Well, specifically, the cost of my car. Not the ecological cost, or the social cost, or even the purchase price – but the ongoing cost of running a car.
I’ve been able to drive since I was 17 and have always valued the skill but it was only 3 years ago that I decided to become a car owner. Up until that point I’d used trains, buses, offers of lifts and my bicycle to get around. Which worked to a point but I decided to give car ownership a try. I had been resisting buying a car primarily for ecological reasons, wanting to avoid bringing yet another car to clog up our roads, and being yet another private emitter of the various exhaust fumes from the car itself (as well as those produced in its manufacture and so on). However, I decided to go into ownership as an experiment.
And an experiment it has been. I am convinced I have multiplied the number of remote places I’ve got to visit many times over – the places it’s difficult to get to by public transport without serious planning and additional time allowances (or more commitment to cycling considerable distances than I currently have). I’ve got a huge amount from visiting these places – places like Permanently Brilliant in Cornwall, or Bodnant Gardens in North Wales – and continue to find myself in yet more interesting places. It’s also enabled my current relationship to flourish much more easily than had I been reliant on public transport. Just in the past week the ease of travel granted by my car has found me able to catch up with friends and be blown away by the excesses of various stately homes & grounds (which are almost incomprehensible as private spaces, but the fact that their grounds and beautiful ancient trees can now be enjoyed by so many people, myself included – admittedly, people who can afford to get there and to pay the entrance fee – is something I really value). But I’ve also done some rather interesting calculations in the last week.
When I first got my car it was entirely a luxury item. There was no need in my life for a car – I just quite fancied the additional travel options and the possibilities that would open up. On that basis I decided to match every penny I spent on the car, from purchase to servicing to fuel, with a “forest fund”. I still don’t quite know what the forest fund will be used for (the name, of course, comes from the idea of using it to support a literal forest but time will tell if that’s what it gets used for) but it has meant that every receipt for the car over the past three years has been recorded. The car I’ve had has done a good few miles and has a couple of rather expensive jobs coming up which made me start thinking about whether now was the time to consider a different car, or no car at all (possibly with the view of hiring a car when I needed one). But being me, I wanted the numbers. I wanted to know what reality was.
Reality was, and is, very surprising. I knew I spent a big chunk of money maintaining my car each year but what I now know is just how much it costs. Over the past three years, on average each year I have spent:
£1000 on car “capital” – initial purchase and significant parts replacement
£1000 on “consumables” – tax, insurance, MOT, ongoing servicing
£1000 on fuel
I was blown away by these figures. They’re so much higher than I thought they would be! And yet, on reflection, they’re not really surprising – having a car is expensive. The seductive thing, of course, is the separation between the ongoing costs (“capital” and “consumables”) and the fuel costs – “Oh, it’ll only cost blah in fuel to get to so-and-so, but it’ll cost two-blah if I go by train…” And I was well and truly seduced. But now I find myself looking at those numbers and wondering if I want to continue spending such a big chunk of my money on having the luxury of a car. I remain undecided on that point (although I’m now looking at possibilities of sharing my car with someone else, or several other people, to make a better use of the ongoing costs) but it made me wonder how often the true financial cost (let alone the other costs) is known and understood by car drivers. Interestingly, the “capital” cost is comparable to that of one of my parents’ cars which was also purchased second hand.
The whole car issue is also front of brain as a result of being at the Centre for Alternative Technology‘s members’ conference last weekend and being reminded of the overconsumption crisis we’re currently in the midst of, the oil bubble this generation is merrily burning its way through (myself included). But the simple financials of it remain mind boggling – and remain a point of ponderance for me: what value do I place on this flexible but costly mode of transport? No simple answer on this one, but after getting over the initial shock of the figures (as anyone who has seen me over the past couple of days, it’s been one of my favourite topics of conversation) I am grateful to have the facts, the reality, in front of me so I can take informed decisions on what happens next.