The term “peak oil” has been around for decades, referring to when domestic oil production in America would peak. The jury is still out on peak oil, though the latest term to go around is “peak car”, with some studies indicating that the American car market is over saturated, and shrinking. But on a global scale, we’re not even close to reaching peak car.
From 2006 to 2011, miles driven by Americans fell in three-quarters of urbanized areas where recent data was available. That’s quite specific, and also includes four of the five toughest economic years since the Great Depression. This data definitely screams out “selection bias!” to me, as high unemployment and stagnant wages means less reasons and less money for, you know, driving. While the study claims the economy has little to no impact on driving, again, by focusing only on urban areas, the study ignores a large swath of America that has been especially hard hit by the economy, but still has no choice but to drive their own car.
That said, there are indications that car ownership in America really has peaked. For one thing, many metro areas now have more public transit options, and younger Americans are moving into walkable neighborhoods where you don’t need to own a car. There are also a flurry of car-sharing and renting services that relieve you of the hassle of things like car taxes and insurance.
But across the Pacific Ocean, the Chinese middle class is exploding and car sales are outpacing America by millions of automobiles. The rise of the Chinese economy has only just begun, and with 1.3 billion people, but just 93 million cars in private hands, the Chinese market is ripe to explode. It is estimated that by 2050, there could be as many as 662 million cars in China, more than twice as many cars as there are in America right now, and that would still leave more than 800 million people without cars. Don’t even get me started on India, with a domestic car industry that lays claim the world’s cheapest new car. Even with initiatives aiming to make hybrids as much as 40% of all new car sales, the already-smoggy air will only get worse.
I am willing to concede that perhaps in America, we really have reached peak car. But the rest of the world still has a long way, and many millions of cars to go before our planet reaches car capacity, and even if America were to all but eliminate private car ownership, China will more than make up for the deficit. It’s a scary, scary future.