Chart of the Day: People Per Car for Select Nations, 1900 – 2000

Here’s a fun chart from one of my all-time favorite books, Energy in World History, which you might remember from years ago. I was reminded of Vaclav Smil because he has a new book coming out, and has been making the round with interviews.

Anyway, here you go, a fascinating chart that is a bit out of date, but that does not matter because it goes back for a century.

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Note the logarithmic scale on the Y-axis.

In Chapter 5, “Fossil-Fueled Civilization”, Smil writes about the growth of car culture and its energy impacts.

The most obvious car-generated change has been the reordering of urban space. Worldwide marks of this transformation include the proliferation of freeways and parking spaces and the destruction of neighborhoods. Where space has allowed, there has also been a rapid increase in suburbanization and changes in the locations and forms of shopping and services. But the social impacts have been even greater. Car ownership has been an important part of embourgoisement. Affordable family classics enjoyed amazing longevity. The first one was Ford’s Model T, whose price dropped as low as $265 in 1923. Other notable models were the Austin Seven, the Morris Minor, the Citroen 2CV, the Renault 4CV, the Fiat Topolino, and, that most popular of them all, Ferdinand Porsche’s Hitler-inspired Volkswagen.

The freedom of personal travel that these cars provided to millions of families has had enormous effects on both residential and professional mobility. These benefits have proved to be highly addictive. Kennth Boulding’s (1974) analogy of car as a mechanical steed turning its driver into a knight with an aristocrat’s mobility looking down at pedestrian peasants is hardly exaggerated. In 1990 there were only 1.75 people per car in the United States, and the rates were 1.9 in Germany and 23.1 in Japan. This widespread addiction makes it difficult for rich countries to give up the habit. They have gone to extraordinary lengths to preserve this privilege. They have also been willing to put up with enormous death, injury and pollution costs. Western nations should not be surprised that Chinese and Indians want to emulate this habit.

The whole book is this epic civilizational-scale look at how we use energy as a culture beginning with the people that “invented” fire. On that grand scale, even with electric cars, the point is more true today than it was in the year 2000.

Bill Lindeke

About Bill Lindeke

Pronouns: he/him

Bill Lindeke has writing blogging about sidewalks and cities since 2005, ever since he read Jane Jacobs. He is a lecturer in Urban Studies at the University of Minnesota Geography Department, the Cityscape columnist at Minnpost, and has written multiple books on local urban history. He was born in Minneapolis, but has spent most of his time in St Paul. Check out Twitter @BillLindeke or on Facebook.