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Car Ownership May Be Down in the U.S., But It’s Soaring Globally

The number of cars per person more than doubled in China in just four years. This BMW ad is designed for the booming Chinese market. Photo: Ads of China

Two weeks ago, transportation researcher Michael Sivak brought us the news that there are fewer cars per person in the U.S. now than there were a few years ago – and that the number isn’t expected to rise again.

But globally, the trend is in the opposite direction, and it’s alarming. The world is producing more cars than ever. A new report from the Worldwatch Institute shows that automobile production hit a new high in 2012 — and 2013 is expected to surpass that record. “According to London-based IHS Automotive, passenger-car production rose from 62.6 million in 2011 to 66.7 million in 2012, and it may reach 68.3 million in 2013,” write Worldwatch’s Michael Renner and Maaz Gardeziin. “When cars are combined with light trucks, total light vehicle production rose from 76.9 million in 2011 to 81.5 million in 2012 and is projected to total 83.3 million in 2013.”

The troubling new reality is that while the United States and other developed countries are beginning to lay off the gas, other countries are accelerating wildly. Though the U.S. still has by far the largest fleet of passenger cars, auto sales in China overtook the U.S. in 2011. In 2010, the number of cars in the world hit one billion.

Taken together, Brazil, Russia, India and China (the "BRICs") buy more cars that the United States. Image: The Economist

The number of cars per person in the U.S. has been declining since 2006. But in other countries, the trend is ever upward. According to World Bank data, there were 18 passenger cars per 1,000 Chinese in 2006 and 44 cars per 1,000 in 2010. The Arab world and Eastern Europe have seen tremendous growth in private car ownership over the same period – from 87 to 123 cars per thousand people in Jordan, 18 to 36 in Syria, 230 to 345 in Bulgaria, 351 to 451 in Poland. In the meantime, U.S. rates declined from 453 to 423 per thousand. France, New Zealand, and the United Kingdom also saw declines.

In 2011, the OECD’s International Transport Forum forecast that the number of cars worldwide would reach 2.5 billion by 2050, with the growth expected to be almost entirely in the developing world. At an ITF meeting, a Chinese professor dismissed the idea of bicycles as an alternative means of transportation, despite the fact that China is famous for its bicycle rush hour. The professor said, apparently without irony, that bicycle use in Beijing is declining “due to poor air quality and the danger from car traffic.”

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What Effect Will World’s Smallest Car Have on Global Warming?

jams.jpgTraffic in Delhi and Atlanta. Notice which scene also includes bikes. Photos: Ri Co Fo To and silvrayn via Flickr

Environmentally-conscious citizens of India aren’t alone in their concern about the rollout of the Tata Nano, the "world’s cheapest car." But in an op-ed piece for Forbes, Projjal Dutta, the director of sustainability initiatives for the New York City Metropolitan Transportation Authority, writes that American critics should look to their own example if they expect developing nations to follow a more sustainable path.

As
with many other issues, the world will expect America’s "talk" — say,
urging China and India not to become auto-centric — to be accompanied
by "walk," at home. That, unfortunately, despite early glimmers of
hope, is not happening. The stimulus bill has allocated about 8 billion
dollars to transit, compared with 30 billion to highways. This is
roughly in keeping with the traditional 80/20 split of federal
transportation funds that have been enshrined since the Eisenhower
days. If we are to get serious about halting climate-change, this split
will also have to change.

Dutta cites
Japanese and European models — "Make cars, buy cars, just don’t drive
them all the time." — as potential templates for India and other
developing economies, so long as they, too, make adequate investments
in public transportation.

The same could be said of the
U.S., where the average citizen consumes 25 times as much energy as the
average Indian. Dutta suggests America will need to commit to a
long-term, "multi-generational" approach to transit development if it
wants the kind of results already evident in its most urbanized cities.

The average Texan consumes approximately 500 million BTU per year,
about six to seven times that consumed by a resident of New York City
or San Francisco. The difference largely results from level of dependence on
the automobile. Metropolitan regions where many people travel by public
transportation (or by bicycles or on foot) are inherently more
carbon-efficient than places that rely almost exclusively on
automobiles, which is to say, most of the United States.