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Strategy: Will the European new car market ever grow again?

Carfree Paris. Picture courtesy of menly.frCar-free Paris, France.

As the whole industry is getting ready for the Frankfurt Auto Show, the European new car market is evolving at its lowest level in 20 years in 2013. Spain has had its weakest month of August on record, and in France we are looking at the lowest monthly sales figure in 37 years… Some insiders, including Renault-Nissan CEO Carlos Ghosn and Ford Europe CEO Stephen Odell, don’t see a return to growth until 2016 at the very earliest, the end of the decade at worst. I will push this theory further and ask: will the Western European new car market ever grow again? Or has it reached saturation at around 12 million annual units?

Car scrappage in ItalyMore cars were scrapped than bought in Italy in 2012 for the first time since World War II…

There are a few signs on the continent that the car may not be the preferred mode of transport in the future, simply because other options, mainly public transport, offer a much cheaper and sometimes more convenient outlook. The first striking event that could announce this trend happened in 2012 in Italy: for the first time since the 2nd World War, there were less cars in circulation in the country than the year before. More cars were scrapped than bought. With a new car market down a further 9% in 2013, chances are this will happen again this year… In France, the tramway is making a spectacular resurgence with no less than 17 cities building a new network from scratch in the last decade – a trend I’m exploring in more detail further down.

Tramway Angers France. Picture courtesy of angersloiretourisme2.comCould the newly revitalised tramway kill the car in France?

What is your opinion? Is public transport a valid option in your city? Do you find yourself using your car less than you used to? Can you imagine a life without a car? I’m keen to hear your views so please comment on here if you want to share anything relevant to this subject. I will also update this post as I find more information on this trend in the near future.

EurostarEuropean cities are well connected, sometimes making the train a faster option than the plane.

A demographic trend is also at play in Europe, with most countries seeing their population ageing and stagnating, meaning less working people and less people in ‘real’ need of a car to commute every day. Now let’s not get ahead of ourselves, all is not doom and gloom for the European new car market and no time for car manufacturers to abandon the continent just yet! Proof: UK sales display insolent health this year, up 10% year-on-year and, most importantly, boosted by private demand, not leases or rentals. Denmark is posting record year after record year in spite of very high taxes on the price of cars. Also, saturated markets like Canada and Australia are reaching record levels in 2013. But their geography makes public transport a challenge and keep the car essential.

Velib' Paris. Picture courtesy of dailyphotostreamVelib’ system in Paris, France. 58% of Parisian households do not own a car.

And this is the core of the European trend. The cities of Europe are extremely well connected, both with each other and inside out, with many transport options to choose from for each trip. For example, 58% of households living in Paris do not own a car vs. 19% nationally! A very dense metro system coupled with the recent addition of electric car- and bike-share programs (autolib’ and velib’) have made this car-free situation possible.

However the car is still used in a very large majority of trips all across Europe, and this won’t change soon… (the following is mainly based on statistics for France where my family resides – if you have detailed info for other European countries please make sure to comment on here!)

Tramway Tours France. Picture courtesy of agglo-tours.frThe all-new tramway in Tours, France was inaugurated on 31 August 2013.

In France, since 2000 no less than 17 cities have built a tramway network for the most part from scratch! These cities are Montpellier (2000), Orleans (2001), Nancy, Caen (2002), Bordeaux (2004), Clermont-Ferrand, Mulhouse, Valenciennes (2006), Le Mans, Nice, Toulouse (2007), Reims, Angers (2011), Brest, Dijon and Le Havre (2012) and Tours, which inaugurated its new tram last 31 August. 5 more are due to receive a tramway line before 2020: Besançon, Avignon, Amiens, Lens and Toulon… A spectacular resurgence which has almost always prompted a sharp increase in the general use of public transport in these cities: in Toulouse for example, public transport, including but not limited to trams, use has increased by 35% since 2007.

More frequent public transport use means less frequent car use, right? Not so simple.

Tallinn Free Public Transport. Picture courtesy of directmatin.frTallinn in Estonia is the first EU capital to give its residents free public transport.

Many studies have tried to demonstrate that the appearance of a tramway network reduces the utilisation of the car in the city concerned, but the correlation is proving relatively hard to isolate. What seems to happen is the car is less used inside these cities, or at least on the routes served by the tramway network, but still used to get to the tram or public transport hub. ‘Relay’ parking lots have had to be created at the periphery of these cities to allow commuters to park their car before they jump on public transport on their daily commute. Toulouse, the 2nd city in France for relay-parking capacity, is already saturated and has launched the creation of 4,000 additional spots.

In Tallin, Estonia, public transport is now free for the city’s residents to encourage people to leave their car at home, or even better (worse for car manufacturers), not buy one in the first place. An interesting experiment that however shows the lengths needed to make commuters give up their car. What about inter-city commutes and inter-regional trips? In spite of a very dense train and plane network, the car is still king by very far. Out of 100 trips of more than 100 km in France, 75 use the car, 17 the train, 6 the plane and 2 the bus.

Yes, car manufacturers can breathe a sight of relief: Europe loves cars, and is not ready (yet) to give it up!

Sources:,, La Croix,, Ville Rail & Transports 16 July 2013

This Post Has 14 Comments
  1. Interesting article Matt. The saturation level that you are talking about is actually the 15 million units that were reached in the late 90’s (some 15.1 million units sold in 99, talking just Western Europe and PCs, no LCVs included). The 12 million units that we have now is a consequence of those high levels in previous years (indeed, the market is saturated!) and obviously, a consequence of the economic crisis. I bet the WE market will rebound somehow (13.5 million units in 2-3 years?) but it will not reach the late 90’s / early 00’s levels anymore, for the reasons you quote in you article (improving public transports, among others).

