Recent trends show that the growth in car sales is going East. This articles asks is the West falling out of love with the car.
It is generally accepted that we are heading towards an explosion in global vehicle ownership. As the vast, still-largely-untapped markets of East Asia awaken to the delights of owning and driving their own cars, it’s expected that the world’s four-wheels population is just going to grow and grow. Car makers are counting on it, and need it to keep under-utilised factories going as markets such as Europe and the US mature and start to level off. It’s that far-eastern push that is expected to see Toyota become this year the first ever car company to produce and sell more than 10-million cars in a single year, and the two other global giants, General Motors and Volkswagen, won’t be far behind. This past year, China became by far the biggest market for new cars in the world, importing and building more than 20-million vehicles, and this is a country where outside of the major urban centres, grinding rural poverty is still rampant and a car still outside the financial reach of many. We are entering a boom time for car sales.
Or, are we? There is a trend underlying all of this which is deeply worrying to the world’s car makers and it is that we are slowly but surely falling out of love with the car. It’s not a rampant problem at the moment, but it is a growing trend and the place where it is most noticeable is in the once car-mad market of America.
It is generally accepted that the Germans invented the car, the Italians made it go fast, the British gave it class and the Japanese made it work properly. It was America though that took the car truly to heart. America (Detroit, really) was where the first commuter suburbs sprung up, Los Angeles has long since been a city designed utterly around wheeled transport (no-one walks for more than a few feet) and the wide open spaces of the mid-west are populated solely by pickups and big old Cadillacs. That at least is the popular notion.
US car ownership declining
What if I told you that the number of households without a car in the USA is growing, and has been doing so steadily since the last decade? According to Professor Michael Sivak of the University of Michigan’s Transport Research Institute, that number is actually heading inexorably for ten per cent.
In 2007, 8,87 per cent of US households were car-less. That has been steadily, almost stealthily, heading upwards at the rate of around 0.1 per cent every year so that now it stands at 9.22 per cent. True enough, the recession and global financial crisis will have accounted for some of that, and doubtless many households were forced against their will to give up or hand back a car simply because of cost, but the figures become more alarming when you dig a little deeper.
In the affluent areas of the major urban centres, car-less households are heading up to and sometimes beyond half of all residents. In 2012 New York city reported 56 per cent were doing without a car; Washington DC 38 per cent, Boston 37 per cent, Philadelphia 33 per cent, San Francisco 31 per cent, Chicago 28 per cent and Detroit 26 per cent.
“American households without a vehicle have increased nearly every year since 2007—providing further evidence that motorisation may have peaked in the United States” said Prof Sivak. "The proportion of households without a vehicle is likely influenced by a variety of factors. Examples of such factors include the quality of public transportation, urban layout and walkability, availability and cost of parking, income and price of fuel.”
If America, land of the V8, home of the hot-rod, can fall out of love with the car to this extent, then what hope for the rest of us? How are car makers going to convince buyers that a big metal box is what they need when we’re all obsessed with touch screens and connectivity? If we can travel the world without leaving the house, why have a car at all?