Has it been a while since you last bought a car, even a used one? Are financial realities causing you to consider giving up owning one at all? Welcome to the club. America's auto population is shrinking along with annual sales (which lost a whopping four million in 2009). The 16 million annual sales year is likely to be ancient history in the U.S. Did you notice that they're now selling more cars in China than in the auto capital of the world?
America's dean of environmentalists, Lester Brown, president of the Earth Policy Institute, said Wednesday that (just as U.S. oil peaked around 1970, and world oil is headed that way) we may have reached "peak cars." The U.S. had 246 million registered vehicles for just 209 million drivers -- that's saturation. But it was 250 million in 2008, and Brown thinks the shrinkage will continue -- with auto numbers possibly declining 10% by 2020.
"Shrinkage of nearly two percent in the car population is unprecedented," Brown said in a conference call. "The severe credit crunch and the highest unemployment of many years are among the more obvious reasons, but we're also seeing the market saturation that is also visible in other industrial countries. Japan reached saturation in 1990, and annual auto sales are down 21% since then." In other words, everybody that needs or even wants a car, has one.
Cities, especially in Europe, are also discouraging car use, and trying to get people to ride bicycles or take public transit. Overall, 90% of Americans have cars, but some cities are reversing the trend. More than half of New York City residents live car-free, for instance, and Brown said that only 63% of Washingtonians are car owners. In Copenhagen, Denmark, 30 to 40% of commuters ride bikes to work.
The Earth Policy Institute's Lester Brown: Living car-free. (Earth Policy Institute photo)
"When I was a young man in southern New Jersey 50 years ago, everybody got their driver's license and bought a car -- it was something of a rite of passage," Brown said. "But the number of teenage drivers has declined over the last few decades. In 1979, there were 12 million teen drivers in the U.S., and now there are only 10 million. We are increasingly urban, and people growing up in cities often don't think of owning a car."
The U.S. auto industry enjoyed a 14-year run of 15 to 17 million annual sales, but this year it's just over 10 million. In 2009, some 700,000 cars were also taken off the road permanently by the Cash for Clunkers program. There's a developing steel surplus.
Brown himself last owned a car 35 years ago. "In the District of Columbia you don't need a car," he said. "It's a liability." He's not alone: countries, even the U.S., are starting to invest in high-speed intra-city train networks, and spend more on light rail, too. "I think we will all have to get used to lower expectations about future car sales," Brown said. "Nobody expects the 16-million years will come back soon. We're going to stay in the 10 to 14 million range."
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