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.

  • I think this has nothing to do with transit use or cities. Simply, people who got fired had to sell their 3rd or 4th car and make due with *only* two. Once the economy pciks up, they’ll be rushing to buy an extra vehicle. A minivan for the kids, a prius for work and a corvette for the weekends.

  • Thanks, Elana, for the link. Earth Policy Institute points out in the linked article that “the coming shrinkage of the U.S. car fleet also means that there will be little need to build new roads and highways. Fewer cars on the road reduces highway and street maintenance costs and lessens demand for parking lots and parking garages. It also sets the stage for greater investment in public transit and high-speed intercity rail.”

    Could this be the first sign that some day soon, not every New Yorker will need a parking space?

  • latron

    Agree with the first comment. You’ll note that the graph shows slight declines in around 1990 and 2001, but sales picked up after a brief pause and continued their relentless march upward. No, it’s not sustainable, but it’s a stretch to say this blip is the start of a new reality. What would really turn things around is a floor to the price of gas — say, $5 per gallon minimum — and a gas tax indexed to inflation. Also question what the authors define as “cities”; the majority surely aren’t urban in the traditional sense, highly walkable with rich transit systems. Vast swaths of America were build to be access by car, period. Undoing that mistake is going to require massive, sustained change.

  • latron is correct, the pauses in the graph correlate directly with recessions.

  • Ryan Starbuck

    This definitely has no relation with the movement of people and has a direct correlation to the shrinking US economy. Trends in decreasing car purchases based off of people’s views instead of the economy is possible but it would never be as strong as this situation which has directly to do with the lack of money in peoples pockets and worries about future job security.

  • J:Lai

    jass and latron are correct. This is result of less total consumption, of which cars are a component.
    I also agree with latron’s suggestion of creating a floor on the price of gasoline via taxes.
    A price floor, instead of the current fixed rate per gallon, would both encourage the development of high-fuel-efficiency vehicles, and discourage the marginal automobile trip, and it would do so much more effectively than a fixed rate tax.
    Predictability of prices is effective in influencing behavior.

  • Ian Turner

    Wouldn’t a price floor serve as a giveaway to oil companies? If gas is going to sell for $4 a gallon no matter the price, then the oil firms would have no reason to sell for anything less. I’m all in favor of making driving more expensive, but I can think of no good reason to give a windfall to oil firms’ shareholders.


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