Peak Car Investment Opportunities
Breaking: We Hit the Peak in 2005!
This was my mother's daily commute for about two years after we moved out to the suburbs in 1981. Total transit time was about three hours round-trip, depending on traffic, of course.
So basically, my mother spent about two and half days' worth of time every month driving to and from work...
Two and a half days!
Fortunately, she only had to do that commute for a couple of years before getting reassigned back to the main office, which was much, much closer to home. But it was around that time I realized I would never put myself through that kind of hassle.
It just made no sense... the wear and tear on the car... the stinging fuel costs... the wasted time and productivity... the stress of daily traffic...
No, this was never something I wanted. And after college, I made a conscientious effort to never live more than ten or fifteen minutes from work. Anything more would just be unacceptable.
And as it turns out, I wasn't alone. Over the past ten or fifteen years, there's been an interesting shift in behaviors regarding daily work commutes. And what was once considered just a part of a daily routine has started to become an exercise in futility.
The mere thought of spending a significant amount of one's life behind the wheel of car, sitting in traffic and starting the day completely stressed out has sparked a migration back to some of this nation's cities — at least, for a younger generation that works within city limits.
And this has led to some folks not even needing a car anymore, as biking, mass transit, and carsharing services like Zipcar are making it easier for daily commuters to live without a car.
This new trend not only represents a complete reversal of the car-centric society in which I grew up, but some believe it could actually be one of the reasons behind what some are now calling “Peak Car.”
There was an interesting article a couple of weeks ago by business and policy writer Tim Fernholz in which he considers the possibility that demand for cars has hit a plateau and, from this point forward, demand can only start to decline.
It's an interesting thought. But on the surface, it's a hard one to buy.
That being said, there has been a visible trend in vehicle miles traveled that could lend itself to Fernholz's argument. According to the OECD, growth in total vehicle miles traveled in the developed world has actually been decreasing steadily since the early part of this century...
In his piece, Fernholz attempts to justify this data with a few solid explanations that are at least worthy of consideration:
Increasing costs of fossil fuels, parking, and insurance at a time of stagnant wage growth in advanced countries.
Policies designed to mitigate pollution and reduce urban sprawl.
Availability of communications technologies that has made some work travel unnecessary.
New trends toward urbanization replacing the flight to suburbs.
A new generation of potential car buyers — specifically those in the Millennial generation — that doesn't view cars as rights of passage or status symbols, as previous generations have.
The inability for people to tolerate daily commutes for more than an hour.
The World's Longest Traffic Jam
Of course, current trends that can make a supportive argument for the case of "Peak Car" do not reflect the full global scenario...
Many automakers today are looking towards emerging markets for continued growth, and certainly we've seen evidence of this in China, India, and a few South American countries.
The question, however, is will these emerging economies embrace car-centric communities as we have done in the United States?
Car ownership in emerging economies is definitely viewed as a status symbol. And having this certain taste of freedom that we've grown so accustomed to in the U.S. is still very new in other parts of the world, and offers a tremendous amount of enthusiasm over car ownership.
Then again, with the significant availability of cars comes some of the hassles, too — particularly when it comes to fuel costs and traffic. Consider for a moment the world's longest traffic jam in history was in China in 2010: It stretched for 62 miles and lasted twelve days!
Truth is it's still too early to know exactly how car ownership will play out over the long-term in emerging economies. But here at home, we're already witnessing a transition to alternative forms of transportation and mass transit acceptance.
I can't say with absolute certainty that this could prove a "Peak Car" theory, but here's what we do know: There has been clear evidence of robust growth in mass transit ridership over the past 16 years.
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According to the American Public Transportation Association, from 1995 through 2011, public transportation ridership increased by 34%, representing a growth rate higher than the 17% increase in U.S. population, and higher than the 22% growth in the use of the nation's highways over the same period.
Also worth noting, in 2011 Americans took 10.4 billion trips on public transportation — the second highest annual ridership number since 1957.
And as far as alternative forms of transportation, we know from the actions of automakers that the transition to more fuel-efficient vehicles, like hybrids and electrics, will continue; natural gas will eventually end up powering nearly all of our buses and trucks; and freight rail will continue to build market share, especially in the race to develop and secure this nation's oil and gas resources.
In fact, you can already see the latter unfolding with streetwise billionaires like Warren Buffett running backroom deals with the White House to secure their their rail profits...
It's true. Do a little digging, and you'll find what is likely the real reason the Keystone XL Pipeline was delayed. It's got little to do with the EPA, that's for sure...
Of course, I'm not here to just criticize; I'm here to tap the same opportunities guys like Buffett are profiting from. And I make no apologies for that.
And as far as "Peak Car" is concerned?
Well, I don't think it's out of the realm of possibilities, but I'd be hesitant to jump on that one until we have at least another five or ten years of data. (Of course, in another ten years, it'll cost you a small fortune to fill the tank, so maybe it doesn't even matter.)
In another ten years, if the automakers can't sell conventional internal combustion vehicles at the same rate they're selling them today, they'll still have no problem selling natural gas trucks, electric cars, and hybrid buses. So one way or another, they'll be just fine...
Because behind the scenes, they're already preparing for the future. And so are we!
To a new way of life and a new generation of wealth...
@JeffSiegel on Twitter
Jeff is the managing editor of Energy and Capital and contributing analyst for the Energy Investor, an independent investment research service focusing primarily on stocks in the oil & gas, modern energy and infrastructure markets. He has been a featured guest on Fox, CNBC, and Bloomberg Asia, and is the author of the best-selling book, Investing in Renewable Energy: Making Money on Green Chip Stocks. For more on Jeff, go to his editor''s page.