The hidden cost of car ownership and the rise of M.A.A.S

2002 Malibu Colorado
Colorado 2001

You probably think: “O, he bikes, so he hates cars”. But I never disliked cars. They bring you to places fast most of the time, unless you try to get somewhere in rush hour. You can lug stuff with you. You can lock and start them with the push of a button. In winter, they‘ll bring you door to door, warm and dry.

Prohibitive cost for cars

But it comes at a cost. The cost is split over many different items, so you never really get to see the big cost picture: a repair here, a tank of gas there, an oil change here, an insurance there. A year ago, I added up all the cost we spent over 4 years, including depreciation and the cost boiled down to about 60 cents per km. It depends a bit on your variable and fixed cost share, but from what I read, $8000-10,000 per year is a reasonable ball park figure. Ours is up there.

Pay off the 6.7% mortgage

It may sound as a paradox, but unlike in tiny Netherlands, in Canada I never really needed a car to go to work. In Canada, I consciously applied for jobs at locations that are accessible by bike or transit. This allowed us to have only one car and to put the money against extra payments to pay off the mortgage. Yes kids, uncle Hans paid 6.7% and we really wanted to get rid of the mortgage quickly. In 5 years we paid 22,000 dollars in interest, but because we added extra payments, the interest part of the monthly payment decreased rapidly and the principal part increased rapidly. This allowed us to own our house much faster than we anticipated.

We bought our first car from an acquaintance for $2000. A month later, the front axle broke: $1000 (this is 20 years ago). It quickly made us aware of the cost of a car. Over time I started to dislike car ownership more and more. At some point I calculated that our car is literally parked on our driveway 99% of the time.

Ford Focus
Ford Focus at Emerald Plaza

Here are a few reasons why I don’t like car ownership

1 Discarding something that is mostly fine

Our second car was a Ford station wagon, second hand or more euphemistically: ‘pre owned’. When it was ten years old, I could stick my hand through the hole at the bottom of the passenger door. It had completely corroded. What bothered me though was that the car was mostly fine: chairs were immaculate, roof, lights, hood, windows, interior, radio, dash, all were in perfect condition. With some other necessary repairs, the repair cost was astronomical, so we bought another one and we got a symbolic $500 for the old one. This process happened over and over again. You discard something that is really mostly just fine. I felt I was destroying capital.

2 Unfriendly for the environment

Another reason why I don’t like cars in general is obviously the pollution. Now matter how much you troll me, cars are not a good thing for our world: they require lots of precious space in cities, they pollute air, they help kill other drivers, pedestrians, cyclists. Plus, what happens to the discarded tires and motoroil?

3 The trust is not there

The main reason however is that I feel vulnerable. Not as a driver but as an owner. I am not able to judge if someone tells the truth to me or not in this industry that is so foreign to me.

A week or two after we bought our pre owned car in December 2019, it wouldn’t start on Christmas eve. We called the CAA and they couldn’t boost it. We had the car picked up, we suggested it might be the start motor, and a day later we were told the car worked again: “You likely left your lights on, your battery was empty”. Talking about victim blaming! You can’t even leave your lights even if you want I think nowadays.

I got the keys back, got into the car, quietly hoping the car wouldn’t start to prove them wrong.

The car didn’t start.

I went back inside and asked them if they could start the car for me. Rolling his eyes, the mechanic got in the car, turned the key and…..

……….nothing.

Cycling home again

The car stayed at the dealership, I biked home again. Two days later, I was informed they found the issue: the start motor. It had taken longer as KIA had sent the wrong replacement start motor. Cost $0

Cheque’s in the mail

Fortunately the cheque was in the mail to cover our towing expenses. But it wasn’t. It took us weeks to get that cheque and three times we were told it was really, really, really in the mail now. It never was.

Issues again

A year later, dead battery issues again. The CAA had replaced our battery a few weeks before already (“brand new battery sir, you’ll be fine again”). After several boosts by friends with cars and trying to figure out the problem ourselves, we finally decided it was the alternator. (An alternator charges the battery when the engine is running I learned).

Out of warranty we brought our car to our own mechanic after someone had lent us a charger to charge it overnight. They checked everything thoroughly: it was the alternator (65,000 km on our odometer). They replaced it, did some other minor stuff and gave us the thumbs up: “you car is in great condition”. Cost: $1400 (Labour is $110/hr)

Recall

A few weeks ago we received a recall from KIA Canada. Oil might spill on hot parts under the hood and cause a fire. (How long are we building cars now?). We texted the dealership sales person we bought the car from and asked if they do recalls: “O yeah, we are doing KIA recalls”. I am calling the service dept a few days later: “No, we are not a KIA dealer, we can’t do recalls”.

So off the car went to the official KIA dealership. Recalls are free usually. And so was ours. But wouldn’t you know, they found worn ball bearings after the recall. They strongly suggested we’d replace them and I said yes. Cost $500. (Labour is $130/hr)

On our way to Nova Scotia

What is the truth?

And herein lies my insecurity around cars. I don’t trust what they tell me. A friend told me that some mechanics receive commission if they up sell parts. Are they playing a game because our car is in the garage, they play on fear and I fall for it because I don’t want to be on the side of the road at night in winter (or any time actually) and the car is in the garage anyway?

I don’t know.

