We write a lot about cars–hybrid cars, electric cars, flashy high-tech cars, you name it. But despite all the new technology coming down the pipeline, car ownership has actually declined in the past year, marking the first time that has happened since the U.S. Department of Transportation started keeping track in 1960. In 2009, 10 million Americans bought cars, but a whopping 14 million ditched them.
The statistic is especially surprising because of the success of the Cash for Clunkers government program, which allotted $1 billion for consumers who traded in their old, inefficient vehicles for fuel-efficient new ones. Nearly 700,000 cars were traded in–a number that would probably be much higher if the program hadn’t run out of cash.
The real reason for the decline is, as you might have guessed, the economy. The high cost of owning multiple vehicles is causing many people to cut down on the number of cars they buy. As of right now there are 117 vehicles for every 100 people with licenses, so it’s not as if people are ditching their cars in droves for public transportation. Analysts at the Earth Policy Institute do think that the improved quality of public transportation systems around the country factor into the statistic, but vehicle ownership could easily climb if the economy ramps back up.
Overall, a decrease in vehicle purchases is a mixed bag for our transportation future. On one hand, it’s a boost of confidence to public transportation. But too much of a decline means that car companies have less incentive (and less cash) to churn out reasonably priced hybrid and electric vehicles. All we can do is hope that the decline in purchases doesn’t cause innovations to dry up.