Lester Brown: US falling out of love with cars

Lester Brown, author of Plan B 4.0, places more hope for climate stabilisation on shifts that he sees taking place in society and the economy than in internationally negotiated agreements. Not that he rejects such agreements, but he regards them as somewhat obsolete, for two reasons: first, since no government wants to concede too much compared with other governments, the negotiated goals for cutting carbon emissions will almost certainly be minimalist, not remotely approaching the bold cuts that are needed; second, since it takes years to negotiate and ratify the agreements, we may simply run out of time.

He’s just issued a Plan B update which illustrates the kind of positive changes he sees taking place without the stimulus of global agreements. He announces that 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. He sees no reason why the trend of scrappage exceeding new car sales should not continue through to 2020.

The forces at work?

Market saturation for one. The US has five vehicles for every four drivers.  “When is enough enough?”  Japan apparently reached car saturation in 1990. Since then its annual car sales have shrunk by 21 percent.

Ongoing urbanisation is having an effect. “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.” Public transport schemes are being expanded and improved in almost every US city, and attention being given to more pedestrian and bicycle-friendly streets. Car use in cities is being discouraged.

Economic uncertainty and reluctance to undertake long-term debt is affecting household choices. “Families are living with two cars instead of three, or one car instead of two. Some are dispensing with the car altogether. In Washington, D.C., with a well-developed transit system, only 63 percent of households own a car.”

A more specific uncertainty is the future price of gasoline. Motorists have seen gas prices climb to $4 a gallon, and they worry that it could go even higher in the future.

Finally, Brown points to a declining interest in cars among young people as perhaps the most fundamental cultural trend affecting the future of the automobile. Half a century ago getting a driver’s license and a car or a pickup was a rite of passage. Getting other teenagers into a car and driving around was a popular pastime.

“In contrast, many of today’s young people living in a more urban society learn to live without cars. They socialize on the Internet and on smart phones, not in cars. Many do not even bother to get a driver’s license. This helps explain why, despite the largest U.S. teenage population ever, the number of teenagers with licenses, which peaked at 12 million in 1978, is now under 10 million. If this trend continues, the number of potential young car-buyers will continue to decline.”

If his expectation of shrinkage of the U.S. car fleet is sustained it 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.

“The United States is entering a new era, evolving from a car-dominated transport system to one that is much more diversified.”

Brown is ever the optimist, but he seeks to be well grounded.  Has he been too quick to discern a trend, or has close attention to emerging possibilities alerted him to something of real promise?

5 thoughts on “Lester Brown: US falling out of love with cars”

  1. If the decreased ownership was attributed to increased fuel costs, the urban users would move to very small cars, but that hasn’t happened to the extent regulators expected in the USA. I don’t think fuel costs contribute much to the change.

    Most automakers ( including Asian ) were not targetting the static USA auto market for their growth ( other than via market share ) anyway. BRIC and developing nations have been seen as the only fast growth markets for the last 5 years or so.

    The USA “cash for clunkers” scheme obviously helped new car sales earlier this year, but the 2009 last quarter sales of GM and Chrysler are dropping again.

    Interestingly, because of the love affair with cars, some owners didn’t want to see their “old faithful ” destroyed, so didn’t participate. The trade-in rules required that the engine fluids were drained, and an abrasive mixture fed into the running engine until it stalled and died. Similar harm was visited on other parts of the car.

    Perversely, the large number of sales of “fuel efficient” vehicles has enabled the car companies to promote gas guzzlers because they are well within their CAFE targets, and the companies make more money on individual larger cars.

    There is also significant % of residual cussedness in the USA population that also applies in buying of larger vehicles, as well as the perceived safety advantages. The issue of small cars sharing roads with large commercial vehicles also arises, especially as gory accidents are often in the news.

    I suspect the decreased young driver trend is not so much about not wishing to drive, but more about having other high status items ( iphone, gaming computers, etc ) available to spend discretionary money on. That’s going to be a global change, and young people can more easily share cars than many families. They are also global travellers, and have seen and used effective public transport systems.

    Also, the total cost of owning a car has continued to increase . Currently estimated at around $7,000, in the USA, including insurance = $2000+, parking, emission testing, state taxes, which can be based on the market value of vehicle, etc..

    I think the car ownership aspiration is still there, but many of the city dwellers can’t afford to own a car each, and have better uses for their money. I expect to see improved public transport in the USA as car-less crowds patronise services.

  2. Welcome back to Steve Wrathall, our favourite mindless troll, who flees back to Denial Lalaland whenever the questions get too hard.

    What do you have for our entertainment today, Steve?

  3. You want to be careful about using Washington DC as an example of anything until you have looked at the demographics and perhaps had the opportunity to actually go there. There are portions that are lovely and those that resemble the devastation in the wake of WWII. And there is the issue of cabs, which are cheap and plentiful, but parking is expensive. The DC issue is the residents don’t need them (high officials and prosperous lobbyists) and the rest can’t afford them, but the employees and tourists use them but aren’t residents. It’s a weird demographic, and not one I’d use to prove or disprove anything.

    Ford reported today that sales of their largest SUV models increased around 40%.

    At some point you reach saturation. And sometimes statistics are misinterpreted. If one compares total vehicle registrations to to total driver licenses, you will include all commercial and many industrial and all personal vehicles, but have a limited pool of drivers. If you compare only automotive (passenger cars and light trucks) vehicles to licensed drivers you get a different answer. And it may not be possible to differentiate between a passenger car and motorhome in the statistics. Just saying this area needs to be approached with caution.

    The young driver trend you reference is a bit mysterious. They are everywhere. Of course, nothing prevents them from driving without a license and many do.

    Anyway, just wanted to point out the pitfalls of some statistics. The man will be right at some point, but I’m not sure this is the point.

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