Yesterday I posted about the Infernal Combustion Engine, a piece discussing some of the issues we face of being so auto dependant. As part of that I also looked at some details about what has happened with vehicle ownership over the last 90 odd years and I also briefly talked about some trends in vehicle engine size.  However following on from the post I have been thinking a lot more, particularly about the graph showing car ownership as I think it has some really interesting stories to tell. So for this post I’m going to look at car ownership in more detail.

First up the graph I showed yesterday.

Car Ownership from 1925

As mentioned there are some really interesting stories to tell which fall into the following three time-frames

  • 1930 to 1960
  • 1960 to the mid 1980’s
  • 1988 to now

So let’s look at them in more detail

1930 to 1960

The reason I find this period interesting is it represents the time in history when we started to see massive changes to society which had massive impacts on the entire transport system. Earlier increases in the number of licensed vehicles had been increasing before this time however as you can see the great depression dealt a blow to that reducing both the total number of vehicles licensed and the number per capita. However by the late 1930’s that had swung around and both figures were increasing until 1940. From that point on the effects of WW2 started to be felt and both numbers started dropping once again. The war along with the rationing of fuel were the main causes of the drop in numbers which was the result of vehicle licences and registration lapsing.

As life started returning to normal after the war there was an increase in the number of cars being registered and I would guess a large number of them were the re-registration of vehicles that had lapsed as the yearbooks note they were then counted as a new registration. It wasn’t until 1949 that the total vehicle fleet surpassed what existed in 1940 while on a per capita basis the figure wasn’t passed until 1952.

Car Ownership 1930-1960

What I also found interesting about the figures is that while they are for the entire country, we can probably expect that roughly the same trends would have occurred in Auckland. To me there has always been a bit of a chicken or egg type debate about what killed PT patronage, was it the rise of the car that killed PT demand or was did the removal of the trams and associated PT priority see people turn to cars as more rational choice. The chart below shows both Auckland PT patronage (of which trams dominated the figures) and NZ vehicle ownership while the period during which the trams were removed (1949-195) is shown as the shaded area.

Car Ownership vs PT 1930-1960

To me this suggests that while vehicle ownership was on the increase, it probably wasn’t to the point that it was really impacting patronage. In fact patronage actually increased at first which was probably the result of people trying something new which probably hastened the demise of the rest of the network. However as people really started to experience the new reality that buses were getting stuck in the same traffic as cars then that quickly turned around and patronage started a fairly long slide downhill. In the end the move away from PT was probably a combination of both increased attractiveness of cars and the deteriorated quality of PT services.

Note: most, if not all western world cities saw PT use decline in the decades following 1950’s but most not as dramatically as what happened in Auckland.

1960 to the mid 1980’s 

As mentioned above there started to be some fairly big changes happening in the 50’s with level of car ownership trending upwards. What surprises me so much is that from 1960 onwards is just how constant the increase is in both the number of vehicles and the number per capita. This is more so because during the 1970’s and early 80’s there were the various oil shocks which saw the price of petrol dramatically increase and yet it seems to have had no impact at all on vehicle increases. I guess though it may not be that surprising as during this time the baby boomers were really starting to be able to afford cars and as we know that particular age group have really associated driving with freedom. By comparison younger people often now tend to associate technology like smartphones with freedom and the car can be seen as a distraction from that.

Car Ownership 1960-86

1988 to now

In 1987 the stock market crashed and sent the economy into turmoil for a substantial period of time. What I find interesting is that despite this, the increase in the number of cars remained fairly constant. Part of this is likely to be the result of it being made easier to import second hand cars from overseas (more on that shortly) which would have seen the price of cars lowered substantially. There was certainly a big flow on effect to PT which saw patronage drop away its lowest point ever in 1994 with just over 33 million trips being taken. While the total number of cars registered did continue to increase, there was a slowing in the per capita numbers. Following on from here car numbers continued to increase all the way up until ~2007 which was when NZ started to get the economic wobbles once again.

However the thing is that for the first time since the 40’s we are actually seeing a change in the growth of the car fleet. Yes there have been slight ups and downs here or there but what we are seeing appears to be a sustained change. Car fleet growth has continued but at a much lower pace which is quite visible in the graph below and the first one where the fleet numbers have flattened out considerably. This is even more so on a per capita basis for which there has been a consistent decline for the last ~5 years.  Combined these help to show that there’s a real discontinuity occurring and we can’t and shouldn’t rely past trends to predict the future.

