Has the Developed World Hit “Peak Car Use”?

Yves here. While this piece provides a solid overview of the fallen status of cars, it misses an obvious contributor to the lack of enthusiasm for them among the young: with weak incomes and in many cases, heavy student debt loads, an automobile is too large an expense relative to what they get out of it.

From Unconventional Economist, who has previously worked at the Australian Treasury, Victorian Treasury and Goldman Sachs. Originally published at MacroBusiness

I wrote late last year how Americans appear to be losing their luster for cars, driving less, obtaining fewer licenses, and using less gasoline.

The below charts from The Atlantic illustrate the situation nicely, suggesting that the US might have hit “peak cars”.

First, at the height of the housing bubble, there were just over two registered cars on the road per household, whereas as at 2011, there were just under two:


Second, due to the rising population, the total number of vehicles on US roads has started rising again, although families are obviously not buying as many vehicles as the bubble years:


Third, the average number of miles traveled has fallen 9% since the mid-2000s peak:


With total vehicle miles also lower, despite the growing population:


Finally, you would have to go back to the Reagan era to see annual fuel consumption this low on a per-driver basis:


An article published over the weekend in The Guardian provided some analysis of what’s afoot in the US, with young people in particular increasingly shunning car use:

New car purchases by those aged 18-34 dropped by 30% in the US between 2007 and 2012, according to the car shopping website Edmunds.com. Many American under-35s are now not even getting their licence. Given that so called “millennials” – those born between 1983 and 2000 – are now the largest generation in the US, the trend is worrying car firms.

Meanwhile the number of miles driven by Americans each year has also started to drop –they now drive fewer miles per capita than at the end of Bill Clinton’s first term, according to a report released last year by US PIRG Education Fund. And the age group showing the biggest decline? Those aged 16 to 34, who drove 23% fewer miles on average in 2009 than in 2001.

There are two main, and not necessarily mutually exclusive theories, for why America’s millennials are eschewing cars, said Tom Libby, lead analyst for IHS Automotive. “One theory is that millennials have lost interest in cars in general. They live more of their lives online and just don’t have the same innate interest in car ownership,” he said. “Secondly, the economy has held them back and they’ll return once it picks up enough.”

It appears that the US is not alone, with our friends across the pond – New Zealand – also experiencing declining car use, with kilometres travelled per capita per year (VKT) dropping since 2005:


Similarly, in Australia, VKT per capita has fallen since 2004:


As fuel costs rise and technology improves (enabling working from home and reducing the need for commuting), one would expect these trends to continue.

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  1. bob goodwin

    Young people socialize a lot by internet, and back when a car was a practical necessity to socialize. I also imagine a lot of long driving was because of long commutes by the working class, limited by the economy. We do not have a carless trend starting.

    1. 12312399

      young people aren’t the drivers of miles driven. it’s the long commutes, freight/supply-chain, driving for work, and road trips that drive mileage.

      all of those have taken hits due to less discretionary income, offshoring of industry, use of internet and internet shopping.

      With the pro-auto gov’t policies, America won’t have a carless society but it’s real easy for people to go from driving 15,000 miles a year to 12,000.

      1. Anon y Mouse

        I gave up my car a few years ago. It was car sharing programs + telecommutes + bike sharing programs that allowed me to do so. The number of miles I drive is dramatically less (maybe 20% of what it used to be).

        I do still own a motorcycle, but it has become more of a recreational item than something I use for meaningful transportation. Hell, I should sell it.

  2. bulfinch

    I was just talking to a young man this evening who told me how glad he was to be moving to Denver, where, apparently, one can get around quite readily without needing to own car. It is definitely a sentiment gaining traction in the popular mindset of the younger people I know. It’s almost a fad.

  3. The Dork of Cork

    The present consumption of cars (especially within Europe) is about to experience another bubble /growth.
    This is a result of the concentration of capital claims in the financial capitals.
    What happens is pretty simple , the peripheral conduit economies domestic production /consumption loop is laid to waste so as to make space for more cars.

    CH Douglas (control and distribution of production)
    “To sum
    the whole matter up, the existing economic
    arrangements :

    1. Make credit the most important factor
    in effective demand
    2. Base credit on the pursuit of a financial
    objective, and centralise it
    3. This involves constantly expanding pro- duction ;

    4. This must find an effective demand,
    which means exports and more credit

    5.Makes price a linear function of cost,
    and so limits distribution, largely to those with large credits

    6, Therefore directs production into channels
    desired by those with the largest

    Dork :Obviously the Euro seems to take the above arrangements especially to heart over and above other currencies.
    Which is why we see extreme scarcity in the Euroworld of today.

    Lets never forget that people did notice a real inflation of internal goods relative to cashflow at each stage of the euro gestation causing a collapse of local production systems as demand dried up.

    To sum up this battle has always been a battle of wages (beer) vs credit (cars)
    Expect irish demand of new private cars to reach beyond 100,000 units (bigger then a early second world war army) for the first time since 2008 despite and indeed because of a further implosion of day to day human scale exchange.
    Credit demand is winning over real demand.
    This is a result of Rockefeller like control over all parts of the production ./distribution and consumption chain.

