The U.S. is Going to Get Rid of 110 Million Cars. Here’s Why:

Predicting the market for privately-owned cars in 2038

2018 has been an exciting year for the future of transportation. How will we get around in twenty years, after all? Will autonomous vehicles take over our streets with hundreds of millions of robots roaming our cities and land without human intervention? Maybe all our cars will be replaced by scooters and other forms of micromobility? Perhaps we’ll all just give up on this “technology” thing and walk everywhere.

Car dealerships: a thing of the past?

Extremes aside, it seems likely that the future holds some combination of personal car-like vehicles, smaller, battery-powered devices, and probably a typology or two that’s not even on our radar today.

However, that’s just speculation. We can go further — if we want. We can make smarter guesses about the future of transportation using today’s data. Here’s my guess: the U.S. private car* market will shrink by 110 million vehicles within the next twenty years.

*private car = cars, trucks, vans, SUVs, crossovers, whatever you want to call them, owned by individuals, not companies

How many cars are out there, today?

We can use figures from the 2015 American Community Survey to estimate how many private cars there are in the United States today. If we look at the number of cars owned per household, for every household in the country, we estimate that there are 205,750,000 private cars in the U.S. That estimate roughly agrees with other estimates of 263,000,000 total registered vehicles in the country, for both private and fleet owners.

When it comes to predicting the private car market for 2038, I believe that place will play a huge factor. Private car needs will change differently for people in rural areas, for people in suburban areas, and for people in urban areas. Density is destiny, after all.

Jed Kolko, an expert on human geography, surveyed over 2,000 Americans to get a better idea of how people define rural, suburban, and urban areas. It turns out that when the number of households per square mile falls below 102, most people define that place as “rural.” Any place that has more than 2,213 households per square mile? That’s “urban.” Anything in between is “suburban”. Check out Kolko’s post to learn more.

We can use these benchmarks to tease out differences in patterns of private car ownership in urban, suburban, and rural areas. Let’s look at the number of households by cars per household first.

Some clear patterns emerge. Most striking to me: no matter where you live, urban, suburban, or rural, it’s pretty likely that your household has access to one or two cars. That’s simply the nature of the society that we built for ourselves in the twentieth century: it’s hard to function in society without access to a car. You might also be surprised just how many households fall into the “urban” segment — especially when compared to the few households in “rural” areas — but that surprise is an artifact of culture and media framing in our country. Sorry folks, “Real America” lives in cities.

Note how it’s more likely that households in urban areas will have access to one car, whereas it’s more likely in other areas to have two cars. Also notable: the high number of households in urban areas that don’t have a vehicle at all. Finally, relatively speaking, it’s much more likely for households to have more than two cars in rural areas. With a little quick math, we can calculate that there are 89,850,000 cars in urban areas, 83,700,000 cars in suburban areas, and 33,000,000 cars in rural areas. Put another way, on average, there are 1.6 cars per household in urban areas, 1.9 cars per household in suburban areas, and 2.0 cars per household in rural areas.

Together, this supports the argument that vehicle needs depend on where you live and adds another dimension: rural areas are more car-dependent while urban areas are less car-dependent.

Now that we have a better picture of private car ownership in different parts of the U.S., let’s speculate a little about the future changes in store for urban, suburban, and rural areas, as well as the changes that are bound to impact the country as a whole — the changes, as a whole, that will determine the size of the private car market.

1. Urban Needs

It’s very hard to believe that car ownership in dense, urban areas will increase in the coming twenty years; it’s very easy to believe that car ownership will decrease in urban areas. Scooters, bikes, and public transportation will likely become better and more accessible in more parts of more cities; already, even running is faster than driving in some cities and many prefer the experience and opportunities for health and socializing that alternative transportation forms afford.

However, old habits die hard. Many people still like to escape the city on weekends or have a car on hand “just in case.” Even our most urban areas are built around infrastructure for private cars: this baked-in bias will continue to incentivize private car ownership for some time. Let’s not forget, too, that for some of us, cars are fun.

2. Suburban and Rural Needs

Unlike urban areas, I think it’s more difficult to predict the future for transportation in rural and suburban areas.

Some have predicted that everyone will soon abandon their cars because they are so unsafe, so expensive, and so poisonous to our environment. Myself, I think this perspective ignores some hard truths. For one, if density is destiny, that’s because the built environment, infrastructure, how we order and scale and connect space, is so vital and so expensive to change. Roman roads, built over two-thousand years ago, still influence the prosperity of cities and regions in Europe today. It’s hard to erase roads once they’re built. Barring a massive deployment of resources, we’re stuck with the cities we have, and that means that people in suburbs and rural areas will still need cars, in one form or another.