Car Ownership 1988-now

All of the above isn’t the only data I collected about vehicle licencing. The graph below shows how much second hand imports have impacted the number of new vehicle registrations with them sometimes accounting for up to 69% of all new registrations.

New Registrations vs Imports 1

And finally I also found the numbers on motorcycles and mopeds quite interesting as the trend is quite different to what we see with cars. Motorcycles sky-rocketed in popularity in the 70’s with total registrations reaching just over 144,000. Since then numbers have fallen away with a slight bump recently with the subsequent decline most likely the result of the changes to ACC charges a few years ago. Mopeds however continued gaining in popularity until the mid-70’s where I’m guessing some legislation changes prevented their use however that has started to turn around again recently.

Motorcycle and Moped Registrations

All up some very interesting trends that have occurred.

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  1. Great work Matt. Important to also note that in real terms crude oil fell in price every year from 1947 till 1971 when of course it rose suddenly and dramatically.
    But by the time of that first oil shock we had already pretty much re-shaped our cities around the car.

    I don’t know so much about car prices in NZ but my memory is of them getting cheaper and more accessible all through the second have of the last century, especially with the introduction of the used import system.

    Interesting to see the recent downturn in powered two-wheelers. Is this a reaction to the new higher registration fees, or have we hit some natural saturation level?

    1. I would say the rise in them was a response to higher petrol prices, as also seen in the 70’s. The decline recently is almost certainly going to be linked to the higher registration fees.

  2. Really interesting that in the driving boom years recessions didn’t affect the rise in vehicle uptake much if at all. Very different now. Suggests that while the recent drop in driving is surely at least in part a result of recession that isn’t the whole story. Increased urbanisation and changing preferences probably round out the story.

    2005 is clearly the hinge point. Fascinating, the same as the US and other western nations. Welcome to the new age.

  3. (1960 to the mid 1980′s
    As mentioned above there started to be some fairly big changes happening in the 50′s with level of car ownership trending upwards. What surprises me so much is that from 1960 onwards is just how constant the increase is in both the number of vehicles and the number per capita. This is more so because during the 1970′s and early 80′s there were the various oil shocks which saw the price of petrol dramatically increase and yet it seems to have had no impact at all on vehicle increases. I guess though it may not be that surprising as during this time the baby boomers were really starting to be able to afford cars and as we know that particular age group have really associated driving with freedom. By comparison younger people often now tend to associate technology like smartphones with freedom and the car can be seen as a distraction from that.)

    Up to and about 1962 to buy a NEW car you had to have overseas funds. Many New Zealanders had cash to buy new cars but had to wait until farmers etc sold there cars to buy a second hand one. It was a very sad time in the motoring business prior to 1962. Once the change took place NEW cars were flying out the doors.
    I remember working on pre-delivery checks + polish on 6 cylinder 3.3cc Vauxhalls Velox’s every night and all day saturday, so over 100 would go out every 2 weeks. That was only one of General Motors dealerships in the fourth biggest city of that time. Chev Fords Chrysler Holdens Austin Morris Triumph were all doing the same busy busy busy.

      1. This link mentions the foreign exchange restrictions, and this is the 1966 NZ Encyclopedia.
        I quote:

        “Since the war, shortage of overseas exchange has reduced car imports to the extent that there is a large demand for new cars, which, if satisfied, would bring about a marked rise in the index quoted. One effect has been to increase the number of old cars in the private car fleet, about two-thirds of which are over 20 years old, and their lack of efficiency and high cost of running constitute an indirect but very real economic loss to the country.”

        Hmm, seems things haven’t really changed much since?

        1. The other issue with average vehicle fleet age is that many of the vehicles that arrived here in the late 80’s were already 8 years old (or more) as opposed to new cars. Looking at the latest stats on new vs imported cars it would appear that the restrictions based on emission standards is starting to bit on used imports. I’m ok with that and I wold actually have them meet the same standards as new cars rather than a generation older. Every time the govt tries to restrict supply of new cars, or at least tilt the market, we end up with an older average fleet. It’s a form of price protection but the consumer actually looses out. Once upon a time in the 80’s the depreciation on a new car was much less than today and they were a lot less disposable.

