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Published on January 6th, 2010 | by Zachary Shahan

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4,000,000 Fewer Vehicles on US Roads in 2009

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January 6th, 2010 by Zachary Shahan 

4 million fewer vehicles. This is the first year there was such a large decline in automobile ownership since the US Department of Transportation (DOT) began modern recordkeeping in 1960.

How did this come about? What were the main causes?

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Americans bought 10 million vehicles and sent 14 million to the scrapyard in 2009. This is unheard of for a country known for its “love affair with the car” and its many car-oriented cities.

The factors causing the decline are not entirely clear, but popular speculations are the relatively high price of gas, the economic recession, better transit systems, and social networking on the internet or smart phones that is limiting teenagers’ “need” for cars. Additionally, concern about the climate and the environment, and frustration with traffic may also be triggering part of this.

One might be inclined to think this is just a fluke year. The only other year that car ownership declined (in 1991, by 1 million), it quickly increased again the following year. However, others think it is something that will contine in the long term. Lester Brown, president of the Earth Policy Institute, an environmental think tank based in Washington, says (concerning cars), “We’ve reached a sort of saturation point in this country.”

A long term drop in the number of teenagers getting a drivers license seems to support Brown’s claims. The US teen population is currently the highest ever, but fewer than 10 million teens have a license, whereas in the late 1970s approximately 12 million had a license.

Brown delves much deeper into this issue that the US may have reached a “car saturation” point, though. We have ” 246 million registered motor vehicles and 209 million licensed drivers—nearly 5 vehicles for every 4 drivers” in the US. Doesn’t it seem a little absurd to have more cars than drivers?

Additionally, as the US becomes more and more urban, as our cities continue to densify, the car becomes less of a help and more of an inconvenience. Brown compares the US with Japan 20 years ago, when he says they hit their car saturation point, and shows that as their cities grew in density, their car ownership shrunk (by 21% in total).

To put some numbers to the inconvenience caused by using a car in dense or congested cities, the Texas Transportation Institute showed that “congestion costs, including fuel wasted and time lost, climbed from $17 billion in 1982 to $87 billion in 2007.” Yes, a $70 billion increase in congestion costs over 15 years!

Brown reports that transit ridership increased 9% from 2005 to 2008. From 2006-2008 transit use grew by up to 47% in major metropolitan areas. Many cities are helping their citizens who are tired of sitting in traffic by improving public transit, reducing automobile dependence through various urban planning changes, and promoting better walking and bicycling environments.

It is unclear what portions of the decrease in car ownership were due to the different factors above. It is also unclear if the trend will continue. But it gives us something to think about. Is now the time to push for a major shift in our nation’s transportation patterns and infrastructure? I think it is.

via The Globe and Mail and Earth Policy Institute

Related Stories:

1) Transit Use Boom, but in Some Surprising Cities

2) #1 Amsterdam, the Netherlands: Great Bicycle City Photo Tour

3) North Carolina and Virginia Ask for $5 Billion for High-Speed Rail (but Not the Only Ones)

4) Transformational Transportation Bill is ‘in Traffic’

Image Credit 1: Benj Haisch via flickr under a CC license

Image Credit 2: Stu Seeger via flickr under a CC license

Image Credit 3: Dustin Diaz via flickr under a CC license

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About the Author

spends most of his time here on CleanTechnica as the director/chief editor. Otherwise, he's probably enthusiastically fulfilling his duties as the director/editor of Solar Love, EV Obsession, Planetsave, or Bikocity. Zach is recognized globally as a solar energy, electric car, and wind energy expert. If you would like him to speak at a related conference or event, connect with him via social media. You can connect with Zach on any popular social networking site you like. Links to all of his main social media profiles are on ZacharyShahan.com.



  • http://placemakinginstitute.wordpress.com Placemaking Institute

    No matter what the automobile purchasing habits of the US are now or will be in future, because of our societal addiction to the heavily subsidized car+sprawl model for so long, our government’s hands are fiscally tied from providing any solutions – unless one thinks the trend of states and cities being increasingly forced to sell or lease vital transportation infrastructure to private companies is a good thing. And, in the words of Jay Walljasper: “Public transportation use is at the highest level in decades. Buses and trains are overflowing, even after the steep fall of gasoline prices since last summer. Voters last November approved billions of dollars for new transit project across the country. This is all wonderful news for anyone who cares about curbing the global climate crisis, cleaning up the environment and revitalizing our communities. But, unfortunately, transit systems all over the country are cutting back service and raising fares. The New York Times reports that Denver is considering axing one of its light rail lines and several bus routes. St. Louis is planning to cut bus service in half. Even New York, a city where less than half the residents own cars, is looking at eliminating two subway lines and 24 bus routes as well as a whopping 23 percent fare increase. How can this be happening at a time when public transportation is more popular than ever? When it is proving to be a practical solution to pressing economic, ecological and energy problems?”

