Friday, January 8, 2010

The Turning Point in Transportation

America may be over its insatiable love affair with the car. The automobile doesn't have the same symbolic association with freedom and independence for today's young people that it had for earlier generations. A recent study by the Earth Policy Institute revealed that, while Americans purchased 10,000,000 cars in 2009, they actually got rid of 14,000,000 cars - meaning there are 4,000,000 fewer cars on the road today than a year ago.

This decline in the US car fleet is only 2% of the total number of cars on the road but could be a sign of what is to come in terms of transportation preferences for the US. The US car fleet is currently at 246 million cars dropping down from 250 at the beginning of 2009.

2009 was the first year since WWII that the number of cars scrapped exceeded the number of cars sold, and the EPI study predicts that this trend will continue at least through 2020. This opens up opportunities to rethink traditional urban design and transportation design strategies.

The EPI attributes the decline to many factors, not just the recession, including ongoing urbanization, economic uncertainty, oil insecurity, rising gasoline prices, frustration with traffic congestion, mounting concerns about climate change, and a declining interest in cars among young people.

As our cities become denser, traffic gets worse and public transportation systems improve, people feel it is less and less necessary to have their own vehicle. In some cases it may be more of an inconvenience to deal with parking, traffic, associated fees like insurance and gasoline. Cars will still have their place in rural settings, but with four out of five Americans living in an urban setting, the trend will likely continue just as it did in Japan in the early 90’s. As Japan became more urbanized, they reached their car saturation point in 1990 and since then, their car fleet has dropped by 21%.

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