contribution to society. Congestion also plays a big role. In 2019, there was an estimated $4.6 billion cost for all the time the people of Massachusetts waste sitting around in traffic.

The authors were keen to note that this high cost should be taken into account when pricing out public transport projects. “Of course we need cars and roads–but we also need to remember that cars and roads are not free,” said Blimes.

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Think of it this way. The construction cost of a project like the North-South Rail Link might incur $3.8-$12.3 billion in one-off costs. In turn, it would reduce reliance on-road vehicles and help shave down that massive $64 billion that’s being spent on automobile transport every year. Suddenly, it sounds like a much more compelling deal.

Obviously, public transport projects come with their own maintenance and staffing costs. They’re not free, either. But the general assumption needs to be that these projects come with a side economic benefit. When built and utilized properly, they can cut personal and public spending on roads and vehicles significantly.

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Blimes other work has involved research on potential improved transport links for Boston, like the North-South Rail Link. This study suggests it’s important to look at the price of relying on car transport when considering the costs of projects like these. via Harvard NSRL White Paper 

Personally, as a huge car fan, I’m picking up what the study is putting down. I love driving, but I hate commuting. In fact, a lot of my daily car trips are frustrating and dull. I yearn to live somewhere I can walk to get a coffee instead of having to drive for ten minutes and go through four traffic lights. I’d love to catch the train for a night out instead of spending huge sums on Uber rides to get home.

Cars are great, and it’s good to love them. But they come with a caveat. When we build our cities and our lives around them as a necessity, it’s costing us more than we might think.

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Image credits: Harvard study, Harvard Study, Leon Bredella via Unsplash License incl. top shot

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Don Mynack
Don Mynack
26 days ago

The entire state budget of MA is $56.1 billion/yr, yet roads and cars somehow cost $64 billion/yr? I’m incredibly dubious about these numbers.

Bill D
Bill D
26 days ago

One thing everyone in the discussion seems to be missing: even if you would like to give up car ownership and live somewhere in the Boston area with access to the T…that sort of living space is very, very expensive. Like, to afford it, you need, between you and a partner, a quarter-mil coming in every year. (or you need to live with a passel of roommates.) That’s 95th-percentile in terms of household income.

We need to solve the housing crisis first.

Griz
Griz
28 days ago

Hmm. An article about the cost of roads in Massachusetts and I didn’t see corruption, grift, or kickbacks mentioned anywhere in the article. I think the pie chart may be a bit incomplete…

Astrass
Astrass
28 days ago
Reply to  Griz

Hmm. An article about the cost of roads in Missouri and I didn’t see corruption, grift, or kickbacks mentioned anywhere in the article. I think the pie chart may be a bit incomplete…

I’m not sure this is the gotcha you think it is…

Griz
Griz
28 days ago
Reply to  Astrass

My comment, for anyone familiar with Boston, is clearly about the “Big Dig” that spawned countless investigations, convictions and even white papers due (One notably called “”The Road to Hell: The Corruption and Malfeasance of Boston’s ‘Big Dig'”).

Or am I missing a joke… 🙂

Roofless
Roofless
27 days ago
Reply to  Astrass

Bud I like MA, but if you’re gonna try to argue that Boston’s got even just the national average amount of corruption and mob involvement, I don’t know what to tell you – I live in the Bay, and if someone cracks a joke about the number of homeless people, I got a lot of responses, but “that’s not true” ain’t one of them.

MikeInTheWoods
MikeInTheWoods
28 days ago

I know some people have gotten their feathers ruffled since reading this study, but consider my experience when living in Denver 24 years ago: I lived 7 miles from work and yet with bumper to bumper traffic, my commute took 45 minutes where I watched people shave, do their hair and read the newspaper while inching along in traffic. So I took my bike on the public bike path. It also took 45 minutes (door to door, with bike locked and me fresh for work from a casual pace ride) This allowed me to keep my GTI fresh and my XJ ready for 4wheeling in the mountains. My girlfriend’s car was rear ended 3x in the first year we lived out there.
I’m not telling people to ride a bike, I’m explaining how the car commute sucked and the alternate transportation options allowed me to keep my vehicles in better shape for the fun things I wanted to do with them. Car lover’s dream.

Headfullofair
Headfullofair
28 days ago

If they could fix the transit network, it would be easier to justify shutting the roads down for racing. I’d love to see a loop around Camberville: Memorial, Fresh Pond, Alewife Brook, Mystic Valley Parkway, and then pick up some speed on 93…

Óscar Morales Vivó
Óscar Morales Vivó
29 days ago

And that’s with Boston having an actual public transportation system (creaky and incomplete as it may be).

Most American cities and metro areas don’t even pretend to try.

Jonathan Hendry
Jonathan Hendry
29 days ago

They really should separate the Boston area from Western Mass when calculating these things. Or at least provide those numbers.

Dudeoutwest
Dudeoutwest
29 days ago

I worked in Boston’s FiDi for 25 years, commuting into North Station and then walking all the way to 600 Atlantic or thereabouts. A N/S link would have saved me a whole bunch of long cold wet walks. Along with the other 200 folks trudging through the snow with me.

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