Autonomous vehicles — if they ever become technologically viable, that is — still leave some major questions unaddressed. Many families commute together — will parents want to send their children off to school in a robotic school bus? People use cars for needs beyond transportation as well, whether as storage while running errands or as a place to escape for privacy. Finally, what impact will AVs really have on commuting? Although AVs may well reduce the demand for private cars, they may also induce more demand by making it easier for people to move farther away from work. If people spread out more, the market for personal vehicles may increase in rural areas.

3. Urbanization

Two more factors will influence our estimates. One is the rate of urbanization in the United States. The U.S. urban population has increased by 6% over the last two decades; currently, 82% of people in America live in an “urban area.” Some predict that 87% percent of Americans will live in an urban area by 2035, an increase of another 6%. Some may be underestimating the economic and environmental pressures of climate change that may encourage even more people to move to urban areas in the future.

4. Population Growth

Finally, population growth will impact the size of the market for personal car ownership. The Census predicts that the population of the United States will grow by 15% in the year 2035 to fully 370,000,000 people.

What’s my best guess?

Here’s my perspective: your mileage, as they say, may vary. Remember, today we estimate 206,500,000 personal cars on the road today.

Given the strong headwinds that cars face in urban areas, from new alternatives, new preferences, and new demands for safety and reduced carbon output, I wouldn’t be surprised if urban car ownership decreases by 90% in the next 20 years. Humans are possessive creatures and our infrastructure isn’t going anywhere, so I don’t think we’ll eliminate cars entirely. This would remove 80,900,000 cars from the road.

I do not see such a dramatic change in store for our suburban and rural areas. Alternative transportation options and autonomous vehicles need density to be viable, density that suburban and rural areas lack. Let’s give the future some credit, though, and posit that suburban car ownership will decrease by one car per household as new alternatives allow people to reduce their dependence on private cars. That’s another 42,500,000 cars off the road. Meanwhile, I don’t think that rural car ownership patterns will change at all.

So far, we’re down to 82,350,000 private passenger cars in the US, a reduction of almost 60% from current levels. However, let’s take two more steps. One, I wager that people will keep moving to cities as rural economies wither and cravings for walkable lifestyles grow. If we assume a 12% increase in the number of urban households and a corresponding decrease in the number of suburban and rural households, we’ll stand to see another 5,800,000 private passenger cars disappear. However, 15% population growth will increase the number of people that need transportation. With all these factors combine, I predict that the U.S. private car market will be around 89,000,000 cars, roughly 40% of its current size.

What does it mean?

Simply stated, “Some things will change. Some things won’t.”

Our cities will change dramatically and — hopefully — give much more space and infrastructure over to public transit and alternative forms of shared mobility, whether bikes, scooters, or something totally different. All the negative externalities of automobile traffic, like noise, pollution, and danger to pedestrians, will be reduced dramatically.

Suburbs will change too, though not as much. Though there will be some alternative forms of transportation, like small buses, private cars will still be a significant part of the landscape. In fact, like rural areas, the biggest change may simply be that fewer people live in suburban areas.

Car companies are in for some dramatic changes. Whether your perspective is “some will close” or “some will remain” is entirely a glass-half-full-or-half-empty proposition. The private car market is likely to shrink dramatically in the coming years, so expect some brands and companies to disappear entirely (as Pontiac, Mercury, and Plymouth already have) while other consolidate (e.g., recent partnership talks between Ford and Volkswagen). Car companies will also likely prune their product portfolios: already, Ford has eliminated passenger cars from their North American lineup to focus on building and developing trucks and crossovers.

As for private cars themselves, they’ll be electric and they’ll be better adapted for their specific uses. I imagine the market for crossovers and trucks will continue to grow; I imagine the market for luxury automobiles will grow if current socioeconomic patterns hold, as well. Sedans and small cars? I’m not sure the future looks bright.

The good news for car makers is that the death of the private car has been, in my mind, greatly exaggerated. In fact, the other title I considered for this post went something like this:

Private Cars Aren’t Going Anywhere

I’m exploring transportation and cities and telling their stories through quantitative and qualitative frames. Subscribe here if you want to follow along and reach out to me if you want to chat.

Thanks for reading!