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EPI: U.S. Car Fleet Shrank by Four Million in 2009

January 07, 2010

America's century-old love affair with the automobile may be coming to an end. The U.S. fleet has apparently peaked and started to decline. In 2009, the 14 million cars scrapped exceeded the 10 million new cars sold, shrinking the U.S. fleet by 4 million, or nearly 2 percent in one year. While this is widely associated with the recession, it is in fact caused by several converging forces, reports Lester Brown of the Earth Policy Institute.

Future U.S. fleet size will be determined by the relationship between two trends: new car sales and cars scrapped. Cars scrapped exceeded new car sales in 2009 for the first time since World War II, shrinking the U.S. vehicle fleet from the all-time high of 250 million to 246 million. It now appears that this new trend of scrappage exceeding sales could continue through at least 2020. (See data.)

Among the trends that are keeping sales well below the annual figure of 15-17 million that prevailed from 1994 through 2007 are market saturation, ongoing urbanization, economic uncertainty, oil insecurity, rising gasoline prices, frustration with traffic congestion, mounting concerns about climate change, and a declining interest in cars among young people.

Market saturation may be the dominant contributor to the peaking of the U.S. fleet. The United States now has 246 million registered motor vehicles and 209 million licensed drivers-nearly 5 vehicles for every 4 drivers. (See data.) When is enough enough?

Japan may offer some clues to the U.S. future. Both more densely populated and highly urbanized than the United States, Japan apparently reached car saturation in 1990. Since then its annual car sales have shrunk by 21 percent. The United States appears set to follow suit. (See data.)

The car promised mobility, and in a largely rural United States it delivered. But with four out of five Americans now living in cities, the growth in urban car numbers at some point provides just the opposite: immobility. The Texas Transportation Institute reports that U.S. congestion costs, including fuel wasted and time lost, climbed from $17 billion in 1982 to $87 billion in 2007.

Mayors across the country are waging a strong fight to save their cities from cars, trying to reduce traffic congestion and air pollution. Many are using a "carrot-and-stick" approach to reduce costly traffic congestion by simultaneously improving public transportation while imposing restrictions on the use of cars.

Almost every U.S. city is either introducing new light rail lines, new subway lines, or express bus lines, or they are expanding and improving existing public transit systems in order to reduce dependence on cars. Among the cities following this path are Phoenix, Seattle, Houston, Nashville, and Washington, D.C. As urban transit systems expand and improve, commuters are turning to public transit as driving costs rise. Between 2005 and 2008, transit ridership climbed 9 percent in the United States. Many cities are also actively creating pedestrian and bicycle-friendly streets, making it easier to walk or bike to work.

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