Cars: economics, art and scandalous waste

One of the few memories I have of my economics degree course is of a wise lecturer pointing out through the window. “That”, he said, indicating the car park, “represents a huge proportion of the nation’s wealth”.

Many years later, the car park in the picture is in the centre of Leeds, UK.  They have spaces for well over 1000 cars. There are at least 750 cars in the image. To see what our lecturer was referring to, let’s do some simple arithmetic.

750 cars at an average cost of £14,000 = more than £10 million. We’ll ignore the value of the land for this exercise.

That £10 million represents tons of raw materials, hours of expert engineering in high-tech factories and hours and hours of skilled and creative labour in researching, designing, building and marketing these wonderful objects.

And then there they sit. In a car park. Or on the side of the public road. Or on a driveway. Day and night. In the sun, rain and snow. Rotting away.

By way of comparison, £10 million would buy two brand new passenger trains like this:

Trans-Pennine Express Fleet £5m per Train

The same cost but a very different benefit for society.  The key difference is that rail companies run their trains hard from early morning until well into the evening. I’m typing this sitting on a train at 9pm at night. They get their use out of their £10 million investment. Each day tens of thousands of passenger miles will be delivered by the two trains whilst the cars wait quietly for their owners.

Or alternatively, £10 million will buy 3 second-hand Boeing 737 passenger jets like this:

one of three Boeing 737's on sale for $450.000 each, March 2011

Commercial airlines will ‘sweat the assets’ even harder. They will aim to have their aircraft in service, that is flying or being prepared for flight, 24 hours-a-day.

In stark contrast, our 750 exquisitely made private motor cars will be used on average for about one hour per day. For the other 23 hours they are, in effect, a giant art installation, an enormous engineered monument to the wasteful wealth of our society.

And you have to try to imagine 41,000 car parks like the one above to begin to grasp the true scale of the scandal. And that’s just in the UK.

It is economic waste of an order almost without parallel in history. The Pyramids and the giant statues of the Easter Islands were on a similar grandiose scale, but they were local phenomena. The global economy means this latest folly is being played out on a global scale.  This is is why in terms of economic efficiency the privately owned motor car is now, by far and away, man’s greatest mistake.

And one more thought. The £10 million invested in our car park full of motor cars will depreciate far more quickly than the other means of transport, which, in spite of their much more intensive use, measure their useful lives in decades rather than years.

So you can see why our economics lecturer was so wise to draw our attention to the University car park and why, when you next see a parked car, admire the artistry but remember you are looking at one small part of man’s greatest mistake.

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  • Denise Laurelle

    i get to love cars because of my dad, he loves cars..that is why when we’ve got our own car that’s the time i get more interested to it..

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Copy and credit: Creative Commons Licence Man's Greatest Mistake
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Cars are brilliant, but they are a brilliant mistake, and deep down, we all know it…

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