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Gas Necessities

This letter picks up on the conversation about gas prices, tipping points and travel we began during Monday's online discussion. Please join in to talk about whether the cost of fuel has led you to rethink how you're getting around:

"Yes, most people consider gas and car travel to be a "necessity" but not all
car travel is equal.

"Commuting for work or family issues (child care, elder care, appointments, scheduled commitments, etc.) is all considered essential travel to most families and that does not change.

"However, non-essential travel (including social engagements, leisure travel,
leisure activities, extraneous shopping, etc) will be limited. So, while people consider a trip to the doctor/dentist to be essential, they don't consider the Saturday trip to Skyline Drive or the mall to be essential and those get curtailed.

"So, I've already seen people doing leisure-time and pleasure travel closer to home (going to Ocean City instead of going to Hilton Head, going to the local mall instead of driving to Potomac Mills, taking Metro to dinner and a show downtown instead of driving).

"People are already cutting back on driving and I think if you were able to get a count on average gas usage per family, that you'd see that it is now taking slightly longer on average between gas fillups.

"I know that I don't feel the pinch as much because in January 2006, I turned in my gas hogging full-size sedan (20-21 mpg) in for a hybrid Ford Escort (31-33 mpg).

"I have not changed my driving habits, but I now need a 12-gallon fillup every 10-12 days instead of a 14-gallon fillup every 6-8 days and I still get to drive an SUV truck.

"At $3 a gallon, I computed that I saved about $800 per year in gasoline, but now that will be more. Between that and the $2,300 that I got as a tax CREDIT in 2006, by January 2007, I had broken even on the $3,200 difference in price between the non-hybrid and hybrid versions and now all of that is cash in pocket. [The daily price update on the Metro page puts the region's average price of regular at $3.81 per gallon.]

"And I get to be a little more green and help the environment both in lower fossil fuel usage and lower emissions. As the price of gas continues to rise, I think there will be a drastic shift in the
automobile industry.

"Laws were not going to change people's habits, only hitting their pocketbooks and I think it's happening now.
-- Ted Ying

By Robert Thomson  |  May 20, 2008; 7:03 AM ET
Categories:  Driving  
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I don't like driving in the DC area because of the traffic and azzhole drivers. If gas prices keep going up, does that mean they will stay home and driving will become acceptable again? I certainly hope so.

So raise gas taxes, bomb Darfur, do it all so I can drive in peace.

Posted by: keep going up | May 20, 2008 10:15 AM | Report abuse

I find that this type of article muddles the difference between the short term and long term. This week I can skip some social trips, put air in my tires and not drive so fast. Despite all the hysteria, gasoline consumption in the U.S. is down less than 1% from last year, which was an all time high.

Structural changes take longer but can have bigger benefits. Living closer to work, switching to a more efficient car and waiting for a new transit line to be built are great but they aren't something you do this week.

People will only make these changes if they think high gas prices are here to stay. Remember, gas prices spiked in 1974, 1981 and 1990. These same articles about changing our lifestyles were written and everytime the prices came back down. Let's see if it is really different this time.

Posted by: Josey23 | May 20, 2008 10:24 AM | Report abuse

Josey makes a good point. The short term is different from the long term.

But I like what Ted has to say about how what's actually changing people's behavior is not a law, social pressure or advertising. No, it's good old-fashioned monetary hits that do it.

I've always thought that if environmentalists are right, they need to find a way to make their alternatives competitive on price. Wipe out all subsidies from the government for energy and let it compete that way. People are making choices now that are rational in an economic sense and it's happening because of price. If solar power is cheap compared to other options, as it's getting to be, I'll choose it. If it's close in price, I'll choose it. Hybrid's are close enough now in price and the savings from gas make up the difference.

This is good.

Posted by: DC Centurion's Shield | May 20, 2008 10:47 AM | Report abuse

I've filled up more often over the past few weeks in an effort to keep the tank full on gas that costs less than $4.00 a gallon (getting very tricky right now...last night I paid $3.999 a gallon). I've considered whether to take the Metro, but in the end it's not really any cheaper after the last round of fare increases, it takes longer than driving, and taking the bus to the Metro is not a viable option because I don't have a fixed schedule that permits me to rely on making that evening bus.