  4. The Dork of Cork

    Further proof of gross capital misallocation caused by channeling consumption towards those with the largest credits can be seen in the Dublin vs the rest of the country car consumption.

    Dublin market share of Irish new car market
    Y2007 : 36.24 % 67,484 (Dublin) units
    Y2010 : 35.39% 31,299 units
    Y2013 : 43.09 % 32,016 units
    Dublin market share of Irish LCV (van) market
    Y2010 :39.42 % 4,115 units
    Y2013 :45.81 % 5,074 units (a real actual increase)

    So Dublin has seen a 50 % ~ drop in new car consumption
    While the remaining counties of Ireland which actually produce a (albeit) small amount of domestic goods have seen a decline of 60 – 70 % in new car consumption from Y2007 levels.

    From a physical economic perspective this does not make any sense as a car in Dublin is a unneeded luxury good.
    These strange dynamics can only be explained via the process of rentier extraction which concentrates capital where it is not needed and therefore this capital cannot be used effectively causing periodic breakdowns of the production distribution consumption system.

    The writing is on the wall.
    Current rates and distribution of car consumption is a artifact of the present private & extremely concentrated monetary system.
    Ireland as a extreme form of capital dumping ground makes our present dire situation very clear for all with eyes to see.

    To sum up – Its not a question of what you want to buy but what you can and cannot buy.
    Irish manual workers for example do not get enough cashflow to buy beer in the pub.
    They leave for other shores with enough credit while their previous Irish jobs are transferred to external workers who just want enough food to survive another day as the cars themselves have created dramatic scarcity in these conduit economies.

  5. Aaron Layman

    Please tell the city planners in Houston. We are apparently bucking the trend. Pretty hard to get around here without a car, and the development of available land points to more sprawl. It’s more toll roads and cars here in Texas. The Texas Department of Public Safety recently teamed up with Chevy for a shameless plug for the new Corvette on our newest toll road. Remember, speed kills so don’t speed. Wow, look at that car; it just hit 200 miles per hour on the toll road! LOL!


    1. Adam S.

      The main obstruction I see to having these numbers drop even more significantly is precisely what you’re talking about Aaron: city planning. Most non-urban areas are planned in ways that are unfriendly or downright hostile to non-car commuting and travel.

      I was super excited a few years ago when I saw a TED talk from a man named James Kuntsler. He seemed to get it—that our modern towns and cities have been planned in such a way that they have become parodies of themselves. And, that if we’re going to arrive at peak oil, we’re going to have to drastically rethink about how we plan our communities.

      I’d argue that, millenials especially, people actually desire community living, in the sense that European towns and cities are planned. Probably because of the much more prevalent community living experience that the generation has under its belt (read: college towns). Not only that, but also because everywhere in America is starting to resemble a gigantic shopping mall.

      Carlin famously complained about it in one of his last stand-up routines; everyone laughed but didn’t seem to do anything about it. I’m thinking its starting to sink in.

      I know I’m growing tired of living in a forest of concrete that I have to use my car to get anywhere. Anyone else?

  6. craazyman

    IT’s probably cause cars are way too complicated at this point.

    You sit in a car now and the dashboard looks like the space shuttle. WTF is all that about? Its almost too complicated to drive. What do you have to have a PhD to drive the damn thing to the liquor store? Everything’s automated. It beeps at you if you don’t’ put your seatbelt on and if you try to roll down the window there’s no crank. There’s 10 buttons and most of them lock and unlock the doors or turn the headlights on. It takes 5 minutes just to get the car ready to back out of the driveway

    And forget about fixing it yourself. Back in the day a man with a crew cut, jeans and white T-shirt could jack his car up in the driveway on Saturday morninng, get underneath with a wrench and figure out what was wrong using common sense. Then you’d pop open the hood and look around. If you saw something that didn’t look right you’d tighten down a few bolts and that would fix it. Maybe you’d give it a tune up, with a kit you’d buy at the auto store for $29.95. It would work too.

    Now you open the hood and it’s total chaos. There’s not even an owners manual and if there is, it makes no sense at all. Even the car mechanics are confused. You take it to the garage and even they can’t even figure out why it won’t work. Hours of computerized diagnotics and it’s “It might be the transverse adaptive alternator circuit where it connects with the lateral node on the injection housing box. It’s a computerized interface with circuitry that can corrode if the humidity gets above 70. We’ll run some more tests this week and by next week we might know.” Once they do, if they do, it’ll be $2,678.98 plus parts.


    Who wants to deal with that when you can just sleep late. I mean really. Better to take the bus. And they wonder why people are driving less.

    1. TimR

      Yes, and you left out the bit about how hackers can take over your car’s computer and ram you into a light pole if they get a wild hair to do so. I heard an expert on Teri Gross yesterday, talking about the “internet of things” and how your car will be talking to your thermostat as you drive home. He mentioned the bit about people taking over your car as a downside, but Teri made no comment or follow-up question, and neither she nor the expert ever paused to consider if anybody really wanted all this ****. I’m not saying that everyday people are probably going to encounter a *lot* of vehicle takeovers, but who wants to drive around with that possibility. And yeah, I hate power windows too — they always break, but also the manual crank is simple and elegant and doesn’t need to be “improved.”

