Reuters

A new carpool company in France is part of the growing trend.

When it comes to cars and young people in America, every trend line is pointing down-right. Car sales? Down 11 percentage points. License ownership? Down 28 percent. Miles driven? Falling fast. Car companies hope this is a peculiar outcome of the U.S. recession. But in fact, the move away from cars is bigger than the U.S. (and bigger than the recession).

Carpooling is the new rage in Europe, the New York Times reports this morning, where Paris-based BlaBlaCar and Munich's Carpooling.com are "global leaders in ride-sharing." The companies claim more than 6 million combined users (some overlap is probable), and their growth has even attracted the attention of Silicon Valley investors. Their success parallels Zipcar, the foundational American car-sharing company, which claims 700,000 members in the United States.

peakcar.png

Who wants to invest in a hippie-dippie scheme to monetize carpools? Somebody looking at the bigger picture.

Maybe something like this picture, right there on the left. As the world's richest economies pack densely into cities to escape the new normal of gasoline prices, miles driven in passenger vehicles have either hit a ceiling or started to decline in the U.S., Japan, Germany, the UK, and France. Australia has seen the same decline in car travel. The most important detail in this graph is along the X-axis: The decline in average car miles isn't a recession trend. It's just a trend. In the U.S., the global capitol of car enthusiasts, total miles traveled peaked in 2004, the Economist reported, and per-person travel hit a peak in 2000.

As Jordan Weissmann and I reported, car marketers are both accepting and pushing back against the "peak car" moment in the West. They understand that a weak economy makes big-ticket purchases hard. They understand that young people are getting crushed between expensive education and cheap jobs. They accept that cars have lost that halo of hipness they owned in the 1970s. But they also see a future beyond peak car abroad.

In 2011, the world added 60 million new cars. The United States bought 12 million of them. Europe bought another 13 million, and Japan bought about 2 million, the lowest since the late 1960s. That means that about half of last year's new car sales came from developing economies, for whom "peak car" is a date far in the future.

A Deloitte study from 2011 looked at the market for cars in Brazil, Russia, India, and China (which, alone, accounts for more car sales than either Europe or the United States). That story in a nutshell: In 2001, none of these countries bought more than 1.5 million cars. Last year, they accounted for more than 20 million total car sales (China grabbed 14.5 million, slightly below the estimate in the graph below).

Screen Shot 2012-10-01 at 10.15.05 AM.png

But developing countries will reach their "carpooling moment" much faster than the West. In the next few years, their projected growth will slow. Brazil's economy is retrenching fast, while growth in India and China is slowing down at a rate that is frightening economists. But even with strong growth from all the BRICs, there are structural challenges. Jakarta, cars are growing ten times faster than road construction, the Economist reported, and massive public transit like the Shanghai metro (which covers 80% of the city and carries 8 million people a day) provide a persuasive alternative to cars in a $4-a-gallon world -- or whatever gas prices are ten years from now.

In fact, ten years from now, the most important story in cars might not be peak car, but driverless cars.

Photo by Sean Gardner/Reuters

This post originally appeared on The Atlantic.

About the Author

Most Popular

  1. A man walks by an abandoned home in Youngstown, Ohio
    Life

    How Some Shrinking Cities Are Still Prospering

    A study finds that some shrinking cities are prosperous areas with smaller, more-educated populations. But they also have greater levels of income inequality.

  2. A map of apartment searches in the U.S.
    Maps

    Where America’s Renters Want to Move Next

    A new report that tracks apartment searches between U.S. cities reveals the moving aspirations of a certain set of renters.

  3. A house with a for sale sign.
    Perspective

    Why Are Zoning Laws Defining What Constitutes a Family?

    It’s wrong to exclude safe uses of housing because of who belongs to a household. Like family law, zoning ordinances should prioritize functional families.

  4. Equity

    Why I Found My Community in a Starbucks

    I was reluctant to support a corporate chain. But in my neighborhood, it’s one of the only places I could have formed a relationship with someone like Sammy.

  5. a photo of Denver city council member Candi CdeBaca
    Transportation

    A Freeway Fight Launched Denver’s New Queer Latina Councilmember

    In a progressive shake-up, 32-year-old community organizer Candi CdeBaca will take her advocacy work to the city council.  

×