  2. It’s to do with fashion. Young people getting married later and moving to the big cities, the centre of town and the inner suburbs. Increasingly people are living in flat shares without access to car parking and commuting to work at employers that are located in the centre of town, so a car becomes an expensive weekend extravagance. Also since the 80s and the strict drink driving laws that came in about then a car has meant being unable to socialise after work, which is boring, huh? Cycling is cheap and keeps you fit, as well as practically screaming alt middle class. Car rentals are booming. As well as the lifestyle issues you could also look at cars themselves, manufacturers have become conservative in the extreme and beyond the kitsch mini and contrived 4x4s there is little under £20,000 aimed at lifestyle consumers, the Twizzy seems way too expensive, BMW/Mercedes/Audi have capitalized on the fact that no one wants MOR anymore, but even in Europe their sales are so high they’re on the edge of losing their cool, alternatively just as with retail some of the super cheap manufacturers are also doing well.

  3. You are definetly right concerning population decline. Just speaking for EU; (28 countries, population 507 millions by today); lets say it will decrease to 450 million in near future. According my forecast of 1 car for 30 people per year; annual sales should jump to 15 millions. Europe is large, population is aged, market is mature, however Central and Eastern (even some Southern) markets are not filled up yet. That was my point.

  4. Matt; the answer of your question may be hidden elsewhere than public transport. Take Germany as an example: Advanced public transport and high car sales go hand in hand. But what is currently happening in Greece? The opposite.

    I suggest not to focus on public transport but on following ratios of any particular country or continent:
    1) gdp per capita
    2) car sales per capita
    3) average income / bottom car price

    In other words:
    You should already have in hand figures of Germany population in 2013 divided to car sales in Germany in 2013. Please do the same for Europe or for the World.

    Without exception all economies will grow up soon or later regardless which part of the earth they are located. It is natural fact of human development for thousands of years.

    Therefore within this century we may see;

    In an average country: 1 car to be sold per 30 people per year.
    In a well being country: 1 car to be sold per 20 people per year.
    In a spoiled country: 1 car to be sold per 10 people per year.

    Just please check total population of `Europe` you mentioned in this article. And then divide in to 12 millions of cars which you are worried of saturation. It maybe around 40 or 50; I can not guess right now since I don`t know your Europe. But once you find out its total population; you will see that even Europe has a way ahead to improve.

    1. Hello Can,
      Many thanks for your input.
      This is not as simple as cars sold per people per year unfortunately. Plus the population of Europe is going to actually decline soon. So the “economy growing being a natural fact of human development for thousands of years” has happened with a world population booming and we are now facing a different situation. For example, the German population has already started to decline and sales figures reached at the start of the nineties (4 million units in 1991!) seem almost unreachable anymore.

  5. Like Ian, in France country, car is a necessity because buses are nearly not existing. Even at 45 miles from Paris or 15 miles from Disneyland. I do like driving, and having a car.

  6. I expect the european to recover quite soon. The declining of economis seems to stop since economy was growing again in the second quarter of 2013.

  7. So Europe wants to buy fewer cars ? So the GDP of Europe will never grow again, more unemployment, less money and so forth: car industry creates thouands of jobs and indirectly too, the bicycle industry is third world stuff, but Europe and the greens and the old generation of hippies wants to become third world. Europe should build many suburbs, US style sprawl which contrary to opinion is good for the economy, of course, home prices would decrease too, and so forth, but Europe is an old continent, old, won’t be going anywhere anymore…

    1. Hi 8man,
      Don’t forget less sales in Europe doesn’t automatically mean European manufacturers will be in trouble, as many of them (including Volkswagen) already sell more outside Europe than they do inside.

  8. Interesting article, I am British and originate from Shropshire in the North West Midlands of England, this is a very rural county and fairly sparsely populated, there are only two towns over 20,000, if you live outside these and you do not live on a train route you have to either depend on the local bus service (virtually non-existent in many areas), or a car. In rural areas all over the UK, especially remote areas of Scotland, Wales and also England a car has become a necessity for going to work, taking the children to school, shopping etc. I have moved to South East of England, the situation is totally different, you can get anywhere within the region by bus or train, very frequent services for both and of course
    London has a fully developed underground (metro system) and a light railway. Some cities like Manchester have reintroduced trams, the West Midlands has a light railway system, Newcastle a Metro system, there are also various incentives to use bikes etc. British roads are solid with traffic, another 2.2 million new cars being sold this year,we are a small country with a large and increasing population, we are running out of space, although I love and have always loved cars, something needs to be done to reduce our dependence on the it. The government is at last are trying to make the country more cycle friendly, in the US (and other countries) they have car sharing schemes, I am sure if introduced here that would help, there is a school near where I live, you see parents taking their children there in big four wheel drives, Land Rovers, BMW etc., this cannot be good for the environment. It has been predicted by many experts that the population of the UK will overtake that of Germany within the next few decades, which means even more cars, a frightening thought, sorry to go on, but action needs to be taken.

  9. Very interesting text indeed.
    Personally, I think the north american model (Each one commuting with his/her own car)
    is not sustainable from any point of view, maybe not even from the economical(Let´s not forget the impact traffic jams have on the economy). And if my point is wrong we should ask ourselves is the economy more important than our quality of life(clear air, less time lost commuting…)?
    I wish my country had good public transportation like western europe and people could
    live well without a car. I recognize, though, that the american model is appropriate for their urbanism, but the european one is the one I like most.
    Anyways, I think european car sales will decrease slowly in mid-term because of the same reasons the text talks about.

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