    2. optimader

      CMan .. you nailed the point that first came to my mind. The auto mfgrs in many respects are their own victims in a way.
      the industry model has progressively raised the cost of ownership w/ the strategy of integrating gobs of complexity, (some necessary to meet CAFE standards of course), but much way over the top all with the long term objective of channeling the maximum maintenance expenditures to dealerships. Many perfectly serviceable autos now are at end of service life because fixing the just the AC or some series of failed googawks exceeds the vehicle value. Conditioning of consumers on what the minimum levels of vehicle features for a vehicle to be usable has marched on relentlessly. My first 3rd or 4th hand used car had vacuum operated windshield wipers!

      When I was young I was able to maintain my parade of shitbox cars w/ hardware store parts and tuneup kits. These formative years of creatively keeping a car on the road, IMO is what for many participants later evolved into more mature sensibilities about how things are designed, how they work, how they can be maintained. This has largely been CRUSHED out of the younger demographics who have been dumbed down to thinking they are very resourceful if they can retrofit an iWhatever docking station in their plastic driving appliance.

      One may have a philosophical angst about cars.. or not, but the fact remains automobiles have traditionally been the teething ground for future engineers and technologists who matured into the US manufacturing sector, the historical engine of the middleclass. but now has been substantially gutted into a Lego set assembly exercises for the most part.

    3. Natas

      Eh, maybe, but I don’t think so. People have been saying this about cars since carburetors were replaced by fuel injection and points become electronic ignitions. Besides, phones and televisions have become immeasurably more complex, but that hasn’t stopped anybody from buying them.

    4. rusti

      I work for a vehicle manufacturer and this nostalgia always makes me scratch my head. Those romanticized vehicles of old were completely unsafe and an environmental disasters. If you want to be able to get under the hood and fix things again, you’d best start lobbying to relax emissions and safety standards.

      There are plenty of features that get crammed in without much discussion of how useful they are, particularly with regards to the human-machine interface, but it’s better than driving an environment killing death trap. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fPF4fBGNK0U I’d hate to be the first responder who sees the Bel Air crash scene.

      Ironically, I don’t own a car myself and commute everywhere by bike even in the winter, but I suspect Yves is completely right in that this is mostly an artifact of my generation’s terrible employment/earnings prospects and the idealism of living car-free is at best a secondary result of people pushed into new dynamics seeing the upside.

      1. just_kate

        we have a 94 honda civic that can be quite easily fixed using google, the manual and parts – hardly a deathtrap or big polluter. recently bought a honda fit manual transmission that has CRUISE CONTROL – wth?

        1. Whistling in the Dark

          Ya see, the Civic is the entry model. Some Accords and Preludes from back then had cruise control with manual transmission (I had an ’86 Accord manual with cruise control; I used it heavily one time to get home when I made my foot useless while kicking the ground, mostly, while playing soccer, badly.) Honda gave you some fancy junk in the ’80s for not so much money.

      2. McmIke

        Both are true. New cars are better/safer/more reliable. They are also incomprehensible, over-engineered, hard-to-maintain complex systems, loaded down with a web of unnecessary gimmicks and feature like a Windows PC’s OS.

      3. optimader

        I doubt anyone is critical of the merits of CAFE, emission and certain elements of safety technology. I doubt that anyone here is suggesting it appropriate to wind back the clock on automotive technology to s 50yo Bel Air w/ a ladder frame and metal dashboard as a design standard .

        OTOH, in the general case, do vehicles need all the over the top control systems that allow drivers to adaptively overdrive their capabilities? No I don’t think so.

        Just a simple example of idiotic technology is assisted parking. If you can’t parallel park your car w/out the vehicles assistance, you either are in an inappropriate vehicle for your skills, or you shouldn’t be driving at all.
        Should I have to divert my attention to consult some integrated function crappy touchscreen to turn the defroster on instead of inadvertently changing a radio station? No I don’t think so.
        It remains, much of the unnecessary googaakery that consumers have been conditioned to consider basic requirements in a vehicle used for basic transportation is the crap that fails.
        Human nature is the creep of wants to needs. Because a technological feature is now possible to integrate does not necessarily make it wise course of action.

        1. McMike

          My vehicle has some sort of little sensor harness hidden under the manifold. When it fails, the vehicle won’t start intermittently, until it eventually refuses to run. Service guy says he has replaced a ton of them, because they are in a perfect warm spot for mice to crawl up into, and the wires are tasty.

          For the mechanic though, not such easy access. $500 or $600 to replace $40 sensor. He promises to wrap the new one in aluminum foil. True story. “It might work,” he said.

          Reminds me of another vehicle I had that stalled intermittently at highway speeds. Had to shift to neutral and restart while driving. Which worked eventually.

          Spend hundreds paying the dealer’s mechanics to drive it around and of course it never replicated. Eventually found an old school mechanic who took me at my word and thought it out. O2 sensor he said. Confirmed when the parts store said that they had a couple dozen in stock – meaning they go through a ton of them. Why don’t the dealer’s guys know that these particular O2 sensors are prone to failure?

          1. optimader

            I do not envy the job of automobile techs..
            The widget on the manifold may be nothing more than a thermocouple used to calculate air density so the FI system can correctly calibrate the fuel/air ratio.

