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Who owns the most cars in the world?
August 01, 2008
Despite its aggressive renewable energy policies, Europe's economy is getting more dependent on oil. The reason: cars.
And Europe is hardly alone. Although industrialised nations have less than 20 per cent of the world's population, they also have over 80 per cent of the world's motor vehicles--cars and trucks.
Solar energy and wind power might be able to reverse the rise in electricity prices, but they won't put a dent in runaway oil prices. Cars and trucks run on gasoline and, barring a major technological breakthrough, will continue to do so no matter how much solar, wind or wave we can tap. In the meantime, where there are cars, there will be pain.
Case in point: Portugal. Slightly smaller than the state of Indiana, Portugal has more motor vehicles per capita--773 cars per 1,000 residents in 2006--than any other industrialized nation in the world, according to the Organization of Economic Co-operation and Development.
In the past year, the sun-soaked country in southwestern Europe has spawned a new breed of bandit: the fuel thief. The preferred targets are semi-trucks with tanks that hold as much as 500 gallons of fuel, but regular cars and heavy machinery have also attracted their attention. Thefts have been reported in both urban and rural areas and black markets for diesel and gasoline have sprouted up all over the country.
If oil prices start rising again, Portugal's problem could easily become America's too. Until 2005, the United States boasted more motor vehicles than any other nation--total and per capita. Hardly a decade ago, the US had more registered vehicles than registered drivers. Now the US has the second-highest number of motor vehicles--which do not include mopeds or motorcycles--in the industrialized world. Although Americans own fewer vehicles than they once did, those vehicles need more gasoline than vehicles in any other industrialized economy do.
During the 1990s, sport utility vehicles grew faster than any other segment of the auto industry. By 1999, they accounted for nearly 10 per cent of the entire US vehicle fleet. And while SUVs use more fuel per mile than passenger cars, prior to the most recent spike in gas prices, Americans were driving them further distances than ever before, exacerbating the fuel-efficiency problem. The average American car travels more miles every year and gets fewer miles per gallons than cars in any other country of the 30 nations that belong to the OECD.
At least Americans have an excuse. They live in a big country. The same can't be said for Luxembourg, which ranks fourth on our list. Slightly smaller than the state of Rhode Island, Luxembourg has one airport, 100 miles of highways and more than 330,000 motor vehicles. Considering that Luxembourg has the second-highest gross domestic product per capita behind Qatar, it seems like the tiny country situated between Germany, France and Belgium has fewer cars than one might expect.
But then people buy cars for all sorts of reasons. The OECD's list of motor-vehicles owned per-capita shatters several notions explaining why people buy cars. For example, because more people own cars in rural areas than urban areas in the US, suburban sprawl is often considered the reason Americans rely so heavily on cars. This may be true in America, but not in Canada. Canadians log more miles behind the wheel per capita than all but three other countries--the US, Australia and Luxembourg. The majority of those miles are logged in urban rather than rural areas.
Although the rural-urban divide helps explain car ownership in the US or Canada, in other places like Iceland, which has 719 vehicles per 1,000 inhabitants, it is statistically irrelevant. In Iceland, a person who lives in the city is as likely to own a car as someone who lives in the country.
Public transportation systems are not necessarily the panaceas they are made out to be. France claims one of the world's best public transportation systems. Paris has the second-busiest subway system in Europe after Moscow, carrying 1.365 billion passengers in 2005. And France has the most extensive high-speed rail network in the world. Despite spending vast sums on public transportation, France still has more cars than all but nine other industrialized countries.
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