America’s love affair with the automobile could be sputtering to an end. Some 14 million cars were taken out of action in 2009, 4 million more than rolled off the assembly lines and on to the roads, a report from the Earth Policy Institute said on January 6.

It was the first time more cars were scrapped than sold since the second world war, reducing the size of the U.S. car fleet from an all-time high of 250 million to 246 million.

Last year was an extraordinarily bad year for the U.S. car industry. Two of the three big car-makers — GM and Chrysler — went through bankruptcy and were bailed out by the U.S. government.

Sales fell 21.2 per cent from 2008 and the total sales volume was the lowest since 1982. Many consumers held off buying new cars because of fears of losing their jobs.

The Obama administration’s efforts to spur demand by offering motorists up to $4,500 on trade-ins of older cars and pick-up trucks saw 7,00,000 older models taken off the road last year. But that did not affect the total number of vehicles on the road because consumers could only take advantage of the scrappage scheme if they replaced their old clunkers with more efficient vehicles.

Lester Brown, the director of the Earth Policy Institute, said the slump in car sales went beyond the economic recession. Americans may finally have decided that — with cars — enough is enough. The country now has 246 million licensed cars for 209 million licensed drivers. “This is not a one-time event. We expect the shrinkage to continue into the indefinite future,” said Mr. Brown.

America has also undergone a transition into a largely urbanised society, with four out of five residents living in towns. Major U.S. corporations are now taking congestion into account when planning new offices, said Mr. Brown. Washington and other major U.S. cities have been raising parking fees to increase revenue. Others are exploring congestion charges.

A younger generation — unsure about finding a job after high school or college — is also far less likely to see car ownership as a rite of passage, Mr. Brown argues. According to the report, the number of teenagers with licences peaked at 12 million in 1978 but is now under 10 million.

“When I was a kid, socialising revolved around getting into a car and going for a drive. Today kids socialise over the internet and on smart phones,” said Mr. Brown.

“No one knows how many cars will be sold in the years ahead, but given the many forces at work, U.S. vehicle sales may never again reach the 17 million that were sold each year between 1999 and 2007. Sales seem more likely to remain between 10 million and 14 million a year,” he said. — © Guardian Newspapers Limited, 2010

More In: Comment | Opinion