            An underlying issue is that the kid doing the parametric 3D modeling that calculated the shortest length (cheapest) wiring harness line is not the same poor bastard that has to maintain it, nor live w/ the unintended consequences of the design. Again I have seen so much of this kinda stuff –(systems not designed for reliability and maintainability).

            O2 sensor? these little zirconium chip widgets have just a brutal service life, I am actually amazed they work at all, and when they don’t its a hassle. When my daily driver has one croak I have all in like service replaced at eh same time.. same with exterior light bulbs… tail lights breaklights etc. I have as yet not had to cycle into a car w/ led lights..

    5. Jagger

      20-30,000 dollars for a mid-level car that costs a fortune to fix if something goes wrong. Maybe I am just getting old but that seems like an insane amount of money and costs for a car. Simple costs is bound to play a role in reduced driving considering the lack of decent paying jobs for young adults.

      1. optimader

        I think $ for $, money is better spent on a used highline car that is less of a parsed down driving appliance.

        1. F. Beard

          Which one? Lexus, Infinity, Accura?

          I drive a Subaru Forester (no, I’m not a lesbian unless a male one like my cubemate claimed to be) and it’s been fun to maintain now that it’s 14 years old but I might enjoy a more upscale used car that get’s better mileage.

          1. Optimader

            You gave me a good chuckle Beard, Subarus are decent cars, easily resold.
            My current driver is a lexus ls430. very well made, rear wheel drive, incredibly reliable, annualized inexpensive to operate compared to buying a new car. Very quiet and will turn in its own length so it’s decent for tight manuvering in the city. Highway driving it will push 25 mpg on cruise control.
            Beard, anymore for commuting i want a car that will survivably eat the jersey barrier or the disintegrating errant 53′ trailer tire

            1. F. Beard

              I like quiet since I cannot drive for long without some good music. My Subaru is not that quiet but I can drown it out with my 50 watts rms x 4 CD player but I fear I may be the classical music equivalent of a ghetto blaster. But otoh hey, if the music is “good” then EVERYONE should be forced to listen to it, no?

              Thanks for the tip.

    6. Binky Bear

      Kids who have no problem haxoring the intarwebs have no cognitive problem buying a code scanner at the autoparts store and plugging it in, then going on line to read the error codes. No different than hacking your xbox or playstation but with an added physical component-there are heavy parts on cars that pudgy indoor bred children can’t lift, and sharp edges and smelly chemicals.
      I keep my 1973 VW around, though, because it has exactly one solid state component-the zener diode that runs the logic for the brake warning light-and the buzzers for the belts were disconnected by the dealer. That rig will survive an emp and run on moose droppings.

    7. jfleni

      RE: “Better to take the bus.”

      What bus?? The car dealers who get themselves elected to city and state legislatures make sure that the busses arrive just twice a day, and protest bitterly if service is any better than that, making a car (and expensive license plates, insurance and etc …) essential if you want to get anything done between 9AM and 5PM. These gas buggy clowns have been sabotaging vitally needed public transportation for almost a century and are still doing it!

  7. MacCruiskeen

    Around here, the roads are jammed in and out of the city, and this is after the completion of the largest public works project ever to relieve the congestion. We’re having a bit of a mini-bubble in the housing market, and it is largely concentrated in the areas with the best public transit–people who moved out to the McMansions during the Great Bubble are trying to move back in. For myself, our car is basically down to weekend use only–less than 1000 miles a year. If it dies, we probably won’t replace it. A 3-mile bike ride to work beats driving any day. Yes, car companies still try to push the idea of the open road and freedom and stuff, but the reality is that driving sucks and just isn’t worth the expense. There was a time when I’d drive from Boston to Northampton just to get ice cream, but it’s no fun any more.

  8. Expat

    Now that the auto companies have finally invented a car that gives you free miles when you are stuck in a traffic jam (from braking — available on electric, hybrid, and plug-in hybrid models) people are driving less. Wouldn’t you know?

  9. The Dork of Cork

    You get the impression from some folks that the primary role of cars is transport.
    It is not……… its transport dominance is only a outcome of its deeper monetary and physical role in this world.
    Cars are the most efficient vehicle for creating scarcity in this world although many other machines could be used nothing else comes close.
    In a sense its the perfect banking vehicle as it works by destroying capital before it can be usefully used.
    The Neo keynesians of the 1950s has essentially turned the war fiat economy into a free banking war economy.
    The objective of the war economy remains the same.

    As long as the bankers can successfully deflate and inflate economies then car consumption will continue to grow , if not in real terms then as a larger % of the remaining rump economy.

    On a micro scale ask yourself what happens to peoples collective mean energy ration when a certain section of the populace maintain credit in the eyes of the bankers.
    These high energy credit car people simply subtract real energy consumption from bus non persons.

    To repeat the real car consumption of a economy need not grow.
    It can merely eat up a larger % of the shrinking pie.
    In the eyes of bankers this is success as scarcity is maintained in their dastardly system of control.

    1. susan the other

      Last nite on Chinese TV (CCTV) There was a bizarre report about how China is going to become consumer to the world with only 2 million rich Chinese buying up luxury goods (from the UK). So this is the plan in the UK – China is going to buy up their luxury mfg and float their boat. Was this a payoff for the UK giving China the contract to build their new nuclear reactors? Doesn’t this look like secret trade pacts in action? It is all for the luxury class.

