Report: The American Auto Fleet Is Shrinking

Could the nation be turning away from its decades-old yen for auto ownership? Americans got rid of more cars than they purchased in 2009, reversing a trend that saw total U.S. vehicles exceed the number of drivers more than 35 years ago, according to a report released today by the Earth Policy Institute (EPI).

update87_driversandcars.JPG(Chart: EPI)

Using data from the Federal Highway Administration and the consulting firm Polk & Co., EPI projected that the U.S. auto fleet fell to 246 million last year, a drop of nearly 2 percent.

EPI president Lester Brown, the report’s author, attributed the decline to several factors, including urban transit expansion and market saturation. Brown wrote:

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.

With 209 million U.S. drivers on the road, the nation still owns an average of more than 1 vehicle per eligible user. If the 2009 trend continues, according to today’s report, the total number of American cars could fall to 225 million by 2020, similar to levels seen about 10 years ago.

EPI’s prediction that the nation is entering a new period of declining car purchases tracks with data pointing to American auto sales in the 11.5 million range for 2010 — a high number, to be sure, but distinctly lower than the 17 million-plus in sales notched during the SUV’s heyday in the early 2000s.

How much of a role did the Obama administration’s "cash for clunkers" program play in the high rates of auto scrappage last year? The taxpayer-funded rebates persuaded car owners to get rid of 700,000 vehicles, less than one-quarter of the 4 million relinquished vehicles estimated by EPI.

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