Climate, Cows, and Cars

Climate, Cows, & Cars


Whether the country that you live in is more wealthy or less, the choice to follow a typical western lifestyle bears a large number of hidden costs which are rarely understood by the average person. Beyond just dangers from dirty air, both animal agriculture and driving cause an enormous financial drain. In this chapter we’ll look at the main areas where these costs show up starting with the ‘real’ cost of driving.

  • Car payments, fuel, and repairs
  • Insurance
  • Congestion
  • Cost of crashes
  • Building & repairing roads and bridges
  • Land use

Sadly, the cost of owning, maintaining a car, insurance, gas, and others are a burden that’s upsetting to everyone. In the U.S. the dollar cost of traveling by car is usually tagged at 50 cents per mile. But what many people don’t know, is that the costs are much more then this in real terms.

Average Car Carpool Passenger Bike Walk
Ownership-operation 0.466 0.004 0.092 0.053
Travel Time 0.288 0.225 0.438 1.250
Parking 0.230 0.000 0.013 0.000
Crashes 0.138 0.083 0.086 0.086
Land Use 0.117 0.000 0.002 0.002
Health Benefits 0.000 0.000 -0.019 -0.048
Pollution 0.131 0.002 0.001 0.000
Other 0.102 0.001 0.003 0.002
Totals 1.472 0.315 0.445 0.913
Cost of travel per mile, data provided by VTPI

Most drivers don’t realize that the dollar cost of commuting is only a small part of the picture. The personal cost of owning a car dwarfs all other choices even before looking at the external costs.
For the average person, congestion is the most obvious of these. A report by AAA estimates the national cost of sitting in traffic at nearly $1 trillion overall or $800 per year per person. Even the Wall Street Journal has begun to address the high cost of auto- centric cities as a losing venture.


Among the many hidden costs of driving is the cost of storing the vehicle when it’s not being used. According to researcher Donald Shoup, the cost of parking spaces ranges from $4000 for a curbside spot to $40,000 per space in a parking structure. He further wages that the total cost of parking in the U.S. exceeds the value of all the country’s vehicles and perhaps the roads as well. (link) Think about it this way, when you go to the store, there is no cost for parking. Yet the store owners had to pay for that lot to be built, and the land cannot be used for anything else. The cost of that parking is slipped in to every item that we buy. This despite the 40,000 square km (15,400 sq. mi. ) of land devoted to parking. (link)


All of this is dwarfed by the gigantic cost of fixing the damage from car crashes (often labelled ‘accidents’). According to the Federal Highway Administration, a single fatal car crash carries a $6,000,000 price tag. AAA estimates that car crashes in the U.S. weighed in at $300 billion for 2009. (link) It’s interesting to realize that when people ride bicycles or walk, there is almost no need for additional traffic signs, signals and other safety features. This adds to the dramatic cost savings for non-motorized travel.

In 2008 the United States spent $181 billion to build and maintain roadways. (link) But looking even further, there is a vast amount of wealth given to petroleum companies in the form of tax breaks. Here is a list of what the oil companies get just in the United States alone. (link) Worldwide, these costs average $5,300,000,000,000 or $10 per minute for every human being on the planet. (link)

Not Seeing the Forest for the Street
"Car drivers don't windowshop."

So with all of these well documented costs and consequences, why do we continue to see parking lots and roadway expansion? That is a highly complex question which I will touch on superficially. The simplest overarching answer is to consider that politicians and planners, the people who have the most influence on society’s transport choices rarely walk or ride a bike. These public servants are heavily influenced by business owners which have a surprising disconnect regarding which people create the most profit. A group of 12 studies from around the world prove that contrary to the beliefs of merchants, the group which spends the most at local businesses are people who travelled by bicycle. According to this study for Travel Oregon, bicycle tourists contributed $400 million to their state’s economy.
It’s easy to see how the enormous savings from bicycle travel would end up being spent on local businesses rather then on fuel and auto repairs.

Health Costs

I have not found studies focusing specifically on the cost of a western diet, and so I share with you the cost of the most common diseases associated with a western diet - heart disease, osteoporosis, and cancer. It is my personal belief that a number of other diseases are caused or worsened by a eating animal products. There’s more on that in the next section, but the financial impact is less definitive then for the ‘big three.’

© Dan Piraro

Heart disease in the U.S. costs $444 billion and accounts for 1/6 of all spending on medical care (link). A single heart bypass procedure can cost $100,000 (USD) Cancer risk is more evenly spread around the globe and affects western and non-western countries alike. The best estimate for cost is a 2008 study showing $895 billion lost worldwide due to cancer. (link)
Osteoporosis, which is closely tied to the nutrition imbalances of dairy can actually have a higher economic impact then most cancers. For the regions where information is available, I found that the cost of osteoporosis on us directly or to society is €37 billion in Europe and $22 billion in the U.S. Heart disease, does most heavily affect smokers and/or people who eat meat, and osteoporosis is closely linked to diet as well. Cancer, on the other hand, is linked not only to diet but to pollution, toxic elements like asbestos, and aluminium.
I cover more on this in the next section.

It is no coincidence that the same diet that helps prevent or cure diabetes also causes effortless weight loss, lowers cholesterol and triglycerides, cleans out the arteries, and returns the body to excellent function. But no matter how much research appears saying the same thing over and over again, the tide is unlikely to change because of the economic incentives for the medical establishment of continued illness and profitable treatments.”
Dr. John McDougall

On top of these enormous costs, the cost of our increasingly destructive weather due to climate change has been, thus far, overlooked. As I mentioned previously, each ton of CO 2 equivalent causes $220 in economic damage. This affects the cost of living, the cost of goods, and even the cost of repairing the damage. (link) (link)
So if you think that ‘hippy food’ is too expensive, or that cities shouldn’t spend tax dollars on bike lanes, consider how much worse off we would be if nobody was taking action.

Physical Health