  10. Lois

    It really just floors me that the PTB think they can pay crap wages to everyone and still have everyone buy expensive stuff. Are they really that obtuse? All these studies to cover up the lack of jobs and wages.

    1. Fíréan

      The costs of obtaining a drivers licence are prohibitive too, even if one wishes to own an automobile/car. new or second hand. I do not know of the proceedure in the USA, yet in parts of Europe the courses, both theory and practical, and tests can amount to a few thousand euros. Increased legislation makes this training obligatory to the (short term) financial benefit of driving schools yet prohibitive to the young and low paid.
      Loans maybe available for further education, not for driving lessons and tests. I would be interested to know the effects this has upon those who are seeking employment in areas where public tranpsort is not available.Scooters are fashion for some age groups.

  11. Lexington

    There is definitely a generational divide on this. An integral part of the “middle class” lifestyle that became normative in America after World War II was car ownership and a domicile in suburbia. The built environment was premised on the desirability of physically segregating where people lived from where they worked, shopped, and played, which turned 5000 years of urban development on its head. Until car ownership became democratized after World War II (fables about how Henry Ford paid his workers enough to purchase one notwithstanding) what today would be called “walkable neighborhoods” were ubiquitous. In the older sections of many American cities you can still see vestiges of this in the form of prewar buildings which have shops at street level and apartments above it (now styled “mixed use” – and widely prohibited by postwar zoning regulations). It was taken for granted that whenever you wanted to do something –purchase a loaf of bread, see a movie, go to the gym- you would get in your car and drive there (btw a foreign policy directed at ensuring a reliable supply of cheap gas was an essential corollary). The result was uncontrolled urban sprawl consisting of subdivision after subdivision of ugly cookie cutter houses, the virtual elimination of public space from the urban landscape, and the loss of any authentic sense of community as people retreated into their detached single family dwellings and became strangers to each other.

    Then a younger generation came of age, looked at what their parents had wrought, and inevitably judged it wanting. Suddenly spending two hours a day in traffic to commute between where you live and where you work wasn’t cool. An environmentally irresponsible car dependent lifestyle in which you have to drive ten blocks to the nearest minimall to buy a quart of milk wasn’t cool. Anonymous prefab “communities” in which people living three houses apart don’t know each other wasn’t cool. In short, a younger generation rediscovered the virtues of the urban living to which their parents had turned their backs.

    Oh yeah, and gas wasn’t as cheap anymore, the best efforts of Halliburton’s representative to the White House notwithstanding.

    1. TimR

      Do you mean “wasn’t cool IN PORTLAND”? Maybe it’s because I live in a red state, but the young people I have known are not very critical minded (for the most part) about the infrastructure, or about any of the rules of the Monopoly board game we live in… They don’t question the rules of the game (for the most part), they just try to get ahead within the game as it exists.

      1. Lexington

        Dunno. Never lived in Portland.
        I am not suggesting this is true of all young people, or even most of them, and I have no trouble at all imagining it is even less true in what I only half jokingly refer to as “the crazy part of America” (present company excepted, of couse).

        Attitudes toward car ownership are changing however, and they will continue to do so in part because suburbia, where car ownership is generally not optional, has no future. As global warming inexorably pushes its way to the top of the public policy agenda the fact that suburbia is not sustainable will become increasingly difficult to ignore, even if it is regarded as desireable -and it increasingly isn’t even regarded as that.

  12. Cal

    Without Hispanic immigration, there would be no net car increases caused by population increase, nor would there be any population increase in the U.S.
    One cannot carry gardening tools or a crew of women who clean houses on bicycles.

    If you are in the apartment rental, mortgage origination or new car sales you are going to be a loud advocate for more immigration and “amnesties”.

    A friend used to own a used car lot. He gave up the business because homeowners trade their used cars and their used students’ cars for gardening, maid service whatever instead of selling them on his lot. A trip around any largely poor Hispanic area will reveal hundreds of older vehicles with long expired student parking permits from local schools. This is the kind of economic investigation that anyone with two eyes can do for them self.

    Cash for Clunkers and the export of American used cars, trucks and buses to Mexico and Central America has also removed many of the simpler more easy to maintain cars from the U.S.

  13. Yancey Ward

    I think a lot of this can be explained by the internet’s social development. I know I drive a lot less than I did even 10 years ago for things outside of work. Add in the growth in work at home, and you have a pretty strong trend towards declining miles driven/capita.

    However, the numbers of cars/person is not likely to drop much further. Those young people forgoing autos in their youth will eventually have children, move to the suburbs, and buy cars. Count on it.

  14. washunate

    “Yves here. While this piece provides a solid overview of the fallen status of cars, it misses an obvious contributor to the lack of enthusiasm for them among the young: with weak incomes and in many cases, heavy student debt loads, an automobile is too large an expense relative to what they get out of it.”

    Spot on.

    Cars are old, ugly, noisy, smelly, polluting, dangerous, expensive money pits. One of the great opportunities of the 2007 recession was that it took care of the pain of reducing car sales and driving – all it took was changing economic incentives and behavior shifted.

