Economics of city built for cars vs car free city – Seattle

Would a car free city be cheaper than a city with cars if the costs of cars were internalized just like public transit is? Let’s see, using my hometown of Seattle for demonstration.

There are roughly 450,000 cars in Seattle, or around 640 cars for every 1k residents. The average new car price in 2017 was around $33k. The total cost of buying all those cars is $14.7 billion. The average light rail line lasts for 30 years, whereas the average lifespan of a new car is eight years. So to cover the 30 years, everyone must buy four cars. So we’re up to about $58.9 billion now. The average annual car insurance in the U.S is around $800, so that adds on another $10.8 billion over the course of 30 years. The average USian, not driver but USian, spends about $2k a year on gas. Seattle’s population is somewhere over 700k now, so this adds on another $42 billion over the course of 30 years. The SDOT says that the cost/value of all the roads that it manages is about $13 billion. We add all that up, and over the course of 30 years, Seattle would spend about $124.7 billion on cars.

That cost doesn’t include lost lives from car accidents, increased healthcare costs, lost time spent in traffic, the alienation, the harm to the ecosystem and so on. This is just the cost of the infrastructure, not even including parking lots.

The average light rail line lasts for about 30 years, and the average total costs for a ten mile line over the course of 30 years, from laying the tracks to building the stations to buying the trainsets to the annual operational costs comes out to $2.6 billion. Now, Seattle’s Sound Transit light rail has been and will be way more expensive than that, because we refuse to vacate road lanes to put light rail at surface level, so we’ve been forced to build underground and above surface elevated tracks, which just adds unnecessary cost. However, since we’re doing car free city scenario, everything is at surface level so it’s $2.6 billion for a ten mile line over 30 years. This means that, for the same cost as Seattle plans to spend on cars, the city could build an incredible 470 miles of light rail. That much light rail, at max frequency of 90 second headway, would move an astounding 1.5 million plus people each direction each hour. Basically, for the same costs as its cars, Seattle could build a light rail system big enough to support a city 5-10 times its population.

Not to mention that there’d be zero car accident deaths in a car free city. There’d be no pollution, so healthcare costs would be lower. Less commons space would be taken up, freeing up space for parks, affordable housing, schools etc. There’d be zero streetlights in a car free city, eliminating about 80-90% of light pollution, thus you’d be able to look up at night from your house in the city and be able to see the Milky Way Galaxy and a night sky filled with stars. This would also greatly help the nocturnal animals, making it less harmful to them to survive in the cities. It’d reduce alienation too, bringing the community together and resulting in happier people etc. These things are all harmed by cars and are externalities not factored into their costs.

So yea, when you actually internalize the costs of cars, building a car free city is cheaper and more economical. A car free city isn’t just better for the environment and wellbeing of society, it’s cheaper too.

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