Motorization Stalls in U.S. - For Now


  • Traffic Picture

    Traffic Picture

    There are fewer vehicles on U.S. roads than there were five years ago, according to a new University of Michigan study. | June 21, 2013

Just the Facts:
  • There are fewer vehicles on U.S. roads than there were five years ago, according to a new University of Michigan study.
  • Registrations dropped from a peak of 236.4 million in 2008 to 233.8 million in 2011.
  • The economic downturn explains some of the decrease, but societal factors come into play, as well.

ANN ARBOR, Michigan — There are fewer light cars and trucks on the road than there were five years ago, according to a new study from the University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute.

The study is noteworthy because it comes at a time when some experts are bemoaning the fact that personal motorization is expanding in emerging markets.

The book Two Billion Cars: Driving Toward Sustainability, predicts that by 2020, more than two billion vehicles will populate earth, at least half of them cars.

"The slowest car growth is expected in the United States (less than 1 percent a year) and Western Europe, while China's and India's fleets are expected to grow more rapidly, at around 7 or 8 percent per year," the book says.

In the study, Has Motorization in the U.S. Peaked?, Professor Michael Sivak reviewed trends in the number of light-duty vehicles (cars, SUVs, pickups, and vans) registered in the U.S. from 1984 through 2011, the latest year for which information was available. His conclusions were drawn from studying the total number of vehicles on the road, as well as the rates per person, per licensed driver, and per household.

The data showed that the absolute number of registered vehicles stood at 156.8 million in 1984, peaked at 236.4 million in 2008, and then dropped off to 233.8 million in 2011.

Sivak surmised that the decline after 2008 could logically be explained by the economic downturn that began that year. So, in light of an improving economy and anticipated population growth, he concluded: "It is highly likely that the maximum number of vehicles reached in 2008 will be surpassed in the near future."

However, it's when looking at the rates that things get complicated. Sivak found that all three rates — per person, per licensed driver, and per household — reached their peak in 2006, two years before the economic downturn.

"In other words," the study says, "these rates started to decline not because of economic changes but because of other societal changes that influence the need for vehicles."

One of those factors could be an increase in telecommuting. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, only 3.3 percent of workers telecommuted in 2000, compared to 4.3 percent in 2010.

Another possible explanation might be that more people are relying on public transportation. The Census Bureau says 4.7 percent of us got to work by public transportation in 2000, a number that increased to 5 percent by 2011.

Whatever the cause, those societal changes make it significantly more difficult to forecast future trends. While it seems likely that the previous peak in the absolute number of registrations will be surpassed, the study concludes: "Whether the recent maxima in the rates will represent long-term peaks as well will be influenced by the extent to which the relevant societal changes turn out to be permanent." And who can predict that?

Edmunds says: When you're stuck in traffic, does it really seem like there are 2.6 million fewer vehicles on the road than there were a few years ago?

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