    All we have to do now is make it possible for the subset of people who want to continue to live with less driving to actually live comfortably that way. Of course, the national security state isn’t too fond of reducing our dependence on fossil fuels. And the healthcare industry sure doesn’t want people walking more and breathing in less air pollution. And the realtors hate the idea of more walkable mixed income communities instead of debt-financed McMansion Sprawl…

  15. Chris Maukonen

    Motor cycles and motor scooters have become quite popular again as well. And to a lesser extent, electric bicycles.

    1. rusti

      I hope this trend continues, particularly with electric bikes! A lot of it hinges on how Lithium Ion research pans out in improving energy density, life cycles, alternative chemistries for cold weather charge/discharge, packaging, etc. The prices aren’t quite at a level to make them real compelling for most people yet and are mostly expensive toys.

  16. Teg

    And forget about fixing it yourself. Back in the day a man with a crew cut, jeans and white T-shirt could jack his car up in the driveway on Saturday morninng, get underneath with a wrench and figure out what was wrong using common sense. Then you’d pop open the hood and look around. If you saw something that didn’t look right you’d tighten down a few bolts and that would fix it. Maybe you’d give it a tune up, with a kit you’d buy at the auto store for $29.95. It would work too.

    It’s funny to hear non-car people talk about cars.

    A new car today can go 100K miles with nothing more than oil and brake pad changes. Back in the days you’re talking about, you’d have to service the car every 12-15K miles. Tune up? What’s that? They don’t exist in modern cars. You change the spark plugs at 100K miles. That’s all a tune up is today. Oil change intervals have stretched from 3000 miles to 10,000 miles.

    Cars are easier to repair and more reliable today than ever before. They’ve become little appliances like your fridge. Buy a Toyota, keep the fluids changed at an aggressive interval and it’ll last an easy 200K miles with no major repairs. OEM Parts are available on the internet for 30% off retail. Domestic cars are better than ever but, they still can’t match a Japanese car for long term reliability. As for Euro cars. Once they’re out of warranty, you need to get rid of them. They’re just not made very well.

    I’d argue that insurance costs are one of the primary causes of the decline. I was just on one of my car forums. These 20 year olds with clean records are paying $3200 a year to insure 10 year old cars that are only worth about $6000. Many of these people have financed these 10 year old cars so, they’re required to have full coverage. For these people, it’s probably the most expensive part of owning the car, next to the initial purchase.

    1. fajensen

      $3200 to insure a 10 year old clunker, because it is “financed”? That’s just nuts! Haven’t anyone learned anything (the finance industry have, obviously)??

      If a young person needs a car, there are cars that are cheap enough to buy with a credit card and throw away if they need to be repaired after an accident so one can go with 3-rd party insurance (and accident for oneself). Still a kind-of a rip-off for a young person but certainly not equivalent to buying 2 cars per year.

  17. Eureka Springs

    Car nowadays are not very interesting… they all look alike. As others mentioned above the dash is the feature… and for the most part your phone can do everything the fancy dash tries to sell you again. Maps, music, etc.

    Oddly since fuel costs skyrocketed a few years ago carmakers seem to be ignoring fuel efficiency at their peril. They don’t seem to care at all.

    Also I predicted cash for clunkers would hurt the auto market… and I would bet the spike in used car costs since then did just that.

    My first used car in the early ’80’s cost 235.00. I paid 85 down and the rest in a few months. Now it’s a real bargain to get the same for 4k.

    Minimum wage in that thirty year period has roughly doubled… fuel quadrupled or more… cost of introductory used vehicle 15x.

  18. Mickey Marzick in Akron, Ohio

    Perhaps it’s something much more profound than economics.

    The younger generations are much more aware of the consequences of climate change than their parents and/or grandparents who have driven the planet to the brink of ecological collapse. Regardless of whether they subscribe to the apocalyptic scenarios held by some on this site or not, many of them are more informed and knowledgeable about climate change than their elders who equate the automobile with freedom, to the times when the open road stretching to the horizon and a full tank of cheap gas beckoned, suggesting unlimited possibilities.

    How better to express one’s environmental commitment than to forego the purchase and use of the automobile where practicable?

    “Peak auto” invites the kind of discussion broached in the following:


    Maybe, just maybe, our children are ahead of us on this one just like some of us were 40 years ago – civil rights, Vietnam, ecology, feminism, inequality – with regard to our parents. They are experiencing the limits to growth first hand whereas the vast majority of us continued in many ways like our parents when cheap energy and the suburban ghettoes we escaped to epitomized the American Dream. For some of them, our dream is their environmental nightmare.

    1. TimR

      I’m kind of skeptical that a younger generation that doesn’t read serious books, and engages in constant social media, is going to lead the way in anything. If they have “progressive” ideas, it’s probably stuff that was inculcated into them through TV shows or school curriculums, and they’re only “progressive” in that they carry Huxley one step further, just like each generation before them. Top-down progressive ideas in other words, a product of social engineering, not rebellious or critical or independent thought.

    2. The Black Swan

      Which younger generation? I am in my 20’s and I don’t see any of this increased awareness among my peers. And I see less of it among people who are younger than me. Maybe it is more geographical than generational?

