Collaboration in Civic Spheres

Global vehicle penetration, sliced three different ways

by Matt Rosenberg October 28th, 2012

Data visualizations derived from the World Bank’s World Development Indicators show that while North America far outpaces other major global regions in vehicles per 1,000 people, that gap compared to the developing world is declining. And perhaps more revealing: several developing global regions have more vehicles per kilometers of roadway than North America. Surface transportation of course is just one sector of the energy economy. Growing global energy demands in coming decades for surface transportation, plus other consumer, commercial and institutional uses, and manufacturing, accent the bracing challenge of developing competitively-priced green energy on a vast scale in order to limit climate change.

The World Bank has posted a wide array of World Development Indicators to Google Public Data Explorer, so that users can easily build their own charts, graphs and visualizations. Picking just three among dozens of data depictions across different World Development Indicators, let’s look at global vehicle penetration, by global region, and measured three different ways. The first is passenger vehicles per 1,000 people (not including two-wheelers). North America has almost 2.5 times more than the next closest competitor, but has been declining in recent years; while on the rise are the Europe/Central Asia region, Latin America/Caribbean, and East Asia/Pacific. This chart will likely look quite different in 2020, and even more so in 2030, as the gap between North America and the rest of the world continues to narrow.

Adding in buses and freight vehicles, this next graph looks at motor vehicles per 1,000 people. The gap between North America and other continents is even wider.

However, the measurement of motor vehicles (no two-wheelers) per kilometer of built roads is quite different. Though the data set has a few gaps, it is fairly striking that in the one year so far in which data exists for the Middle East and North Africa (2008), it leads the pack. By this metric, North America ranks third among the major global regions used in the World Development Indicators, behind Middle East/North Africa, and Europe/Central Asia. Data for Latin America/Caribbean is limited to only 2004, so can’t really be factored in. East Asia and Pacific is sharply rising. Europe/Central Asia and South Asia are also rising, North America is declining.

As more road infrastructure is built in developing nations, motor vehicles per kilometer of roadway will likely continue to grow in the developing world. This in turn has a strong probability of increasing greenhouse gas emissions from the surface transportation sector, unless net-green alternative fuels can be produced and sold on a wide scale. North America of course, with its huge number of vehicles overall, faces a related environmental challenge.

Against a backdrop of strong global concern about climate change, the data suggest we can expect even more effort will be focused on developing affordable green vehicles powered by electricity or biofuels; and that scrutiny will intensify of how electricity is produced for transportation and other purposes. In the developing world especially, will coal continue to dominate, or will cleaner, greener alternative energy sources actually gain a substantial foothold?

RELATED: “Global Energy Use and Carbon Emissions, 2005-2035,” Public Data Ferret.

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