California’s economic revival is a light truck stuck in traffic

You can tell a lot about the California economy by looking at its automobiles.

The business climate’s rebound from pandemic pains, so far, has dodged some potholes, says my trusty spreadsheet review of two reports on 2022 transportation.

Basically, the good news is that lots of new “light trucks” are idling in a growing number of traffic jams.

In recent years, finding a dealer with any new vehicles on the lot has been a challenge. The pandemic created parts shortages and supply chain issues that made manufacturing a nightmare. So new-car buying suffered.

The California New Car Dealers Association reported 1.44 million retail sales statewide in 2022 – that’s new registrations excluding fleet sales to businesses. But that purchasing pace was only 88% of pre-pandemic 2019, back when we really didn’t know what the coronavirus was.

But there’s an eye-catching sales split within the somewhat gloomy picture overall.

Californians bought 981,421 light trucks last year. Purchases of these small trucks, vans and SUVs were equal to 105% of 2019 sales, or a full recovery from the pandemic turmoil in the auto business.

Conversely, Californians bought only 459,944 traditional cars in 2022. You know, boring sedans such as the one this columnist drives. That was only 65% of the pre-pandemic pace. Talk about a steep drop.

Or look at this car-buying switcheroo this way: The sedan’s share of 2022 statewide sales was just 32% – that’s off from 43% in 2019 and down from 53% in 2016.

Price isn’t right

Widespread economic uncertainties created by the pandemic didn’t scare drivers from the typically pricier light trucks.

Nor did rising gas prices budge them away from these less fuel-efficient vehicles. Supposedly, car shoppers like the roominess and perceived safety advantages of larger vehicles.

Meanwhile, auto manufacturers with limited production capabilities concentrated on the most profitable (ahem, expensive) models. So, essentially buyers and sellers were both in the light truck camp.

Geographically speaking, there were few differences in this anti-sedan buying pattern found up and down the state.

In Southern California, 946,398 vehicles were sold last year – 87% of 2019 purchases. But sedan sales were just 66% of the pre-pandemic pace leaving their share of 2022 sales at 33%. That’s down from 44% in 2019 and 55% in 2016.

In Northern California, 493,967 sales were 88% of 2019. Sedans were only at 64% of pre-pandemic levels, a 30% share last year vs. 41% in 2019 and 49% in 2016.

California’s car-buying revival also outshined the national tempo. Last year’s U.S. sales were just 81% of 2019’s level.

But as much as Californians dislike sedans, there’s a greater aversion elsewhere. Sedans were only 21% of 2022 U.S. sales – down from 28% in 2019 and 40% in 2016.

Stuck in a jam

Want another way to see California’s economic progress?

Just look at all those new vehicles – and the rest of the state’s autos – stuck in rush-hour jams almost as intense as pre-pandemic commuting delays.

This trend comes from a curious measure of congestion from Inrix, a traffic tracker. By studying GPS location data, a calculation is made of how much time is wasted in rush-hour bottlenecks compared with driving the same route to major job centers during off-peak hours.

Remember, you typically need a job to get stuck in a rush-hour mess.

Inrix found San Francisco’s commuting headaches cost its drivers 97 hours of wasted time last year – the sixth-worst commute in the nation. But the good news, economically speaking, is that those delays were equal to 2019’s traffic jams. That’s after San Francisco’s congestion grew by 52% in 2022.

Traffic messes around Concord also were back to 2019 intensity with 54 lost hours in 2022 – No. 16 nationally. That’s after congestion grew 35% in 2022.

Los Angeles traffic cost its drivers 95 hours – No. 7 in the U.S. – and 92% of 2019 congestion after growing in 2022 by 53%.

FYI: The worst traffic by this measurement was found in Chicago (155 wasted hours), Boston (134) and New York City (117).

Not universal

The rebound in traffic jams isn’t universal.

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Why are California shoppers skittish with spending?

San Diego’s 54 hours of added congestion – No. 16 last year nationally – was just 77% of 2019. That’s even after jumping 69% last year.

And Sacramento’s 36 hours – No. 25 – was only 56% of 2019 after a 44% burst in 2022.

Working from home has been widespread in the state capitol, a factor in Sacramento’s limited commutation snarls. That’s a coronavirus wrinkle thrown into the traffic-watching math.

Still, who’s getting stuck in traffic more often reflects economic realities.

Look at the largest rebounds in congestion rebound among the nation’s 25 cities with the worst commutes, by this math. They’re all hot business climates.

Las Vegas’s 41 lost hours last year is 2.5 times what it was in 2019, the No. 1 rebound. Next is Miami’s 105 hours, which is 130% of 2019 congestion. And No. 3 is Nashville’s 41 hours, 114% of 2019.

Jonathan Lansner is the business columnist for the Southern California News Group. He can be reached at

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