Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Chinese Now Buying More Cars than Americans

Although Buick is actually a popular brand in China, this can't be good news for the Big Three US auto makers.

From The Financial Times:

US car sales fell to their lowest level since 1963 in January - and were less than China's on an annualised basis for the first time - as rental fleets and consumers bought fewer vehicles in spite of steep industry discounts and government efforts to ease lending.

General Motors' monthly sales fell 49 per cent and Ford Motor's - including vehicles made by Volvo, its Swedish premium brand - dropped 40 per cent.

"This is the first time in history China has surpassed the US," said Michael DiGiovanni, GM's head of global sales and industry analysis. GM estimated the industry's annualised selling rate for cars at 9.8m in the US in January, down from 10.3m in December, and less than China's estimated annualised selling rate of 10.7m last month.

The slide in sales will intensify the pressure on Detroit's carmakers, which are scrambling to avoid bankruptcy. GM and Chrysler are working on restructuring plans due by February 17 as conditions of their $17.4bn emergency government loans.

Read On
China's population is over four times as large America's, but I still see this as shocking news. The "car culture" that permeates American life is just not here in China (although one can see that it is growing from today's news).

For most people in China, having a car is not even within the realm of possibility. Jackie's family, for instance, is very middle class (ie. they own their own apartment, have two working parents, and have steady income and savings) and they do not have a car. And as far as I understand, they have never seriously considered buying one. Even if they could afford one, they just don't really need one. Public transportation and walking to places can more than suffice one's day-to-day needs and wants.

Somewhat ironically, one of the most liberating aspects of coming to live in China for me has been freeing myself from the shackles of car ownership.

In suburban Kansas City, you have to have a car. Public transportation just doesn't make any sense when you live in a place as spread out as the place that I grew up. It is not feasible for an active person to even consider getting by without a car in the suburbs. One has to drive everywhere.

Whereas in Xi'an, things couldn't be more different.

There are three grocery stores within a five minute walk of my apartment. I can also walk to work, walk to department stores, walk to my bank, walk to a hospital, and can even walk to two of the most impressive tourist destinations in all of China if I'm so inclined. And my situation is not unique. I live on a pretty average street in Xi'an.

Of course there are things that I give up for the convenience of where I live. Most notably, I do not have a nice front lawn to myself and I don't have the ability to walk down a street without being surrounded by swarms of people. But I do have to say that my apartment is very big and comfortable and I do not feel "cramped" at all in my current living situation.

While many Americans see car ownership as the definition of "freedom" (meant to be read in a George W. Bush accent), I've grown to see it as stifling.

Getting back into America's car culture is one of the things I'm dreading most about my eventual reintegration into American society. Knowing that getting back into America's drive-everywhere mentality is going to be awful, I'm thinking about which cities would be best for Jackie and me in terms of not having to get into the car to do absolutely everything. Sharing one car between the two of us would be ideal.

This criteria of wanting to live in a place where one can actually walk or rely upon public transportation really does pare down the number of places one can live in the good ol' US of A.

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