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The United States is often criticized for its perceived nonchalance toward air pollution despite persistent statements to the contrary by the current presidential administration. The US remains the number one contributor globally to harmful chemicals in the air, with the fossil-fuel consuming transportation industry being a primary emission source. With more than 250 million vehicles on US roads, the US surpasses even China based on total vehicles in use despite China's much larger population...at least for now. China has already surpassed the US in annual new car sales.

Examining the data on a per capita basis reveals another side to the story. The US is ranked a surprising 36th globally in terms of passenger cars on the road per 1,000 people. Other Western countries with more passenger cars per capita than the US include the likes of New Zealand, Canada, Italy, Australia, Germany, and the UK, each with more than 500 passenger cars on the road per 1,000 people compared to 379 vehicles per 1,000 people in the US.

Behind the numbers are numerous pardaxoical trends that mirror the income levels and price sensitivity of consumers, tax incentives and industry promotions, and fuel costs and public transportation infrastructure conditions, among other factors. For example, while total passenger cars in use in the US declined steadily from 2008 - when the global financial crisis tightened consumer disretionary spending - through 2014, total commerical vehicles in use continued to increase, even during periods of rising fuel prices.

Definitions

Vehicles in use: Vehicles in use are composed of all registered vehicles on the road. To calculate the motorization rate, population data published by the United Nations are used.
Passenger cars: Passenger cars are road motor vehicles, other than a motor cycle, intended for the carriage of passengers and designed to seat no more than nine persons (including the driver). The term “passenger cars” therefore covers taxis and hired passenger cars, provided that they have fewer than ten seats. This category may also include pick-ups or microcars (need no permit to be driven).
Commercial vehicles: Commercial vehicles include light commercial vehicles, heavy trucks, coaches and buses (except for some countries in which the buses or heavy trucks data are not available).

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