    1. It was called non-remittance licencing, whereby an individual could import a car using their own overseas funds. This effectively meant that usually only farmers could do this. However, the dealer could import another car for every one purchased with a non-remittance licence. These could be sold to persons in worthy occupations, such as doctors and ministers of religion. The beauty of the scheme was that after a year one could trade in the car at a higher price than first paid, such was the demand, then buy another new one. Inevitably this developed into a rort and the process was eventually phased out, although I don’t recall exactly when. Certainly it was long gone by the 70s, so I’m inclined towards the earlier date. I bought my first brand new car in 1973, an HQ Holden, which cost about a year’s gross salary IIRC. No power-steering, no radio, no rear demisting, no ABS, cross-ply tyres, but a full three-speed automatic gearbox. Luxury!

  4. Some stray points:

    * By world standards, we took to the motor car like the proverbial duck to water; by 1939 we were one of the most motorised societies on earth.

    * What is often forgotten in these discussions, is just how expensive it was to buy a car in the first place, especially in the postwar period. With the tax regimes of the time and local assembly, cars were actually quite expensive – the Australians used to joke of us that we were the place “where Morrie minors went to die”.

    * When the ‘Jap import’ arrived in the mid-1980s, it dropped the capital cost of motoring substantially, as Matt notes, perhaps by a quarter. That meant that a whole lot of people who hadn’t been able to afford a car were now able to do so – hence both the sharp peak in registrations after 1987, and the sharp /decrease/ in motorcycle registrations, with some big resulting improvements in our road safety statistics (I was working at the time in road safety research).

    So yes, in the context of the recent declines in car usage and ownership, we are seeing a sea-change in travel behaviour. The other important thing to watch would be the rediscovery of the inner city as a desirable place to live – in sharp contrast to most of the postwar period.

    1. Yes. Clearly decreased enthusiasm for driving goes hand in hand with the increased enthusiasm for inner city living. One coin; two sides.

      And it is this change in desires (along with smartphones) that has caused the big fat discontinuity clearly apparent from 2005 that is still invisible to those more used to last century’s certainties. And still setting policy.

  5. I vaguely recall that the drop off in Mopeds around 1976-77 was due to driver licensing/vehicle power rating changes that required a motor-cycle license to drive them (where previously you didn’t need one as they were treated like “motorised bicycles” if the power rating was low enough (1/2 an HP?)), and/or to the wholesale taxes on mopeds and to registration charges that brought them in-line with Motorcycles, so these meant there was little benefit to having a moped over a regular bike.
    I recall that the old Solex type moped type “pedal-able” motorised bikes were reasonably common in the 60’s and early 70’s.

    I think the road code rule changes bought in then still govern the use of Electric Bikes today – as the power limit for not needing a motorcycle license and stop lights/good brakes like a Motor-Cycle is about 250W (1/3rd of 1 Horse Power).

    It is fortunate that the limit here is set based on engine power and not vehicle speed as you’d have the situation like the US where electric bikes/mopeds can’t go over 20MPH but can be as powerful as you like.

    1. Greg N.
      If you have some time go through the year books from stats nz, scroll down to transport on each year through the 60’s and you will get the picture when the import with overseas funds ended. Unfortunately I have not found the exact date it ended but I have from very good source at Stats NZ that it was early 196’s.
      You will also find your stats on motor cycles.
      Those wanting to find out how unsafe the roads for cyclists were then can find info there to. Remember the population was just over a million then.

  6. I was looking for info on trams and found this from AT:

    Matt L may have referred to this graph in other posts. It is striking to me that the PT use just fell off a cliff after 1956, not by coincidence the last year of the trams.

    I have no doubt that at the time it seemed that cars would be the god send of urban transport and we could all liv in an Arcadian paradise. On that basis, the expenditure to keep the trams must have seemed unnecessary. However, to my mind, there is no doubt that it was a mistake. Trams are fantastic in cities, people like them and they do the job really well.

    1. Yes I have talked about it in the past and even have all of the data behind it – although I have just recently found a few parts are slightly incorrect but it doesn’t change the overall trend.

