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Automobiles Freed Us from the Tyranny of Horses

December 22, 2017 in Economics

By Ryan McMaken


By: Ryan McMaken

Thanks to the automobile, Americans live in an age of extremely inexpensive transportation, by historical measures.

In the United States in 2015, there was approximately one motor vehicle per 1.21 people. With the exception of the small, wealthy city states of San Marino and Monaco, the United States employs more motor vehicles than any other country.

Even if we make similar calculations using just “passenger cars,” the number of vehicles per person remains quite high: fewer than 2.3 people per passenger car.

People who don't like automobiles tell us this is a symptom of bad urban planning and a dysfunctional American obsession with cars. This may or may not be the case, but the number of automobiles is also a function of a society's wealth.

It's not a mere coincidence that Monaco, Luxembourg and Liechtenstein — countries with some of the world 's highest levels of wealth and income — also have the largest numbers of vehicles per capita.

We can also see this reflected in American use of motor vehicles over time.

In 1960, there was one motor vehicle in the US per 2.4 people. By 1985, that number of people per vehicle had dropped to 1.3, and 30 years after that, was down to 1.21. In times of recession, total vehicles tend to stall — reflecting the connection to economic conditions. As with median income, total vehicles per capita has moved little since 2001, and as of 2015, total vehicles per capita had still not returned to the 2008 peak level of one vehicle per 1.19 people.1

Many More Cars than Horses Per Capita

If we look at automobile ownership a century ago, when the age of the automobile was just beginning, the number of vehicles per capita was, not surprisingly, much lower. According to K.H. Schaeffer and Ellitt Sclar, “During the 1910s” the total number of vehicles “multiplied from 5 to 75 vehicles per 1,000 population.” That is, the number increased from one vehicle per 200 people to one per 13 people in 1920. Fifty years later, in 1970, total vehicles had risen to one vehicle per 1.8 Americans.2

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