    3. susan the other

      Thank you MM for this Truthout link. Is this the same Richard Smith who posts here? I think I missed this one in 2010 – unfortunately. This updated version with recent citations is so good. The complete summary of the oxymoron that capitalism is efficient. Good references to Silent Spring and all that is wrong with our destructive over-use of the planet, not just fossil fuel intoxication.

  19. McmIke

    All of the above.

    Kids are more conscious of the environment, the idea of a car has lost its cachet a bit like smoking, more kids live with their parents and use mom’s car when they can, more kids share stuff like rides, more kids ride bikes, kids commute less, more kids are broke/in debt…

    Don’t forget total cost of ownership which is through the roof. Fuel and maintenance, tires, oil changes. Registration and ownership taxes. And God help us the punitive inadequate overpriced not-insurance that is mandatory.

    It’s not just kids though. I would imagine that a huge swath of the population has put off buying new cars, is trying to get by on one when they used to have two, and is no longer buying a car for every child when they come of age…

  20. susan the other

    The thought that no more cars will be manufactured warms my heart. Death by the sword. Cars are not only not inefficient, they are creating the extinction of capitalism. Because capitalism has, for a century, resorted to the auto industry to save it. Being saved by accruing unpayable environmental debt and other expenses is more than a tad irrational, even for capitalists. Reduce consumption – but do it fast. Maybe 5 more years – and then simply produce no more stinking cars. Or perfumed cars. Only produce good, clean-as-possible mass transit vehicles. And return to local economies of self sufficiency. I think we will decide to take quality over quantity. It will become voluntary. I envision a renaissance of sanity. For now, in their desperation, the capitalists have kludged together their trade deals, their absurd trade deals, and the rest of them have jetted off to Africa to “invest” because Africa is the only place still able to absorb the debt-to-profit paradigm. But not for long.

    1. Ray Phenicie

      In response to your comment about mass transit, be aware that I have heard talk about smaller cars (almost a large golf cart) being the wave of the future. These bugs will be powered off an electric grid that is entirely solar powered. At least, that’s the talk. A mass transit system that keeps the number of drivers to a minimum would make more sense; then that could be powered off a solar driving electric grid.

  21. Montanamaven

    My 29 year old niece is in the TV business. She has a car but mostly uses Uber Car Service at night to go to events, parties, etc. No worry about drinking and driving or parking. Share rides. https://www.uber.com/
    If Los Angeles had better mass transit, she wouldn’t need a car. Speaking of that, everyone should see “Her” directed by Spike Jonze. It won a Golden Globe. It takes place in the future in LA where everyone uses mass transit and there are no more cars. It’s prettier and greener, but also lonelier. Fascinating piece with great performances.

  22. Ray Phenicie

    Several of the comments show that beyond the cost of the auto there are other considerations; to name but one, potential buyers are considering the effect of automobile use on the planet’s ecological systems. Environmental pollution is a tremendous factor in our lives in no small part because auto use is so all pervasive.

    To return to the monetary cost; one has to consider what a middle income ($65k/yr-$165k/yr, household of four) family faces in the way of maintaining two autos. On a yearly basis, AAA says the average auto costs about $6k-9k. That cost takes the folks at the bottom end of the middle class into poverty level. Certainly many folks would not consider impoverishing themselves for anything other than a car; at least among Americans. Considering what a car actually constitutes for the increased mobility, considering that a car is often merely a status symbol it’s a wonder the average American household would spend almost $20,000 per year to maintain a huge chunk of steel, plastic, aluminum and fabric.

    From a recent article in The Guardian:
    Writing in the 1950s, the French cultural critic Roland Barthes argued that cars were “almost the exact equivalent of gothic cathedrals: I mean the supreme creation of an era, conceived with passion by unknown artists, and consumed in image if not in usage by a whole population which appropriates them purely as a magical object”. Those of us who congregate for the Top Gear liturgy on irregular Sundays have noticed that church attendance has dwindled recently, but the car remains an object that invites worship. As well as being loaded with the symbolic baggage of money, status and sexual competitiveness, it is a pretext for grown men (and occasionally women) to engage in the unembarrassed sharing of esoteric knowledge and aesthetic delight.

  23. john kissinger

    2005 was when oil began its move from 25b to 100/b. Responding to price increase by driving less makes perfect sense, whether households or individuals. Reducing fuel consumption takes time, certainly to change out the fleet in response to new buyer preferences, and therefore would likely continue for some time even after price stabilizes at 100… assuming that such stabilization in fact occurs. A combination of price stabilization for several years plus the recovery, such as it is, has been sufficient to arrest the slide in consumption.
    IMO there is no reason to credit millennials in particular, other than to note that they are not as employed as they would like to be.

  24. casino implosion

    Once again , I am “the man who peaked too soon” (tom wolfe?). I’ve been doing this “fuck the car/live in the city near shopping” thing for 25 years.

  25. F. Beard

    Ha,ha to the comments! Are Progressives those who are too unskilled to drive and so wish to deprive others of that pleasure? Heck, I can’t play the piano but I don’t call for the abolition of the piano.

    And really, car driving simulators are cheap, so it’s much easier to learn to drive than ever and Hydrogen powered cars are not that far off so you can drive guilt-free.

    [Proselytization deleted. –lambert]

    1. Lambert Strether

      Well, last I checked we weren’t running an empire to support pianos, or optimizing our entire physical, financial, and cultural infrastructure to support pianos, but maybe I didn’t get the memo.