    2. What they overlooked big time was that they had PT prioritisation in place when Trams were running.
      When you removed the trams (and the PT prioritisations) the buses ended up in the same mess as the cars.

      Of course, they believed that the trams were the *cause* of the congestion, so they thought that getting rid of the trams was going to solve all the problems with traffic.
      It probably did work for about 3-4 years, then the induced traffic overwhelmed the road system making the entire network worse than before and we’ve never yet been able to escape the trap we built and set for ourselves…

      Now if they’d turned the old tram lines into Busways/Bus priority labes – well we’d be having a different discussion entirely.

    3. “PT use just fell off a cliff after 1956, not by coincidence the last year of the trams.”

      The same thing happened in Sydney at the same time. Clearly public transport users found the replacement buses worse, whatever the promises of the tram-killers.

  7. Excellent stats

    The 50’s graph certainly seems to coincide with the removal of trams. Lost with the trams was the automatic right of way,use of their own roads in the form of central tracks and ease of getting on and off (for the able bodied) on central island stops. Again with a driver and conductor combination stop times were also minimised and all of these issues combined meant the replacement buses were far less efficient and attractive. I recall Merv Smith of 1ZB fame commenting some years back that the trams took a hammering in WW2 and a lot of maintenance to tram cars and the network was deferred and it never really recovered.

    As for motorcycles/scooters, they were enjoying a boom after the petrol price rises in the mid 2000’s but this was torpedoed with the massive ACC levy rises put into place by National around 2009. Its not hard to conclude the real reason for this was that not enough fuel was being burnt up by all these fuel efficient machines to bring in the taxes, although they would pretend that injury risk was the reason. That argument of course falls over when the higher risk cyclists were not targeted.

    Jap imports took a huge hit in the late 2000’s period I think it was, with the imposition of the minimum year of manufacture, 2005 and later. This has never been fully explained but it sure helped out the new car industry and meant used cars went up in price and older ones stayed on the roads longer. Who donated how much to whose political party I wonder?

    1. It wasn’t a minimum year of manufacture. It was tied to emissions standards. Until then they didn’t have to meet any in New Zealand.

  8. Some other trivia for your page.
    I will convert to litres and dollars for these facts as you know we worked in NZ pounds ($) and english gallons in 1967.
    In 1967 a litre of petrol cost 12 cents “no GST” a litre, my car held 30 litres and I used up every drop by each pay day and often cycled to work to save fuel for the weekends.
    My weekly income before tax was $20 a motor mechanics award wage, tax was high at $3.50, a bottle of Asti Riccadonna was $1.00.
    Early 1970’s I remember getting a 43% wage increase, it was not unusual to get a 15% wage increase annually through the 70’s.
    A litre of petrol is around $2.15 a litre, my car holds 60 litres I use 55 litres weekly, I use my car often to take my bike out into the countryside so I can safely ride my bike, my weekly wage is $1,300, tax is not much these days $136.00, a bottle of Asti Riccadonna is around $17.00.
    Fuel is cheap today for sure.

    Hopes this helps.

    1. “I use my car often to take my bike out into the countryside so I can safely ride my bike”

      An unfortunate legacy of our autodependent culture – bikes are only seen as a toy or a piece of sporting equipment instead of the fantastic tool for urban transport that they are.

      Though actually a lot of high profile cycling accidents are sports cyclists riding on rural roads.

  9. Traffic Solution

    What has been proposed for Auckland traffic is to give the people who got us into this mess $80,000,000,000.00 more and the only guarantee they give us is that when the project is done, traffic is worse.

    That’s absurd. When you give money to the road builders, you get more roads. AT does not solve transport problems. They implement political will with regards to transport. What’s needed is a “new” view. The “free bus” proposal from a failed mayoral candidate may not be practical, but we need more radical ideas.

    Often we hear about the tourist driving on the wrong side of the road, or the drink drivers crashing going home, or the speeders (though speed doesn’t kill, if you don’t crash; so reducing crashes is more important than scaring people about speed). What do they all have in common? The driver made an error. So remove the driver, and fix nearly all the problems.

    How do you remove the driver? One way is to get the drivers out of cars and into public transport. Another way would be driverless cars. Given the time-frame for spending the $80,000,000,000, a little investment in driverless cars would go a long way towards the end goal.

