Has the U.S. Reached "Peak Motorization"?

(Photo: Heath Alseike)

Peak oil? Probably not. But have we reached “peak motorization” in the U.S.?

Michael Sivak of the University of Michigan’s Transportation Research Institute says the answer is quite possibly yes:

The absolute number of vehicles reached a maximum in 2008. However, it is likely that this was only a temporary maximum and that the decline after 2008 was primarily driven by the current economic downturn that started in 2008. Consequently, with the improving economy and the expected increase in the U.S. population, it is highly likely that (from a long-term perspective) the absolute number of vehicles has not yet peaked. On the other hand, the rates of vehicles per person, licensed driver, and household reached their maxima prior to the onset of the current economic downturn. Consequently, it is likely that the declines in these rates prior to the current economic downturn (i.e., prior to 2008) reflect other societal changes that influence the need for vehicles (e.g., increases in telecommuting and in the use of public transportation). Therefore, the recent maxima in these rates have better chances of being long-term peaks as well.

But Sivak is smart enough to hedge his prediction:

However, because the changes in the rates from 2008 on likely reflect both the relevant societal changes and the current economic downturn, whether the recent maxima in the rates will represent long-term peaks as well will be influenced by the extent to which the relevant societal changes turn out to be permanent.

There is a lot of worthwhile data in his new paper but if you are going to look at just one data picture, this is it:

Sivak has written many, many other interesting papers about U.S. transportation. Related: interesting Times article by Matt Flegenheimer about (NYC Mayor) Mike Bloomberg‘s efforts to fund and institute smart traffic ideas all over the world. I have to say, it is a nice thing to be a New Yorker these days and travel around the world now and then — because people always ask about this magical mayor with the good ideas who actually has the ability and courage to try them out. I have come to think of New York as the world’s biggest laboratory for forward-looking social improvements, and Bloomberg as the crafty scientist who’s running the shop. (You may think of him as simply a billionaire mayor with a Wall Street background, but in his youth he was an Eagle Scout and full-fledged science nerd.)


No Big Gulps for you, but all the fat & sugar you want in a $t@rbuck$ Trent@.


I wonder what effect the increasing Driver's License age requirements across the country have had on these numbers.


Interesting, I tend to think of Bloomberg as an enemy of freedom, much like Reason magazine does:

Here is how New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg explained the importance of his widely derided 16-ounce limit on servings of sugar-sweetened beverages after a state judge overturned it last March: “We have a responsibility as human beings to do something, to save each other, to save the lives of ourselves, our families, our friends, and all of the rest of the people that live on God’s planet.” Bloomberg literally thinks he is saving the world one slightly smaller serving of soda at a time.

Public health is not the only area where Bloomberg’s authoritarian tendencies are apparent. There is his enthusiasm for gun control, his illegal crackdown on pot smokers, and his unflagging defense of the New York Police Department’s stop-and-frisk program, which portrays the Fourth Amendment as a gratuitous barrier to effective policing. But his determination to halt “epidemics” of risky behavior shows him at his most arrogantly ambitious.

Bloomberg has pursued that goal not only by meddling with people’s drink orders but by banning trans fats, pressuring food companies to reduce the salt content of their products, imposing heavy cigarette taxes, severely restricting the locations where people are allowed to smoke (even outdoors), mandating anti-smoking posters in stores that sell cigarettes (a policy that, like his big beverage ban, was rejected by the courts), and proposing a rule that would require merchants to hide tobacco products from people who might want to buy them.



One of the primary reasons I live abroad is so I don't have to own a car. Cars are an enormous waste of money. The cost of the vehicle, insurance, gas, repairs, parking fees, and tickets are unbearable for young people who make far less than the boomer generation. Owning a car might have been a no-brainer in the 50s, but with prices the way they are now, it hardly makes economic sense. Living in a densely populated country with good transportation has allowed me to pay off huge loans and save money hand over first. This isn't possible for my peers back home. I see this trend as continuing.


That's a strange reason to live abroad. There are lots of places in the US (I assume by "abroad" you mean "outside the US" - please correct me if that's not the case) you can live without a car. All I ask is that you not demand I do likewise.


It's purely an economic reason. I am able to save 50-60% of my income per month. That's impossible in the US. Sure you could live in New York and go without a car, but good luck finding a reasonably priced apartment.


About peak oil, oil production per capita peaked back in 1979. The IEA estimates that all oil and gas worldwide will increase by less than 10 percent during the next 20 years. But oil consumption has to go up by several percent a year to maintain economic growth.

About peak cars, car sales are increasing worldwide, together with oil consumption.

Brian Burgess

Interestingly I think the younger generation, myself included, is seeing less need for the automobile. We've already seen the average age of getting a drivers license start to increase as there's not as much of a need anymore to be at a physical location. I think the older generations will always hang onto their cars as a source of freedom but the younger generation is just much more laid back about looking to mass transit options.


I've read recent national newspaper articles reporting on findings of later age of first obtaining a driver's license and lower percentage of people in their 20's having a driver's license. It used to be the freedom of driving was a strong enticement for getting a personal vehicle. Now, it appears that being able to stay glued to a mobile device is more important than getting behind the wheel. Hooray for texting?


You are an old fool if you believe young people prefer chatting online to owning a car. Young people would love to have a car, it's just too expensive and young people don't have jobs. It's a lot different than in the 50s when gas and insurance was dirt cheap, and there were hardly any ticketing. Wake up and smell the present.


Car ownership having reached its peak makes sense with the continued urbanization of the United States (as well, I assume, as in Europe and much of the rest of the developed world). I loved the availability of mass transit (buses) when I lived in Brazil, and the efficient subway systems in Washington D.C. However, where I live now in Idaho, the options are much more limited.
I'm sure my geography professor from school would love to explain the development of population centers and how they changed based on the methods of transportation at the time. Towns that grew only after the railroad entered the American west don't lend themselves nearly as well to a cost effective mass transit system as do areas that grew when population areas were still more pedestrian centric.
In summary--gas guzzling pickup trucks are still seen as the best option for moving people and goods through much of rural America.



I think Mayor Bloomberg has some good ideas, but I think he should try different ways of getting his point across. Instead of banning Big Gulps, what if he just said, "Look, on average, people who drink Big Gulps end up being unhealthier. Since the government pays for health care for many New Yorkers, we need to charge an extra, say, $.50 per drink, to cover that cost."
That would drive people to healthier options, help with health care costs, and be easier to swallow than a billionaire mandating what you can or can't drink.


In the US and Europe, sure. But in the part of the world with 95% of the global population growth, per capita motorization is increasing. Their urban masses are switching to personal automobiles from bicycles and mass transit. Fortunately, these are primarily small cars, but it's lots more motor vehicles, nonetheless.


Highly unlikely developing countries will own cars like the US did. I live in South Korea. I don't know anyone who owns a car here. Gas is twice the price, there's no where to park, there's always traffic. It has no practical purpose. Everyone takes the bus or subway.