2009 was a terrible year for Detroit, the worst in three decades. Americans bought 10.4 million cars — 21% fewer than in 2008 and a whopping 40% fewer than the 17 million or so cars and light trucks sold, on average, in the early 2000s.
This is normally seen as bad news, and anyone who’s visited Detroit lately understands why. But what if the bad news for U.S. automakers, their workers and the economy of the industrial Midwest turns out to be good for the rest of us?
That’s the argument being made by environmentalist and author Lester Brown. If fewer cars are being driven fewer miles, America’s dependence on imported oil will decrease, as will air pollution, carbon emissions, traffic congestion, respiratory diseases and the demand for new roads or highways.
Because Americans scrapped 14 million cars last year, there are fewer registered vehicles in the U.S. today than there were a year ago–about 246 million, according to Brown, who is president of the Earth Policy Institute. The U.S. now has more registered cars than licensed drivers, of which there are 209 million.
“When is enough enough?,” Brown asks. “Continuing growth in our car fleet is no longer in our national interest or in our interest as individuals.”
What’s more, the drop in car sales may be more than a reflection of a down economy. America’s century-old love affair with the automobile may be coming to an end, Brown said yesterday during a conference call with reporters.
This is a bold claim and, while I’m not persuaded that he’s right, Brown’s ideas are worth thinking about. He says that an array of forces—ranging from urbanization to rising oil prices to the popularity of text messages and Facebook among teenagers—mean that more Americans are learning to live without a car.
Brown, a lifelong environmentalist, is one of them. He lives and works in Washington, D.C., and hasn’t owned a car in more than 35 years. Even so, in a city with an excellent (but deteriorating) metro system, he’s in a minority. About 37% of households in Washington d0 not own a car, according to the 2000 Census.
Still, as America becomes more urban, fewer people need cars. More than 55% of New York households make do without one, and the percentages are 25 to 35% in older cities like Boston, Baltimore, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Chicago and San Francisco. Cities are discouraging car use by raising parking meter fees, Brown noted. Just this week, Chicago raised rates in the Loop to $4.25 an hour.
Rising gasoline prices also come into play. “If gasoline can go to $4 a gallon, it can go to $7 a gallon,” Brown says. “It’s affecting consumer decisions.” Traffic congestion could also lead people to abandon cars for mass transit or move closer to their work so they don’t need cars to commute.
Brown’s most intriguing argument is that teenagers no longer see the acquisition of a driver’s license and their first car as a rite of passage. “The number of teenage drivers in this country has actually declined over the last three decades,” he says, “even though the number of teenagers has increased.” Teens who live in cities don’t demand cars, and those in the suburbs can get together virtually, using social media, instead of piling into a junker and cruising around looking for friends.
Another factor–one not cited by Brown–is the growth of car-sharing services. Zipcar, the biggest, has about 325,000 members and 6,500 vehicles in cities and on college campuses across North America. Those numbers are still small, but if Zipcar becomes a habit for its mostly young customers, they could delay buying a car for years.
While the automakers don’t expect to sell 17 million cars a year anytime soon, they do expect sales to bounce back in 2010.
Brown doesn’t. “This is not a one-time event,” he says. “We expect this shrinkage to continue for the indefinite future, at least through 2020.”
As I said, I’m not persuaded, although it’s possible Brown is onto something. If more people walked, biked or rode mass transit to get around, we’d be better off. (Auto workers could be employed making buses, subway cars or trains.) But my guess is that the big reason why Americans are buying fewer cars is quite simply that much of the nation is still mired in worst economic downturn since the early 1980s.
For better or worse, most Americans live in suburbs or small towns (the best numbers I could find indicate that about 28% live in cities of 100,000 or more people), places that are designed for cars, and not for mass transit, bikes or walking. I don’t like driving but living in suburban Bethesda, Md., as I do, I feel like I need a car. Whether we love cars or not, it’s hard to see how we’re going to learn to live without them.