    If public transport isn’t used because of issues (real or perceived), then that’s a separate issue. There are means to address that. is a car-like public transport that costs less than roads or trains (about 1/10th the cost of trains).

    Today’s fix
    Raise speed limits by 20k (40k on motorways), 0k in school zones. Legalize motorbike lane splitting, allow motorbikes in all bus lanes (including busways and on motorways) and convert 20% of on-street CBD parking to free motorbike parking. The improvement in traffic flow from higher limits will reduce traffic congestion (though could increase the congestion problems when congestion does happen). And the increase in motorbikes from favourable treatment will further reduce traffic by eliminating cars in favour of motorbikes. This will give immediate improvements in traffic flow, allowing time for the more future-looking transport options to be implemented, while never letting traffic get worse than today (unlike the AT plan).

    Tomorrow’s fix
    Get “smart” people in a room and come out with a non-driver transport plan. If personal rapid transit can be built for $8,000,000 per km, we’d be able to cover 1000 km of track, and have spent 1/10th the AT budget for the transport plan. And at the end of the period, we’d have fewer cars, faster transport, and healthier air – at a lower cost. If we end up with driverless cars, we’d eliminate human error fatalities, prevent drunk/tourists from crossing centre lines and killing innocent families, and we’d get places faster and more efficiently.
    Or, mandate all cars on motorways be driverless by 2030. Given the ages of cars, this isn’t a hardship on the average person. The cars refresh within that period. We just need to make sure people have viable driverless options for their next purchase. The $80 billion would go a long way to subsidies for self-driving cars.

    1. @ Marc – Why no rise in speed limits in school zones? Surely if it’s safe to go as fast as you like elsewhere, then it will be safe outside schools? Or are you concerned that schoolkids might stray into the path of speeding cars? In that case, what about the risk that away from school zones, schoolkids, or schoolkids on holiday, or pre-schoolers, or adults, or elderly adults, or any others I’ve missed out, might also stray into the path of speeding cars. Or do schoolkids demonstrate more convincingly than other groups that speeding is actually not safe ANYWHERE, except maybe on a racetrack when no other vehicles are present?

      Marc – just what is your agenda in proposing speed limit increases? Are you always in a panic and always running late for things, causing you feel this need to ‘floor it’ all the time?

    2. Marc. Why on earth does rapid transit have to be ‘personal’, are we all sociopaths? You know that there is no chance that PRT can be cheaper or quicker than just significantly improving the systems we already have, which we know will lead to a radical increase in their uptake AND radically improve the city’s urban form and liveability.

      Making cars driverless does not solve the problem of too many cars on its own, unless what you really mean is getting rid of private cars and making everyone use shared robot cars on the existing road system. That’ll be popular.

      All of which is to say I like the boldness of your thinking but that a number of its assumptions are more than questionable.

      I am really puzzled by why people think PRT could ever be good; it seems to combine the worst aspects of the car and public transport into one system. Is just because they think the only thing wrong with PT is that it is insufficiently car-like in vehicle size? Really? So having little vehicles that can’t do the best thing a car does; have no fixed route, is somehow an improvement on either system?

      Cars are already the best car sized system, PT is not improved by shrinking its vehicle capacity, cars are just no good when everyone is trying to use them at once. Improve the alternatives significantly with a real rid transit network (The CFN) and a new cycling network and bingo, we get great new systems and a better functioning existing car one.

      At considerably less cost than trying to endlessly expand the existing driving network.

    3. Though I agree that motorway limits should be 120-140 outside of Urban areas, we need to improve lane dicipline first.

      That you think 70km/h is a safe speed at any time on residential streets, and all of our arterials scares me, even if the cars are driveless.

      Driverless PRT may be part of the answer, but you are asking the wrong question. PRT would be a good answer for how to provide short wait times to passengers in low density areas where traditional PT would struggle, say the deeper reached of Torbay/ Long Bay, or Greenhithe for example. That is how I imagine using PRT, having a single Busway station in Greenhithe and using driverless PRT to get people there.

    4. Marc, give me $8b and I’ll give you a far more efficient transit system than a driverless pod car monorail network. I’m pretty sure anyone who comments here could allocate eight billion to the right sorts if projects.

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