Knowing the true cost of driving would help you reduce car use and manage your finances better

Trading your car for walking or biking not only reduces emissions and improves your health, but can also save you a significant amount of money.

It seems that driving a car costs a lot more than you think. A study originally published in the journal Nature in 2020 found that German motorists underestimated the daily costs of running a car by almost 50 percent, making the actual costs almost twice as high as assumed.

Not only does this make driving seem more desirable, but the perception that it costs a lot less than it actually costs makes alternative modes of transport—such as car sharing, public transit, cycling, or walking—far less attractive.

When it comes to buying a car, most people place price, fuel economy, space, performance and safety at the top of their list of priorities. And it’s a purchase that most people have put a lot of thought and research into, as it’s one of the most expensive they’re likely to make.

But we don’t always tend to think about lifetime ownership costs, and from fuel and depreciation to repair costs, taxes and insurance, these can be significant.

So why do drivers have such a knowledge gap when it comes to daily car costs? The reality is that cost is only one factor when it comes to owning a car; There’s also the emotional attraction.

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Cost of owning a car vs. emotions

Addressing motorists as rational decision-makers with financial judgment is one thing, but for many people cars are far more than just a means of getting from A to B.

For years, automakers have focused on something completely different: the emotions and feelings that driving evokes.

Car advertising uses slogans such as “The Power of Dreams”, “The Car You Always Promised Yourself” and “Designed to Move the Human Spirit”.

These slogans capture the fact that many drive not because it is necessary, but because they enjoy it.

With this in mind, it is perhaps easy to see why traffic management strategies based on the assumption that people will reconsider their travel decisions when using a car becomes more expensive or inconvenient rarely do anything to reduce car ownership.

In the UK alone there are 32 million registered cars on the country’s roads. In 2022, new passenger car registrations fell by only 0.3 percent. In the EU, car use increased year-on-year for five years to 250 million vehicles by 2020.

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The private car remains the primary choice for commuting as it seems that motorists simply put up with the time delays or pay the additional parking fees or congestion charges.

Why? Because cars are highly personalized spaces where you can converse with family and friends, listen to music, and isolate yourself from the outside world in comfort.

But cars are also incredibly expensive to run, and the Nature study suggests that drivers would choose alternative modes of transportation if we realized how much they cost.

People make their decisions based on their perceived costs, but given the true cost of driving, the study estimates a 37 percent reduction in car ownership could be achieved, with around 8 percent and 12 percent increases in bus and train travel or.

We’re rethinking our love of cars

At a time when finances are being squeezed by the cost of living crisis, knowing the true versus perceived cost of driving could make many drivers reconsider their love of the car.

So how could it work?

Cars could be labeled with an annual cost at the point of sale, like energy labels used on household products like light bulbs, televisions or washing machines, information about average running costs could be displayed and nationwide advertising campaigns could encourage consumers to accurately estimate the cost of driving their own car to calculate.

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Car ads could also include lifetime costs, just as all French car ads appearing in print, TV, radio, billboards and online must include one of three messages to encourage active travel: “Think about car sharing” and “Drive daily by public transport”.

To encourage people to trade some of their short car journeys for walking or cycling, an improved bank balance could be the key to driving away.

Whether it’s cutting back on air travel or eating less red meat, more and more of us are looking for ways to reduce our impact on the environment.

For many of us, stopping driving altogether would be a big step, but with gas and diesel prices soaring, driving is not the cheaper option. Even a few trips swapped for active travel each week could make a big difference for the planet and your wallet.

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