• Jan 4th 2010 at 7:00PM
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2009 was not a good year for car sales. No surprises there. An interesting side effect of lowered sales last year, though, is that the total number of vehicles in the overall U.S. car fleet dropped. There were 250 million cars here in 2008, and only 246 million at the end of 2009. We may have been buying fewer cars than we usually do in a year – there were around 10 million sold in 2009 – but we still got rid of 14 million units.

Lester Brown, president of the Earth Policy Institute, will be speaking to reporters Wednesday about why he thinks these numbers mean that "America's century-old love affair with the automobile may be coming to an end." Part of Brown's reasoning is that he sees the shrinking U.S. fleet trend continuing through 2020 thanks to market saturation, economic uncertainty and a "declining interest in cars among young people who have grown up in cities," among other factors. The end result? Brown believes the shrinking fleet "will also largely eliminate the need for building new streets and highways, and will set the stage for increased investment in public transit and high-speed intercity rail." Is Brown on to something, or will a widely-expected rebound in new car sales due to pent-up demand render his argument spurious? Check out the EPI's press release after the jump, then be sure to leave your thoughts on the matter in 'Comments.'

[Source: Earth Policy Institute | Image: kodiax2 - C.C. License 2.0]


U.S. Car Fleet Shrinks by Four Million in 2009
After a Century of Growth, U.S. Fleet Entering Era of Decline

WASHINGTON, DC – Lester Brown, president of the Earth Policy Institute, will report that America's century-old love affair with the automobile may be coming to an end during a teleconference with reporters on Wednesday, January 6th at 11:00 AM EST.

In 2009, the 14 million cars scrapped exceeded the 10 million new cars sold, shrinking the U.S. fleet by 4 million-nearly two percent in just one year. The U.S. fleet, totaling 250 million in 2008, dropped to 246 million in 2009. Brown thinks this shrinkage will continue through 2020.

Brown says there are several reasons for this decline. "One is market saturation. The United States now has 246 million registered motor vehicles and 209 million licensed drivers-nearly 5 vehicles for every 4 drivers. Other reasons for the U.S. car fleet shrinkage are ongoing urbanization, economic uncertainty, oil insecurity, the prospect of higher gasoline prices, the rising costs of traffic congestion, mounting concerns about climate change, and the declining interest in cars among young people who have grown up in cities."

This shrinkage in the national fleet combined with gains in fuel efficiency will steadily reduce U.S. oil consumption and carbon emissions. It will also largely eliminate the need for building new streets and highways, and will set the stage for increased investment in public transit and high-speed intercity rail.

WHAT: Teleconference with Lester Brown on the shrinking U.S. car fleet
WHO: Lester Brown, founder and president of the Earth Policy Institute and author of Plan B 4.0: Mobilizing to Save Civilization
WHEN: Wednesday, January 6 at 11:00 a.m., EST

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    • 1 Second Ago
      • 5 Years Ago
      It's a question of cost. That's all it is.
      • 5 Years Ago
      All of those crappy 90's FWD Full Sizers have to go. Newer minivans are better than the old ones from '99+, so crush them too. The Pickups from after 1999 are too round and lame for most people's tastes. Heck in the picture for this post I spy about 8 cars made before 1990, the rest are unloved minivans and a few econoboxes.
      • 5 Years Ago
      I don't really see my truck being replaced by high-speed rail while I drive 80+ miles w/ 10,000 lbs behind me three times a week.

      But I could be wrong.
        • 5 Years Ago
        What is far more likely is people living in Major Urban areas are choosing mass transit. There are places now where it is just too expensive to own, park and gas up a car. Parking spaces in big cities are starting to sell for what houses sell for in small towns. Public transit can be not only cheaper but faster and easier to use in big cities where service is better. A portion of the younger urban crowd is discovering this and choosing to take the subway and play with their iPhones rather than spend twice as much time in traffic in Dad's old Caravan. Some may never own a car where for the rest of us that was unheard of. I know one young guy who turned down the car he was given for his birthday because of the cost of running it. He would rather have Daddy continue to come pick him up in the BMW. The thought of it made me want to throw up but every generation is different.