      On a related note, I finally figured why the administration never passed any substantial highway and bridge funding, even as a stimulus: It’s because they plan to let the automobile-based infrastructure fall apart. All the cool people live in cities, anyhow. The suburbs are for proles now.

      1. Sammy Maudlin

        You sure about that “no funding” thing for bridges, etc.? Here in Wisconsin they’ve got every interstate overpass and interchange torn up and are replacing them with shiny (well, not shiny but concrete) new ones…

        …in Democratic districts!*

        *not a partisan comment, I’m a political atheist.

      2. Sammy Maudlin

        I should note that these projects got the go-ahead while the D’s controlled the House, Senate, and the WH.

      3. F. Beard

        The road system isn’t just so people can have fun driving; goods and services traverse over them, you know, like blood passes through arteries. And the last I heard, a reduction in blood flow is very unhealthy.

        And cities are sitting targets for weapons of mass destruction* so the cool people now might be a few thousand degrees centigrade in the future (but they’ll eventually be even cooler – room temperature). So ideally, from a national defense perspective, our population should be dispersed but heavily connected with roads and communications, you know, like a healthy body.

        So Obama be a dummy for letting our arteries, veins and capillaries deteriorate. Next, he’ll be putting on a sweater like Jimmy Carter and lowering the speed limit to 55 and then this:

        [whinging deleted. –lambert]

        *Nature has some weapons too such as earthquakes, asteroid impacts, tornadoes, etc. that imply we should not live too close together either.

        1. Lambert Strether

          Urbanization isn’t the same as car culture. And if you think suburbanization is the same as a healthy body politic, think again.

          Humans have been concentrating in cities since the invention of agriculture. How concentrated or dispersed humans should be, and what modes of transport should connect them, are all questions that can be answered with “car!” or not. Maine did perfectly well with a network of rail, as did LA with the big Red Cars before a cartel of IIRC the oil companies and the auto companies destroyed them.

          Anyhow, Obama’s not putting on any sweater. We as a society will be getting plenty of opportunities to experiment with new modes of transport in the future, since we didn’t build our roads like the Romans, and they’re going to deteriorate, first very slowly, then all at once.

          1. F. Beard

            And if you think suburbanization is the same as a healthy body politic, think again. Lambert

            That thought never crossed my mind. My ideal is the Biblical ideal of family farms, orchards, vineyards, etc. that cannot be permanently lost but, of course, with modern labor saving equipment plus an equal share in the large corporations which were likely built with the population’s stolen purchasing power anyway.

            As for cities, modern communications including telecommuting will make them increasingly obsolete.

            The roads aren’t going anywhere because they are a cost effective means for the transport of goods in many cases and for national defense or Eisenhower was mistaken. And since their idle capacity would otherwise be wasted, personal vehicles shall use them too.

            Btw, here’s a suggestion when you edit someone’s comment; let them know what you deleted. It’s irksome otherwise and a bit low class.

          2. F. Beard

            I too miss trolley systems and I despise/hate the underhanded ways they were eliminated and I like cities too.

            So let’s have trolleys, subways, mono-rails, horizontal elevators and whatever else makes sense in the cities and leave the countryside to long-distance rail, roads, Interstates and whatever else makes sense there.

        2. Sammy Maudlin

          I just want to note for the record that it was Richard Nixon who signed the Emergency Highway Energy Conservation Act (creating the nationwide 55 mph speed limit) into law January 2, 1974:


          The Act was in reaction to the Arab Oil Embargo, which (arguably) was in reaction to the devaluation of the dollar created by the Smithsonian Agreement and the decision to float the dollar in March of 1973.


          Carter has worn the hair shirt of being the “energy conservation” (in a party-pooper way) President for too long. As you can see from his statement above, in signing the Act, it was Nixon’s idea to get everyone to carpool!

          So if you want a bogeyman for the idea that we should have less cars on the road, it’s Nixon now, as much as ever!

    2. washunate

      That’s the beauty of behavioral economics. We don’t need to abolish cars. We just have to stop forcing people to drive in situations where they want to use other forms of transportation.

  26. F. Beard

    I’m cooking bacon now. Wouldn’t it be great if a microwave had a steerable beam and infra-red heat sensor to cook each slice to perfection?

  27. Minor Heretic

    A social commentator named Ivan Ilyich did an interesting calculation about cars. He figured out the total number of hours per year that your average American spends on a car. That number includes working to earn money to buy, maintain, register, insure,and fuel the car; time spent driving the car; time spent dealing with the car in terms of maintenance. He divided the average miles driven by the average hours and got about 5 miles per hour – a brisk walk. Your speed may vary, but it indicates how close to non-utility car ownership is.

    We get trapped by zoning and urban planning into situations where we need individual vehicles – high speed vehicles – to cope with our daily lives. This is starting to turn around.

    I’d posit that corporations steered us towards the most expensive, resource intensive mode of transport possible, with the highest indirect social costs attached to it. It is increased mass and velocity of money made physical.

    It is an important point to understand that a car outweighs you about 20:1, and that given the inefficiency of the engine this means that about 1% of the gasoline you put in a car actually ends up moving you, the passenger.

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