    Because, Jay, our coming to the realization that what we’ve been doing over the course of the past sixty-ish years (since the inception of the FHA in 1949 plus the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956) is most likely a matter of our being too late. This country is in BIG trouble, and we are going to need to get used to recession after recession after recession…what’s coming next?: “Zombie Buildings” http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2009/11/20/zombie-buildings-are-they_n_365400.html

    “Financial reports this month from federal regulators and industry analysts detail a new cycle of uncertainty that they fear could cripple the economic recovery. Billions of dollars in commercial debt will have to be paid back or refinanced at a time when property values have plummeted. About $500 billion will come due in 2010 alone and an equal amount every year through at least 2012, according to the Federal Reserve.”

    http://placemakinginstitute.wordpress.com/2009/12/16/contriving-multi-modal-contrivances/

  • http://placemakinginstitute.wordpress.com Placemaking Institute

    No matter what the automobile purchasing habits of the US are now or will be in future, because of our societal addiction to the heavily subsidized car+sprawl model for so long, our government’s hands are fiscally tied from providing any solutions – unless one thinks the trend of states and cities being increasingly forced to sell or lease vital transportation infrastructure to private companies is a good thing. And, in the words of Jay Walljasper: “Public transportation use is at the highest level in decades. Buses and trains are overflowing, even after the steep fall of gasoline prices since last summer. Voters last November approved billions of dollars for new transit project across the country. This is all wonderful news for anyone who cares about curbing the global climate crisis, cleaning up the environment and revitalizing our communities. But, unfortunately, transit systems all over the country are cutting back service and raising fares. The New York Times reports that Denver is considering axing one of its light rail lines and several bus routes. St. Louis is planning to cut bus service in half. Even New York, a city where less than half the residents own cars, is looking at eliminating two subway lines and 24 bus routes as well as a whopping 23 percent fare increase. How can this be happening at a time when public transportation is more popular than ever? When it is proving to be a practical solution to pressing economic, ecological and energy problems?”

    Because, Jay, our coming to the realization that what we’ve been doing over the course of the past sixty-ish years (since the inception of the FHA in 1949 plus the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956) is most likely a matter of our being too late. This country is in BIG trouble, and we are going to need to get used to recession after recession after recession…what’s coming next?: “Zombie Buildings” http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2009/11/20/zombie-buildings-are-they_n_365400.html

    “Financial reports this month from federal regulators and industry analysts detail a new cycle of uncertainty that they fear could cripple the economic recovery. Billions of dollars in commercial debt will have to be paid back or refinanced at a time when property values have plummeted. About $500 billion will come due in 2010 alone and an equal amount every year through at least 2012, according to the Federal Reserve.”

    http://placemakinginstitute.wordpress.com/2009/12/16/contriving-multi-modal-contrivances/

  • http://equityguy.blogspot.com James

    The loss of millions of jobs may be another reason cars are not being registered as operable. Many companies also require that applications be filled out online, so there’s no point driving around putting in applications. Also, with rising minimum wages, employers are hiring less unskilled workers (recent high school and many college graduates).

    One of the boons of the internet is the availability of information online. In my field of real estate, I can quickly discount potential properties by researching relevant factors for my clients online: school, crime, proximity to X,Y & Z, neighborhood, even Google Earth the neighbors. This saves a lot of driving (though this may not reduce the number of cars)

  • http://equityguy.blogspot.com James

    The loss of millions of jobs may be another reason cars are not being registered as operable. Many companies also require that applications be filled out online, so there’s no point driving around putting in applications. Also, with rising minimum wages, employers are hiring less unskilled workers (recent high school and many college graduates).

    One of the boons of the internet is the availability of information online. In my field of real estate, I can quickly discount potential properties by researching relevant factors for my clients online: school, crime, proximity to X,Y & Z, neighborhood, even Google Earth the neighbors. This saves a lot of driving (though this may not reduce the number of cars)

  • http://www.TXARP.org Howard Bingham

    What a joke & thanks be to over 30 years of neglect, Amtrak the nation’s passenger rail agency get by on a shoestring budget of less than most large city transit agencies.

    Those in Europe laugh when Amtrak is mentioned, most third world nations have better transit than the USA.

    Yet U.S. Congress in it’s infinite wisdom continues to champion the automobile & airlines as the most green mode of transportation rumbles along on tracks owned by freight railroads in passenger railcars that typically are over 30 years old.. France, Germany, Spain & Belgium are already in 4th or fifth generation of high speed rail & typically spend OVER $ 20. Billion U.S. dollars yearly to maintain what they consider “A Social Necessity”..!

  • http://www.TXARP.org Howard Bingham

    What a joke & thanks be to over 30 years of neglect, Amtrak the nation’s passenger rail agency get by on a shoestring budget of less than most large city transit agencies.

    Those in Europe laugh when Amtrak is mentioned, most third world nations have better transit than the USA.

    Yet U.S. Congress in it’s infinite wisdom continues to champion the automobile & airlines as the most green mode of transportation rumbles along on tracks owned by freight railroads in passenger railcars that typically are over 30 years old.. France, Germany, Spain & Belgium are already in 4th or fifth generation of high speed rail & typically spend OVER $ 20. Billion U.S. dollars yearly to maintain what they consider “A Social Necessity”..!

  • http://benjhaisch.com/blog benj haisch

    how is my photo even relevant to your post?

  • http://benjhaisch.com/blog benj haisch

    how is my photo even relevant to your post?

  • MD

    “Additionally, as the US becomes more and more urban, as our cities continue to densify”

    Haha, playing with that can make one chuckle…

    I always figured people living in Washington DC were dense!

  • MD

    “Additionally, as the US becomes more and more urban, as our cities continue to densify”

    Haha, playing with that can make one chuckle…

    I always figured people living in Washington DC were dense!

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