Would I even be able to see the difference between worn ball bearings and new ones? Do I know the ball bearings could have lasted another 35,000 km, which they appear to have in all our other vehicles we owned? Should I ask to leave the old ball bearings in the trunk? They are mine after all.

I don’t know.

My big problem with cars and the dealerships and their mechanics is that I don’t know what I buy, not when I buy a 4 year old 50,000 km car, not when something breaks, not before a preventative replacement of parts.

And this is why I like cycling: I see the parts, I know I can mostly replace parts myself, I know when something wears and needs replacement, I can tune a bike to a certain extend and I know I don’t have to fear $1400 bills if I decide to have my bike tuned up.

RV in Arizona, car on wheels
RV in Arizona (or was it Utah?): 33 liters to cover 100 km. Shocking.

What is the alternative? M.A.A.S.

It is not that I hate cars, but I don’t trust the car industry and most of its players. Or, I guess, I should write: I don’t like to own a car. As an alternative, I am contemplating more and more a mix of rental cars, car shares, transit, ride hailing services such as Uber and Lyft and tons of cycling so that I can control my cost: I think we will end up there eventually. It is called Mobility As A Service or M.A.A.S. You chose for the transportation that makes most sense at a given time.

It may take more transportation planning but it takes the endless variable money drain out of the equation. For $8000 you can have a lot of transportation year round, while not having to worry about unexpected bills. In the end, we currently (COVID) drive only 5000 km annually, and that may actually stay that way. A fairly large chunk of that is to go to Gatineau Park, especially to the further areas.

Transportation Trap

There are other cost though when you stop owning a car. I learned from Eric Darwin that if you don’t have car insurance, you’ll pay a lot more then when you rent a car. And if you ever want to go back into owning a car (electric?), your friendly insurance agent will tell you you’ll start from scratch like you never paid for car insurance before. So there is that too: caught in the transportation trap.

You might want to read our adventures on our car holiday in Sicily too.

4 Comments

  1. All of the problems with car ownership cited by Hans above can be solved by car sharing services such as Communauto. Like Hans, I bike almost everywhere most of the year round and take public transit, and only use a car about 1% of the time. Communauto is perfect for me. Much cheaper than owning a car and less wasteful than letting a car sit in the driveway 99% of the time.

  2. Hello Hans,

    Long time reader, first time responder. As usual, a wonderful read and thank you! I can’t help but empathize with you thoughts about cars and I no doubt share your opinion that bike love should always trump that of the car, truck etc.

    But, being the pragmatic Dutch descendant that I am (we are), let me play devil’s advocate for a moment and submit to you a few things.

    First, like you, bike passion trumps car passion in every instance. But would you not agree that your “comfort” level with bicycles, be it for purchase, minor repair etc. is due to your level of subject matter expertise about bikes…and that that level of expertise, even for minor things, could be acquired for the motor vehicle as well? I admit, the car, especially the modern one, is infinitely more complex than the bicycle and indeed, this is just one of the multiple attractive qualities of the bicycle; its simplicity yet everlasting practicality, usefulness and beauty. But, even if it were only for the purpose of understanding (ex. now that you know the purpose and importance of the alternator, would you not have been able to further and better diagnose your “battery” issue in the first instance?…). In my opinion, the frustration about cars is, as you say, born out of mostly “ignorance” (if you allow me), in the pure sense of the word. Average folks just don’t know a lot about how they work. Broadening that understanding, be it for cars…and even for bikes (for those who throw a bike in the garbage because it has a flat tire) is a global issue.

    I own two vehicles, a 15 year old car and a 23 year old pick up truck that I service, basically, myself. Major things are done at the shop (that I trust) but most other things I can handle. We log a TOTAL 20 000 kms on both vehicles per year and so costs are minimal given that both my wife and bike (myself all year) and use transit but the vehicles are convenient when we need them. The truck we use only a on occasion because we own land and move heavy things, pull a trailer, and for the Kijiji purchases of course (another huge cost-saving measure…!). But it is nearing 300 000kms and is not anywhere near the end of its life. I paid $4000 for it and my net investment in it yearly is minimal because I have endeavoured to understand and learn about when things go wrong and either fix them myself or, if it has to go to the garage, I make sure I know what’s involved. Just like my bike.

    Thank you for reading and entertaining my comment Hans, and for all your articles. I always enjoy reading.

    Tristan Green

    • Hi Tristan,

      Agree one can learn, and in fact, when I was in the Dutch army for my mandatory year when I was 19, I did not only learn to drive a one ton truck from 1957 or so (that was antique already when I was 19) I also learned to double clutch when driving through town. We also learned the basic of car mechanics so I am a bit more familiar with car tech then my writings reveal. There were not many electronics involved and the choke was not even an option, we always needed it.

      But in this case, it is about trust. I don’t always want to examine my car and fully understand what is happening under the hood. I just want to have the trust that a trained person can make a proper call on what to do. Plus I am wondering if the economics to own a car one rarely uses makes actual sense. I appreciate your compliments and comments. BTW I just received another recall notice from KIA. Let’s see if they do find another mechanical issue while doing the software recall.

      This is what I drove, even up and down some serious sandy hills.

      null

  3. Your experience with car repair sounds very familiar to me and you haven’t had “hi-tech” electrical problems. Just imagine the cost when all the electronic doodads that are on todays new cars start to fail!

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