Feeling Average? Study Shows Owning a Car Is Still the Cheapest Way to Get to Your Destination In a Car

Steph Willems
by Steph Willems
feeling average study shows owning a car is still the cheapest way to get to your

Say you’re an urbanite who made the decision to leave the perils and unexpected expenses of car ownership begin and rely only on your phone. A money-saving choice? Not necessarily, according to a study the American Automobile Association.

Drawing information from numerous studies, AAA’s report looks at the cost of owning a vehicle versus the cost of replacing those same trips with a ride-hailing app and infrequent car rental. It’s not even close, but, as the saying goes, your mileage may vary.

The study focused only on urban dwellers, who, according to a previous study, drive an average of 10,841 miles annually. As we’re dealing with averages here, the vehicle in question is a medium-sized sedan. Amassing data from the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety, the study found the average cost of ownership for this faceless sedan (including maintenance, fuel, insurance, vehicle payments) amounts to $7,321 a year, or $10,049 after factoring in parking charges.

If those same drivers replaced their total miles driven with ride-hailing apps and a few key rentals, the average annual cost comes to $20,118, or $1.86 per mile — far less than the $0.93 cost of owning a vehicle and paying for parking.

Just to bolster the ride-hailing side of the study, AAA found that the average car-less urbanite in possession of a driver’s license makes 2.1 road trips a year, totalling 11 days and 1,476 miles. Naturally, there’s a fair bit of variability in what it costs to travel by hailed car in these 20 cities. Total annual cost, including those rentals, amounted to $16,944 in Dallas, whereas Bostonians stand to spend $27,545.

On the car owner’s side, just as much variability exists. Some choose to own a large SUV or trucks; others, a Hyundai Accent or Mitsubishi Mirage. Fuel economy spans the gamut, as do miles driven, some vehicles are more reliable than others, and some drivers own their car outright. Average parking costs range from $706 in Phoenix to over eight grand in New York City.

While AAA’s study provides an interesting look at averages, what’s missing from the data is the option of not driving at all. Many urbanites have access to rapid transit within walking distance from their home or place of work, and this study admittedly doesn’t take that into account. Few people living with a subway or commuter train close at hand would take an Uber into work every single morning, as they’d probably get there late.

Transit and cycling, where it’s a viable option, easily supplements vehicle trips, lowering overall transportation costs for car owners and abstainers alike. As well, looking just at car owners, how many miles driven are necessary miles? We all take the long way home from time to time, or just go for a drive with no destination in mind. This eats up plenty of miles, but we do it because we can. No one hails a Lyft and tells the driver, “Never mind the route I asked for. Just take me for a ride.”

For car owners, buying groceries at the nearest store isn’t a necessity. We’ll drive past four grocery stores to get to the one we like better — the one with those amazing sales on ground beef. Again, more miles, but not necessary ones.

Everyone weighs their options and ends up making choices that works for their particular situation. But the study offers food for thought for members of the anti-car crowd who live too busy a life to stand on the side of the road, waiting for a bus.

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  • Stingray65 Stingray65 on Aug 23, 2018

    Yes there are a few people that can get by cheaper without owning a car, but to assume more than a tiny fraction of people want to live that way is basically saying that the 98% of the population that own a car are totally irrational. The other factor is that once you own a car, it is normally far cheaper to use it than let it sit while paying for the mobility redundancy of an Uber or bus ticket. Furthermore, those that own an EV or hybrid are even less likely to take the bus or walk, because they are already saving the world.

    • Krhodes1 Krhodes1 on Aug 23, 2018

      I think most people greatly underestimate the fixed costs of owning a car, especially in a high insurance cost state. And nobody ever properly accounts for depreciation, which is a very real cost even if you don't write a check for it more than occasionally. I actually have spent a couple weekends with no car in FL because I took the insurance off for the summer and couldn't be bothered to put it back on just for two days in town. I live in the 'burbs, but can walk to shopping in about 10-15 minutes. Ubering around town is cheap and readily available (whether Uber pricing is appropriate is a different discussion). If you don't have a daily commute (and most of my IT-geek friends don't anymore), it would be pretty painless to ditch owning a car and you would most likely come out ahead. Maybe not ahead of the cheapest possible paid-for beater, but ahead of any decent mid-priced or above car. Ultimately, I love cars so I don't care, and thus I own five of them split between Maine and Florida. But it is an expensive passion.

  • Kendahl Kendahl on Aug 23, 2018

    I think it will depend on whether you live in New York City or Omaha, Nebraska.

  • ToolGuy 38:25 to 45:40 -- Let's all wait around for the stupid ugly helicopter. 😉The wheels and tires are cool, as in a) carbon fiber is a structural element not decoration and b) they have some sidewall.Also like the automatic fuel adjustment (gasoline vs. ethanol).(Anyone know why it's more powerful on E85? Huh? Huh?)
  • Ja-GTI So, seems like you have to own a house before you can own a BEV.
  • Kwik_Shift Good thing for fossil fuels to keep the EVs going.
  • Carlson Fan Meh, never cared for this car because I was never a big fan of the Gen 1 Camaro. The Gen 1 Firebird looked better inside and out and you could get it with the 400.The Gen 2 for my eyes was peak Camaro as far as styling w/those sexy split bumpers! They should have modeled the 6th Gen after that.
  • ToolGuy From the listing: "Oil changes every April & October (full-synth), during which I also swap out A/S (not the stock summer MPS3s) and Blizzak winter tires on steelies, rotating front/back."• While ToolGuy applauds the use of full synthetic motor oil,• ToolGuy absolutely abhors the waste inherent in changing out a perfectly good motor oil every 6 months.The Mobil 1 Extended Performance High Mileage I run in our family fleet has a change interval of 20,000 miles. (Do I go 20,000 miles before changing it? No.) But this 2014 Focus has presumably had something like 16 oil changes in 36K miles, which works out to a 2,250 mile average change interval. Complete waste of time, money and perfectly good natural gas which could have gone to a higher and better use.Mobil 1 also says their oil miraculously expires at 1 year, and ToolGuy has questions. Is that one year in the bottle? One year in the vehicle? (Have I gone longer than a year in some of our vehicles? Yes, I have. Did I also add Lucas Oil 10131 Pure Synthetic Oil Stabilizer during that time, in case you are concerned about the additive package losing efficacy? Yes, I might have -- as far as you know.)TL;DR: I aim for annual oil changes and sometimes miss that 'deadline' by a few months; 12,000 miles between oil changes bothers me not at all, if you are using a quality synthetic which you should be anyway.