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?
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.
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