Out of Control Auto Ownership

Alarming new research shows its time we slammed the breaks on rapidly growing car ownership in Jordan.

The Jordan Strategy Forum (JSF) recently published a note entitled “Vehicle Ownership in Jordan: A Comparative Perspective”. The note presented the current level of car ownership in the Kingdom and its growth over the years, highlighting how certain figures compared with those of other countries.

According to the note, which referenced various sources such as Eurostat (part of the European Commission) and the World Bank, car ownership in Jordan stood at 21.6 percent per capita in 2016—meaning there was just over one car for every five people. This was much lower than similar figures in Germany (53.9 percent), Finland (56.6 percent), and France (49.1 percent). It should be noted that other sources even put the Jordanian figure at closer to 15 percent.

The alarm bells sounded by the JSF’s note were not so much in the car ownership level but, rather, in its rate of growth. In Jordan, car ownership grew at a rate of 6.54 percent between 2009 and 2016, according to the note. This compares to 1.3 percent in Germany, 2.63 percent in Finland, and a mere 0.36 percent in France.

The information in JSF’s note is neither new nor surprising, but the note’s comparative perspective and recommendations are noteworthy. Car ownership is generally higher in higher income countries, so the disparity in stock with countries such as Germany and Finland makes sense. Jordan is experiencing rapid population growth due to natural and other factors (notably regional conflicts). This growth is bound to be coupled with a growth in car ownership, especially with the lack of viable alternatives, such as public transport.

Citing other factors beyond car ownership, such as road quality, the note recommended investing in transport infrastructure, especially in the network of roads and public transport.

Translating and further expanding this recommendation into actionable policies requires delving deeper into this issue. To that end, there are three key issues that I would like to highlight:

  1. It is important to distinguish between car ownership and car use. The JSF note rightly pointed out that “a myriad of factors determine the choice of owning a vehicle.” The note then cited examples of these factors, like “traditional economic factors, such as household income, vehicle prices and fuel costs … socio-economic characteristics, such as gender, age, household size, household composition, education, and employment status … spatial and land-use characteristics [including] the level of urbanization and access to transportation … [and] psychological factors, such as perceptions, attitudes and habits.”

Using a car for a certain trip, on the other hand, is a different issue. It is hard to think about this in the Jordanian context, since the availability of a car generally means using that car for all trips. However, in many of the other countries cited above, where car ownership levels are much higher, the situation is different. For certain trips, using public transport, cycling, or walking may be more convenient than driving (even if a car was available). This could be for reasons related to price, travel time, comfort, convenience, parking, or others.

2. Based on the distinction between ownership and use, we should think of what influences a Jordanian’s decision to own and, separately, to use a car. Again, given the lack of viable alternatives today, we often do not distinguish between the factors that affect each decision separately. However, here are some examples: Higher customs and taxes on cars may influence one’s decision to own a car but not their decision to use their car, once they bite the bullet and purchase one. On the other hand, congestion or the lack of parking in a particular location would probably not influence one’s decision to buy a car, but it would influence their decision to use their own car for trips heading to that location. Instead, they could opt for either walking, taking a taxi or car service, or carpooling with someone else.

3. Based on our understanding of the factors influencing people’s decisions, we should ask what effective policy decision can be made and when they should be made. In last month’s column, I argued that the Prime Minister’ stated efforts to curb car ownership by raising certain taxes and fees was wrong. With the lack of viable transport alternatives, such measures have the risk of suppressing trips and, thus, economic activity, rather than shifting trips to other modes. The solution, I argued, should be to first invest in public transport and provide people with reliable and affordable alternatives. Once that is done—or as it is being done—we can think of gradually implementing measures that discourage car use in favor of public transport. The impact on car ownership will then naturally follow, or, more accurately, car ownership will become less relevant in the discourse on traffic congestion and energy consumption.

These distinctions and their policy implications are crucial. I would much rather have a situation in which more people owned cars and used them only on the weekends, for example, than a situation in which few owned cars and the majority were unable to get to their jobs, schools, or universities.