Monday, April 11, 2011

Life's Basic Needs Include Two Cars

A recent article in the New York Times describes a group that has published a study of how much income it takes to meet life's basic needs. They say that their income calculations do not allow for frills like gifts or meals out: "It’s a very bare-bones budget."

For a family of two working adults with no children, they estimate a basic minimum transportation cost of $11,724 per year, more than 25% of this family's total budget of $42,504 per year and more than any other item in its budget. The second largest cost is housing, at $8,256 per year.

They say that they calculated the transportation costs in these budgets "assuming the ownership of a small sedan" - but they obviously assume that each working adult needs one of those sedans. Their budget for a household made up of one working adult includes about half as much for transportation as their budget for a household made up of two working adults.

What would the people of Amsterdam or Copenhagen, where more people commute by bicycle than by car, think of this notion that life's basic needs include one car for each adult? What would Americans have thought of it one hundred years ago, when the average family spent only about 2% of its income on transportation, though its income was much lower then than it is now?

Contrast their "bare bones" budget for transportation with my own transportation costs:

For many years, I commuted by bicycle, and my total transportation cost was about $100 per year for occasional tires, brakes, and overhauls. (I have had the same mountain bike for over 10 years and got it used.)

Now, I have a long commute by public transit, which costs $4.30 each way. I work at home some days, but if I commuted to work every day, transportation would cost me $2,150 per year. I still bicycle for my non-commute transportation, and that still costs about $100 per year. Even with a long commute, my transportation cost is less than 40% of their estimated basic minimum transportation cost.

Their basic budget for transportation, with one car per adult, does not look "bare bones" compared with the basic budget for transportation of someone who lives in a walkable, transit-oriented neighborhood.

There are other methodological flaws in this study. For example, they estimate the cost of "basic housing" as the 40th percentile cost of housing. This implies that 40% of all Americans live in substandard housing, which I think is an exaggeration.

But the biggest problem with the study is it legitimizes what Ivan Illich called "the modernization of poverty." Historically, poverty meant an inability to afford adequate food, clothing, shelter, and other necessities. Modernized poverty means an inability to afford the high level of consumption that modern societies impose on us.

Most parts of modern cities are built in a way that makes it impossible to get around without a car. This imposes a huge financial burden not only on the poor but also on the middle class. The proper response, and the response that urban environmentalists support, it to build walkable neighborhoods that reduce this burden by reducing auto-dependency. Walkable neighborhoods not only save huge amounts of money; they are also better places to live than auto-dependent neighborhoods.

Of course, this study is well intentioned. Most Americans do live in places where you need to drive to get around, and this group wants to make it possible for low-income Americans to get by economically in their actual circumstances.

But it is very destructive to accept the status quo of the modern American city in this way. Given the limits that energy scarcity and global warming impose on us, there is no way that that the majority of the people in the world can ever, in the foreseeable future, have a basic minimum standard of living that includes one car per adult.

If we define this as a basic minimum, then we are saying that most people in the world (including the prosperous middle-classes of Amsterdam and Copenhagen) will never have the basic necessities of life. And if other nations imitate us and attempt to provide this basic minimum, it will condemn the world to a future of energy shortages and climate change.

see the article at