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U.S. Auto Fleet Shrinks as Youth Lose Interest in Cars

WASHINGTON, DC, January 7, 2009 (ENS) – “America’s century-old love affair with the automobile may be coming to an end,” says Lester Brown, president of the Earth Policy Institute, a nonprofit environmental research organization.

A well-established analyst of social and environmental trends, in 1974, Brown founded the Worldwatch Institute, the first research institute devoted to the analysis of global environmental issues. In 2001, he founded the Earth Policy Institute to provide a vision and road map for achieving an environmentally sustainable economy.

Brown’s latest analysis, released Wednesday, shows that the United States is entering a new era, evolving from a car-dominated transport system to one that is much more diversified.

Lester Brown (Photo courtesy Earth Policy Institute)

“As this evolution proceeds, it will affect virtually every facet of life,” he predicts.

After 60 years of uninterrupted growth the U.S. auto fleet shrank last year by four million vehicles. The 14 million cars scrapped exceeded the 10 million new cars sold, shrinking the U.S. fleet by nearly two percent in one year,” Brown told reporters on a teleconference call.

“This is not a one time event,” he said. “We expect this to continue for indefinite future at least until 2020.” He expects the U.S. auto fleet to shrink by 10 percent by 2020 to about 225 million cars.

There are obvious reasons – the recession, the credit crunch, the decline in household wealth by roughly four percent, in contrast to growth in previous decades of up to 40 percent.

But Brown says other trends also are contributing to the shrinkage of the fleet, such as market saturation never before seen in the United States but only in other countries such as Japan. In the United States today, 246 million autos are licensed, but there are only 209 million licensed drivers, Brown points out.

The most fundamental social trend affecting the future of the automobile is the declining interest in cars among young people, says Brown.

“Where I grew up in southern New Jersey, a rural area, everyone got a drivers license in high school. Then, getting a car or pickup was a rite of passage. Getting other teenagers into a car and driving around was a popular pastime. That’s changing,” Brown said. “The number of teens getting cars is decreasing, although the number of teens is increasing.”

No car? No problem. (Photo by Linda AnnaMarie)

Today, young people living in a more urban society learn to live without cars, he points out. “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.”

Beyond their declining interest in cars, young people are facing a financial squeeze. Real incomes among a large segment of society are no longer increasing. College graduates already saddled with college loan debt may find it difficult to get the credit to buy a car. Young job market entrants are often more interested in getting health insurance than in buying a car.

“The car promised mobility, and in a largely rural United States it delivered,” Brown says. “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.”

Mayors across the country are fighting to save their cities from cars, trying to reduce traffic congestion and air pollution. “Many are using a “carrot-and-stick” approach to reduce costly traffic congestion by simultaneously improving public transportation while imposing restrictions on the use of cars,” Brown explains.

U.S. cities such as Phoenix, Seattle, Houston, Nashville, and Washington, DC are either introducing new light rail lines, new subway lines, or express bus lines, or expanding and improving existing public transit systems.

And residents are responding positively. Between 2005 and 2008, transit ridership climbed nine percent in the United States, Brown’s research shows.

Fewer cars on U.S. roads in combination with a congressionally mandated incease in fuel economy for new cars means less demand for oil and a reduced dependence on foreign oil sources.

“It also means carbon emissions from the auto sector will be going down in the years ahead in a way I don’t think we have anticipated,” Brown said.

Ford Escape plug-in hybrid in the Milwaukee Holiday Parade, November 21, 2009. Production of this car is set to start in 2012. (Photo credit unknown)

He explains that the auto sector is running a steel surplus because scrappage rates exceed the rate of new car sales and the size of cars being scrapped is greater than the size of those being sold. This steel will go to the construction and appliance sectors, Brown says.

Brown predicts that in the future there will be less need for new roads and higways and lower maintenance costs for streets and highways. He says, “The stage is being set for shifting public investment away from road and highway construction to public transportation such as high speed intercity rail.”

This will mean less pressure on the global climate as fewer greenhouse gases are emitted into the atmosphere, he says, projecting “a rapid move to electricity rather than gas to fuel cars” not only in the United States but around the world.

“As the shift to plug-in hybrids begins to gain momentum, countries will realize if they don’t get into that quickly they will be left in the backwater, producing cars for a past age,” says Brown.

“In addition, at the national level, we have seen over the past two years the emergence of a powerful grassroots movement to oppose new coal-fired power plants that has been so successful has led to almost a de facto moratorium on new coal plants,” Brown notes.

“Beyond that,” he says, “major utilities are announcing they’re going to close coal-fired power plants. At least 40 out of America’s 620 coal plants will be closing.”

Returning to consideration of the U.S. auto fleet, Brown says, “No one knows how many cars will be sold in the years ahead, but given the many forces at work, U.S. vehicle sales may never again reach the 17 million that were sold each year between 1999 and 2007. Sales seem more likely to remain between 10 million and 14 million per year.”

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