Most social and economic data end up telling predictable stories; shockingly, income and education are correlated! Poverty and crime go hand-in-hand! Abstinence Only sex education doesn't work! We see "studies" and "reports" that reveal these facts get emailed and passed around Facebook, resulting in a collective well-duh response that reinforces what common sense tells us. I don't really get interested until the data tell us the opposite of what we expect. For example, how many of you would have guessed that the United States trails nearly the entire industrialized world in car ownership (including leases) per capita? Don't lie. You thought we were #1 too. Don't worry, though. Despite being far from #1 in that category, we still use more than twice as much energy per capita than even the energy hungry countries of Western Europe.
How can it be that America, the land where profligate energy consumption is treated as a birthright, has fewer cars per capita than pansy-ass France? This is America, land of the SUV and the morning commute and the culture of car worship. This is a country that never saw a public transportation proposal it liked. We have to have the most cars. Hell, in most cities and towns in this country it's practically impossible to accomplish the basic tasks of life without a car these days. So what's the deal?
As the first link (from The Atlantic) suggests, part of the problem is economic inequality; we'd probably own more cars if we could afford it. This is supported by data reported widely earlier this year that the average age of cars on the road in the U.S. has never been higher. That's a clear sign that we're modifying our consumption to reflect unemployment, underemployment, lower wages, and uncertainty about the future.
How do we manage to use so much more energy if we have fewer cars? While the obvious answer is that we drive bigger, less efficient cars – and believe me, we do – the more pressing fact is that we drive more. Europeans have smaller cars (much to Americans' amusement) and don't drive them as often or as far. The daily drive from the suburbs to Downtown might be a staple in the American suburbs but is not common elsewhere. Even if we all drove tiny Euro-style hatchbacks we'd still use far more energy per capita because miles driven per capita are off the charts here.
Nothing quite like unexpected results to force us to confront our new economic reality. Luxury car sales are still going strong, though! So there's that.