Here It Is: The Ultimate Absurdity in American Transportation

We really have to give Jeff Speck credit. In his new book, Walkable City, he amasses a wealth of evidence that skillfully reveals just how absurd American attitudes toward transportation and cities have become. We interviewed Speck about his book last month, and we can’t help returning to it to highlight this little factoid. If it isn’t the ultimate sign of everything that’s wrong with American transportation policy, well, we’d like to see what is.

This passage comes from Ivan Illich in his 1978 book, Toward a History of Needs, quoted by Speck:

The model American male devotes more than 1,600 hours a year to his car. He sits in it while it goes and while it stands idling. He parks it and searches for it. He earns the money to put down to meeting the monthly installments. He works to pay for gasoline, tolls, insurance, taxes, and tickets. He spends four of his waking 16 hours on the road or gathering resources for it …

The model American puts in 1,600 hours to get 7,500 miles: less than five miles per hour. In countries deprived of transportation industry, people manage to do the same, walking wherever they want to go, and they allocate only only 3 to 8 percent of their society’s budget to traffic instead of 28 percent.

Speck points out that this passage was written in 1978, when Americans drove less and spent less on their cars than they do now.

6 thoughts on Here It Is: The Ultimate Absurdity in American Transportation

  1. it takes me about 10 hours of work/month to pay for my car. it takes about another 10 hours of work/month to pay for gas. and about 30 hours/month commuting for work. per year that adds up to 600 hours/year. add in another 20 for renewing registration each year, oil changes, maintenance, parking and other miscellaneous expenses for a total of 620. I drive about 15,000 miles a year. 15,000/620 gives me about 24 mph.

    if I relied on a bus, it would take about 2 hours/ month for a bus pass. I would spend about 100 hours/month commuting to work. and another 10 hours/month on cab fare to get me around when the buses aren’t running. that is 1,924 hours/year. assuming I still travel 15,000 (which is highly unlikely but whatever) miles a year 15,000/1,924 is about 8 mph.

    not to mention, I would be spending an extra 70 hours/month sitting on a bus. taking away time from my family and the things I enjoy. that is 2.3 hours/day wasted on inefficient bus routes and waiting for buses.

  2. @etc that’s a pretty convincing straw man you give there but it’s not public transit’s fault bus’s would take 4 hours a day of commuting, it’s car culture’s fault.   Lack of investment in proper transit infrastructure and choosing to live somewhere hours from your work is all because of a cultural reliance on cars.   This shouldn’t mean “okay ill just drive then” because the endgame of that is much much worse than just taking the time to reinvest in Americans so that they can travel safely and cheaply and ultimately lead healthier lives and have better living spaces. 

  3. If only a “model American male’s” decision to drive were made so rationally. 

    Guys drive because the car culture dictates that their masculinity depends on it. I was once told my small car was a “girl’s car”. Not sure what that means but it implies that U.S. male decision-making might be more concerned with masculinity than efficiency. 

    The good news is that the recent batch of adults in the U.S. seem to be rejecting the car culture:  

    If true, what a gift to have the herd’s ego drift away from such a wasteful mode of transport. 

    The obvious goal is to facilitate this trend by advocating for better public transportation as fast as possible. (BTW – folks who think buses and trains are slow, please try a bus in developed Asia or Europe. They are indeed faster when done right).

    The real challenge is to convince all those who profit from car culture that there’s profit elsewhere. This is a much higher hurdle. And, like the “model American male” these folks don’t give a crap about efficiency either, just money. What do we do about that?

  4. This is a very poor analogy. The 1600 hour figure is not the amount of time that one spends *driving* the car – it is the average amount of time which one needed to dedicate toward *owning* a car (in 1978 – very different than today!). This value included the number of hours which needed to be worked in order to make the payments, etc.  It is completely nonsensical (or “absurd”) to use this value in order to calculate an average speed of travel.

    There is no need to make absurd analogies in order to make the point that we “invest” an inordinate amount of time, effort, and money into getting around. For more serious efforts, the Annual Urban Mobility Report published by the Texas Transportation Institute (TTI) is a good place to start – 

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *


San Diego Chooses Between Two Bicycle Boosters For Mayor

The election is less than a week away. Americans have a choice between a) a president who has overseen notable transportation and land use innovations but failed to provide leadership when the national transportation bill could have been reformed, and b) a former governor who enacted a progressive, pro-smart-growth agenda but who has renounced those […]

Multi-Modal Summer Reading

Summer gives permission to set aside serious reading for the refreshment of fluffier stuff. This year, though, several meaningful books on transportation are out that you might want to tuck into your beach bag. Each is that rare thing: a should-read that’s also a want-to-read. Straphanger: Saving Our Cities and Ourselves from the Automobile by […]

A Brief Reply to Heritage’s Ronald Utt, PhD

Readers, Ronald Utt has written a memo for the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank, on Barack Obama’s transportation policy. Typically, when presented with an article from a group not known for its progressive views on urban issues, I’ll read through the piece at least twice to make sure I’ve gotten the argument. I’ll have […]

Is City Living the Secret to Happiness?

The secret to happiness — it’s a question that has occupied mankind since ancient times. You have all the usual theories: money, status, spiritual fulfillment, a really cool bike. Then there’s our environment. For decades suburbia served as a geographic proxy for happiness, at least in the American psyche. But a new book flips that […]