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What percentage of the world's population own a car?

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There are approximately 600 million cars, passenger vans, SUVs and light trucks in the world today. Of those about 240 million are found in the United States.

It is a little difficult to then do simple math and say there are 6.76 billion people in the world (according to the US Census Bureau) so 600 million / 6.76 billion = about 9% of the world owns a car.

The reason is not all 600 million cars, passenger vans, SUVs and light trucks belong to private citizens. In that number you have taxis, police cars, commercially used vehicles like vans and pickup trucks for delivery services, SUVs and cars are used by fire departments, medical services, rental car fleets at airports around the world, even the world militaries use light passenger vehicles. One of the most effective weapons in warfare in Africa is Toyota pickup trucks with a machine gun bolted down in the bed. Likewise you have people who collect cars, and you have households in western nations where it is common to own more than one car.

So the percentage of auto ownership globally is actually rather small, with a maximum of about 9%, but likely lower.

A really interesting trend is in developing nations, especially Brazil, India and China. In 2008 China became the largest auto consuming country in the world, with its citizens buying more cars than people in the United States or Japan. Even more interesting, the number one importer in China is General Motors, with a similar marketshare in China as an importer that Toyota has in the United States.

In countries like China, Brazil, and India, their population is pushing hard for a more western lifestyle, and they see the car as part of that lifestyle. China and India in particular are spending billions on highway infrastructure. Brazil is interesting as they have largely an ethanol based economy, with cars running largely on alcohol produced from sugarcane. That hasn't come without a price ecologically, namely the slashing and burning of rainforest to create sugarcane fields, and the dangers to the low paid workers who work those fields (this was highlighted well in National Geographic). However Brazil has proven you can build an extensive automtive infrastructure away from most fossil fuels.

Given the shift in global economics we see today, it is highly unlikely, simply through sheer force of population and growing GDP, that the United States will ever return to the number one car economy in the world. The number of 240 million registered vehicles on the road here is actually down about 10 million vehicles in the last 12 months, as people have sold or taken their cars off the road, either due to environmental or economic reasons. It is actually very likely that the United States will drift to third or fifth place in auto consumption behind China and eventually India, and possibly Brazil, or Russia after the European economic situation stabilizes. This will have longer term a dramatic impact on choice of vehicles for people in the United States, how cars are sold, and what features they will have.

Here in the United States you have roughly 160 million Americans who live in the 100 largest metro areas in the country. That means 140 million Americans still live in spread out suburban or rural areas, where public transit is impractical at best, and impossible in many cases (you're not going to be able to provide effective public transit to the citizens of Jefferson, South Dakota or Onalaska, Texas as examples). The elimination of a vehicle that provides personal transit in the United States, or other rural areas in the world is simply impossible until a better of safely and quickly moving people and their goods over distance door-to-door is created. In those metro areas a lot more could be done, and cities like Boston, New York and Philadelphia are great examples. However these cities benefit from infrastructure implemented 100 to 150 years ago, a strong rail network that foundationally was laid down during the Civil War, and public works projects like subways built at the beginning of the 20th century.

The bottom line is the percentage of ownership will probably go up globally as India and China fight for world resources and their populations demand a middle class lifestyle, and many in western nations in suburban and rural settings still have a need for personal transit.
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