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More Evidence We’ve Reached the Era of Peak Cars

• June 19, 2013 • 11:12 AM

(PHOTO: EPSOS.DE/FLICKR)

The recession knocked down the urge to buy cars in the United States, but that actually masked a longer-term trend that points to a less motorized future.

We’ve all heard of peak oil, which the gallant knight Sir Fracking has slain for the time being. But in the United States, perhaps for all the rich world, we may have already passed into a related period of transition, peak cars.

Globally, of course, that’s bosh. India and China and other newly embiggened economies with growing middle classes will continue to sate that class’ taste for personal vehicles for decades to come. As the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace wrote last year:

Even if the rate of growth of passenger cars in circulation in China and India remains very high—such as the near 10 percent average annual growth rate projected by the International Energy Agency for these two countries—it would take about twenty-five years for China and more than forty years for India, where the number of cars in circulation is much lower and population growth is higher than China, to reach the current penetration rates in advanced countries.

(That same report, by Uri Dadush and Shimelse Ali, also made the counter-intuitive observation that car ownership per capita is higher is Western Europe—home of the really expensive gas—than in the U.S. It’s actually not though, since the authors excluded the light trucks, vans, or sport utility vehicles that are wildly popular as personal vehicles in the States.)

A new study from the University of Michigan’s Transportation Research Institute looking at cars and car ownership data between 1984 and 2011 argues that while the total number of cars and other light vehicles in the U.S. is almost certainly going to rise from its pre-recessionary peak of 236.4 million in 2008, the rate of ownership among individuals has stalled and likely will remain in a lower gear down the road.

As the author Michael Sivak writes:

Each of the three rates (the number of vehicles per person, per licensed driver, and per household) reached a maximum (to date) between 2001 and 2006—prior to the start of the current economic downturn in 2008. In other words, these rates started to decline not because of economic changes but because of other societal changes that influence the need for vehicles. (The changes in the rates from 2008 on reflect both the postulated societal changes and the economic downturn.) Thus, in contrast to the absolute numbers, the recent maxima in the rates have a better chance of being long-term peaks as well.

Sivak’s isn’t the only indicator that the era of peak cars has arrived, even factoring out artifacts from the downturn. In a neat little data mash-up last year, The Economist noted that total road miles driven in the 20 countries of the “rich world” had reached saturation, and that even before the recession. It also noted—based on more work by Sivak—that younger people are getting their drivers licenses later and later in life. (As a native Californian I find that a very dramatic demographic shift.)

In the new paper, Sivak expects that as the economy perks up and the population grows that the absolute number of vehicles will drive past that 2008 peak. But a raft of societal changes, not to mention expensive fuel, are likely to depress individual ownership rates. Among those are growing rates of telecommuting and use of public transportation and the aging out of getting a license or indeed, a car itself.

Michael Todd
Most of Michael Todd's career has been spent in newspaper journalism, ranging from papers in the Marshall Islands to tiny California farming communities. Before joining the publishing arm of the Miller-McCune Center, he was managing editor of the national magazine Hispanic Business.

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