What Is the Only Nation in the World That Averages More Than One Car per Person?

The US, Australia, and Italy pale in comparison to this tiny European nation

Aerial view of San Marino parking lot at sunrise

Keith McInnes Photography / Getty Images

The U.S., China, and India are notorious for their smog-laden, gridlocked cities, but the only nation in the world that averages more than one car per person is San Marino, a mountainous microstate completely landlocked by north-central Italy. According to the World Health Organization's 2018 global status report on road safety, San Marino has 54,956 registered vehicles in 2016 for a population of only 33,203 people. 

Other small countries with high levels of vehicle ownership per capita include Iceland, Luxembourg, and New Zealand. While these places' carbon footprints pale in comparison to those of the world's top emitters, their wealth of automobiles could be setting a poor example for the future of sustainable transportation. Here's how a teeny, little-known nation wound up with so many gas-guzzling machines, how its environmental footprint measures up to other car-rich countries, and what it all means for the ever-warming planet.

How Many Cars Are There in the World?

WHO's 2018 global status report on road safety lists the number of registered vehicles in every country — all but about 30. Its 2018 report revealed that there were about 2 billion cars in the world in 2016. That's about double what was reported in 2006 (~1 billion).

San Marino's Car Population

Night panorama from Monte Titano, San Marino

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San Marino — the size of Manhattan — has roughly the same number of registered vehicles as Belize, a country about 400 times its size and containing more than 10 times the number of people. On average, that works out to be 1.6 cars per person (including kids). But not all of the cars registered in San Marino stay in San Marino.

The pea-sized country is a tax haven. Separate from the European Union, it doesn't enforce the 22% value-added tax that Italy imposes. Rather, the taxation on cars in San Marino ranges from 3.5% to 7%, depending on the car itself and its intended use. Thus, the official number of registered cars doesn't reflect how many are actually parked within the 23 square miles of San Marino because people from all over Italy and Europe regularly flock to the micronation to make big purchases, like vehicles, and take them across the border to their own countries. 

The car population of San Marino increased by about 3,000 (or 6%) from 2007 to 2016. A 2019 report from the Emissions Database for Global Atmospheric Research revealed that Italy, San Marino, and the Holy See generated the same amount of carbon dioxide emissions per capita as Denmark (5.8 tons), which is slightly more than the U.K. (5.6 tons per capita), Chile, and Argentina (both about 5 tons per capita). The United States, for reference, generates 16.1 tons of carbon dioxide per capita. 

Countries With the Most Vehicles per Person

Aerial view of Chicago highway traffic at dusk

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Although no other country averages more than one car per person, many countries — including the U.S. — are getting increasingly close to San Marino's level of vehicle ownership. Sadly, others don't have the justification of being tax havens to alleviate the environmental burden. 

Top 10 Countries With the Most Vehicles per Person

According to WHO's 2018 global status report on road safety and 2019 population data, these are the countries with the most vehicles per person:

  • San Marino (1.6 vehicles per person) 
  • Finland (0.95 vehicles per person)
  • Greece (0.89 vehicles per person)
  • Italy (0.87 vehicles per person)
  • U.S. (0.86 vehicles per person)
  • Malaysia (0.86 vehicles per person)
  • Austria (0.84 vehicles per person)
  • Iceland (0.81 vehicles per person)
  • Luxembourg (0.76 vehicles per person)
  • New Zealand (0.74 vehicles per person)

The 10 countries with the most vehicles per capita represent a mix of big and small, touristy and inconspicuous, quiet and bustling — located throughout North America, Europe, Asia, and Oceania. One thing they all have in common is their standing in the top 33rd percentile of wealthiest countries in the world. San Marino itself ranked as the 18th wealthiest country in the International Monetary Fund's 2021 World Economic Outlook Database, boasting an average GDP per capita of $61,508 compared to the estimated global average in 2019, $11,433.

Luxembourg (which in 2017 had 466,472 total cars) ranked first on that list, with an average GDP per capita of $131,780, more than ten times the global average. The U.S. (2015: 281,312,446 total cars) ranked fifth, Iceland (2016: 289,501 total cars) 7th, Finland (2016: 5,217,850 total cars) 14th, Austria (2016: 7,421,647 total cars) 15th, New Zealand (2016: 3,656,300 total cars) 22nd, Italy (2016: 52,581,575 total cars) 27th, Greece (2016: 9,489,299 total cars) 47th, and Malaysia (2016: 27,613,120 cars) 65th.

Despite emissions from transportation accounting for nearly a quarter of global carbon dioxide emissions, not all countries with high levels of vehicle ownership are among the world's top climate offenders. In fact, about half of the top 10 car-rich countries are in the bottom half of global CO2 emitters. One major exception is the U.S., generating 15% of global CO2 emissions. A 2018 Gallup study revealed that 64% of U.S. adults drive every day and 19% drive most days. Vehicles are the biggest source (29%) of the country's CO2 emissions. Another noteworthy climate offender that makes the top-10-for-cars-per-capita list is Italy, accounting for 1% of global CO2 emissions.

The Future of Car Use

Electric vehicle plugged in on sidewalk

Photography taken by Mario Gutiérrez / Getty Images

Although the world is currently overpopulated with GHG-secreting machines, the good news is that the future is moving toward electric vehicles. In 2019, sales of EVs topped 2.6 million globally, whereas only 17,000 were on the world's roads only a decade prior. The International Energy Agency reported that there were about 7.3 million chargers worldwide in 2019, although 6.5 million of them were private. China, the world's top CO2 emitter, is actually leading the EV charge, now operating about a half million electric buses and planning to transition to exclusively all-electric or hybrid cars by 2035.

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