Are Americans moving away from cars for good?

Posted on January 7, 2010. Filed under: Uncategorized | Tags: , , , , |

In a really interesting post, Earth Policy Institute reports via Sustainablog that the US car fleet shrunk by 4 million in 2009, the first time since World War II that cars scrapped have exceeded new car sales. This finding is pretty significant, but is it enough to conlcude that, “The U.S. fleet has apparently peaked and started to decline” permenantly?

Auto graveyard

As the Earth Policy Insitute post notes, a major cause of the decline in new car sales is the economic depression, but they identify other trends that are car sales low, at least for the medium term. Among these are:

  • Market saturation
  • Increasing urbanization and trend for younger people to prefer other modes of transportation.
  • Oil price uncertainty leading to fluctuating car prices
  • Increasing concerns about environmental impact of cars and climate change
  • Increased concerns about traffic.

According to Earth Policy Institute, this first reason, market saturation is likely the most signifcant. Currently, there are 5 vehicles for every 4 licensed drivers!

Though cars are a necessity in the strip mall suburbs, 4 out of 5 Americans now reside in cities. And many cities are expanding public transportation and promoting alternatives like biking and walking to work, while at the same time limiting options and increasing costs of parking to discourage drivers and ease congestion.

It also seems that the car is no longer the idolized symbol of teenage freedom that was so central to young adult life in the past. In fact, the post points out,

“Many of today’s young people living in a more urban society learn to live without cars. They socialize on the Internet and on smart phones, not in cars…Despite the largest U.S. teenage population ever, the number of teenagers with licenses, which peaked at 12 million in 1978, is now under 10 million.”

And young-adults, as well as older people, have less disposable income to spend on vehicles in trying economic times.

All these trends lead Earth Policy Insitute to conclude:

“The United States is entering a new era, evolving from a car-dominated transport system to one that is much more diversified.”

Hopefully this is true and the US will follow in the footsteps of Japan, where car ownership peaked in the 1990’s and has since steadily declined, encouraged by public transportation alternatives and urbanization. Will this recession convince Americans that have 5 cars for every 4 drivers may not a fulfilling expression of the American dream? Or will this just be a temporary blip that will be reversed as the economy recovers?


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