        Of course C4C and the slow economy also magnified this effect. All of those vehicles that would have seen the light of day again on the used market disappearing had a large effect. The resulting thinning of the used herd drove used prices up which simply kept quite a few people out of the market. People on the desperate end of things looking for a $500 car with life left in it were out of luck. The economy, tight credit and job losses also forced a lot of two car families to cut back to one. There is little doubt that once things pick up again a lot of them will go back to two cars though some will have discovered they can get by with one just fine. Like the depression and previous recessions some people will keep the lifestyle changes they made the rest of their lives.
        • 5 Years Ago
        You're assuming that owning a car and using public transportation are mutually exclusive. They're not. Lack of public transportation means every working member in my household must own an automobile to commute back and forth. For most thinking people this means an inexpensive, reliable, efficient car like a Camry or Accord. The existence of viable public transportation means I no longer have to spend my money on a small stable of Corollas, but can instead spend it on a single M3 or a Corvette.

        And yes, this is simply a reflection of the poor economy, as the less money people have the fewer cars they can afford, but don't think the economy is heading back to where it was in the glory days. Those days weren't real and were bought on credit and now the bill is due. That means our future and our grandkids future is going to be one of paying more and getting less.
        • 5 Years Ago
        @airchompers - Your of course assuming that if given the option, they would choose rail.
        I wouldn't. I prefer my car, not some sardine stuffed in a tin can.

        I will ALWAYS own a car, nothing says freedom like being able to go anywhere at anytime. Not to only where the train goes, and on its schedule.

        • 5 Years Ago
        when you drive 80 miles a week, I'm sure you see a bunch of people sitting by themselves in their own car.

        I'm sure that these people could make use of rail.
      • 5 Years Ago
      ""America's century-old love affair with the automobile may be coming to an end.""

      That would be a damn shame.

      But...with all of the bland appliances coming out of Detroit (hold a few excellent models from GM), that statement may be true.

      Oh well, at least you can still get proper (V8, RWD), fun, exciting cars in Austraila...
      • 5 Years Ago
      It's clear the decline is mostly recession-related and CFC (10 million cars permanently gone). BUT anyone who lives in a city with good mass transit knows that people ARE giving up their cars if they have other ways to get around. With increases in costs, difficult parking, insurance increases and new time-based rentals like ZipCar, owning a car in the city is an expensive burden in these times. Young urbanites think bikes are cool, not cars. Those of you in the burbs or rural areas have no choice, but you may have given up your third or fourth car to save costs.
      • 5 Years Ago
      Once the economy bounces back, I guess car sales will pick up again.
      • 5 Years Ago
      Merely by publishing this fever-dream in a neutral fashion, Autoblog helps make it true. Repetition becomes belief.

      This one-year-is-a-trend fantasy needs to be buried, or countered with a more sensible analysis.
      • 5 Years Ago
      Considering that 246 million is still more than every 2 of 3 people having a car, I would have to say absolutely not. Granted, 2 out of 3 people don't own cars, but the number is still staggering close to our population.

      Wait for the economy to pick up and you'll see the number start going back up.
      • 5 Years Ago
      Wonder were the data for cars scrapped comes from? Hope he is not assuming that not renewing a registration = scrapped. The RITA report on 'vehicles scrapped' contains the note that figures represent number of vehicles not reregistered. Recent years of the report also do not differentiate between the car/truck breakdown.
        • 5 Years Ago
        I think that this might be the case. To the study a car that wasnt re-registered means it was scrapped.
      • 5 Years Ago
      I think this argument holds some water but that doesn't necessarily mean Americans have lost interest in cars. The market is oversaturated with older cars inspite of cash for clunkers, and with worsening traffic and environmental conditions, I think we will see a greater need for public transportation and trains in the future. With that being said, I still think there will be a need for a few more roads and bridges and I think we will continue relying on cars for quite some time here in this country. I certainly havn't lost my love for the automobile.
        • 5 Years Ago
        we have a need for trains now. It is my personal belief there are WAY too many trucks on the road. One locomotive can haul the load of hundreds of semi-trucks. Thats one engine burning diesel to produce electricity for traction motors, rather than hundreds of diesel enignes buring diesel to push a load.

        if we did that, and then increased light rail within cities, and then implemented a more strict licensing test, you would see traffic move far more efficiently as the people who dont belong in a car will be taking the train, and everyone else will be competent enough to operate an automobile without semis clogging up the roads.
      • 5 Years Ago
      "America's century-old love affair with the automobile may be coming to an end." Yes, Mr Brown keep on wishing. I for one will love my 3 car(s) and continue to buy and drive new cars until the day I die....
      • 5 Years Ago
      It is disturbing that Autoblog posts this tripe with no counter point.
      Did the fascists at AutoblogGreen get posting permissions here?
        • 5 Years Ago
        Some agree, some don't - I would be more disturbed if Autoblog was filtering posts for slanted content before posting, which is what you seem to be requesting. Who's the fascist again?
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