Although my tastes lie elsewhere, our family owns and operates a 1999 Buick Regal with 142,000 miles on it. It has terrible gas mileage, but is otherwise a very durable machine. It tracks straight, doesn't burn oil, and everything works. I wouldn't be surprised if I get another 100,000 miles out of it — it will probably outlive me.
That's a way of introducing this week's topic, which is the fact we're keeping our cars longer than ever. The research firm Polk says that Americans are holding onto their light vehicles (small trucks, cars) for an average of 11.4 years, and that's a new high. The data shows that the number of six- to 11-year-old cars is declining, but the 12-and-older population is increasing.
The modern automobile's longevity is one reason for this. Cars of the 70s and older start rusting the first time they hit rain, but today's cars use galvanized steel and are largely immune to the salt and snow. In the 30s, an engine was ready for a rebuild after 60,000 miles, but today my Buick's mileage is typical — 300,000 without a ring job is quite possible.
But people aren't just keeping their cars because they still run. The number of cars traveling the last mile to the junkyard is down by half since the recession. So some of those people who pad the monthly unemployment statistics aren't exactly rushing out to replace their car, outmoded as it might be.
The irony of this is that car sales are through the roof, and fully back to pre-2008 levels. If the year continues in the same vein as the first eight months, then 15.5 million cars and light trucks will be sold. (It was just 10.4 million in 2009).
My guess is that some people are holding on to the old buggy as a backup but also going out and scoring a new ride as they go back to work. With my family, the Buick is handy as my older girl is driving and the younger one should have her license within the month.
And here's a real wild card in the proceedings. The percentage of American households without a car at all has doubled in the last decade. According to Art Spinella of CNW Marketing, "A growing number of Americans felt they didn't need or want a personal car."
There are a number of reasons for this. Americans are driving less. Vehicle miles traveled peaked in 2006, the University of Michigan reports. Even earlier, in 2004, there was a peak in miles driven per person, per registered car and truck, per driver and per household.
And another big factor is not only are people moving to cities — America is increasingly urban — but there are a lot more transit options in those big metro areas. In Connecticut, alas, our cities are more transit-challenged.