I still plan to go on a driving vacation this summer. My Acura's fuel economy in city driving is a mediocre 19 to 20 mpg, but on the highway it's a different story. I usually get 30 mpg at an average 70 mph. (Slowing below 65 is not a good option because that means shifting down to 5th gear, which uses more gas than cruising in 6th.) So I'm not too bent out of shape about the cost of the gas, especially when compared with the cost of flying, renting a car, changing planes, airline surcharges for carrying golf clubs as checked baggage (surcharge due to weight), etc.

I think that if the price of gas stays high, my next car will be a diesel. Yes, diesel fuel costs more, but the fuel efficiency makes up for it very quickly. But I'm not going to rush to trade either of my current cars. To me, that's more of a waste when they're both perfectly good cars. In the meantime, what I really wish is that there were some way to avoid having to sit at so many red lights. The worst fuel economy you get is when you're stopped at a light or in traffic (you get 0 mpg). So many traffic lights in our area are mistimed so that you get through maybe one or two lights and then you stop. Synchronizing the lights would be a step in the right direction.

Posted by: Rich | May 20, 2008 10:58 AM | Report abuse

From Dr. Gridlock: I also think Josey is making a good point about short term and long term behavior.

But an urban area such as ours allows some people to make quick adjustments. Look, for example, at the Metro ridership, up substantially since the fare increases on Jan. 6. Saving gas by taking the train is a relatively simple adjustment for thousands in this region.

A notch up from that -- and maybe more like Josey's structural changes -- would be to decide that, Hey, since I'm taking the train so much now, I can save by selling the car and rent a Zipcar whenever I need to drive. And while I'm at it, maybe I'll move into that new building that went up near the Metro station.

Posted by: Robert Thomson | May 20, 2008 11:06 AM | Report abuse

For me, the "optional vs. necessary" travel is reversed. I have a metro option for my commute, though it takes about 15 minutes longer. Mass transit is optimized for rush hours. As much as Metro would love for people to run their errands on it as well, transit shines getting people to work in the morning, and home in the evening. Trying to plan multiple stops to get things, see things in off hours, and in non-peak directions, is harder.
Therefore, I have STOPPED driving to work, but I still want my occasional road trip, or other one-time indulgence in the car.

My pattern lately:
Drive 10-20 miles the entire work week, then drive upwards of 100 on the weekend.
I still fill up every 2-3 weeks.

I do know that there are a LOT of people who live near transit and either don't know how to use it (particularly white collar workers who have bus-to-metro options) or simply choose not to. You may see those change in the shorter term.

Posted by: Joe in SS | May 20, 2008 11:41 AM | Report abuse

I feel like I'm seeing twice as many people biking as I did last year. Not people out biking to train for a race, but people biking to work, the store or to dinner. That's a pretty quick and easy change.

Posted by: DC | May 20, 2008 11:46 AM | Report abuse

I'm driving slower on the interstates (rarely above 65 now, and at 60 most of the time), and I notice most other drivers appear to be slowing down as well. (Not counting jam-ups, of course!)

I, however, do not want to tie where I live solely to the proximity of mass transit. I like living where I choose; that's the American way.

Posted by: Cygnus | May 20, 2008 12:06 PM | Report abuse

DC, I have seen a lot more people biking as well (maybe it's because I've taken up biking a lot again but the gas could be the reason). I've also noticed new bike racks at a lot of stores/strip malls I visit on a regular basis. I would love to see this more often, because finding a place to safely lock up your bike can be difficult in some locations. It would probably encourage more biking.

Posted by: Laura | May 20, 2008 12:44 PM | Report abuse

I'd love to see one of those numbnut bikers trying to bring groceries home from the store on their handlebars. The one good thing they have going for them is that since bikes don't have to stop at red lights, they don't have to worry too much about keeping balanced.

Posted by: Marge | May 20, 2008 2:35 PM | Report abuse

"I'd love to see one of those numbnut bikers trying to bring groceries home from the store on their handlebars."

Any biker with half a brain who wants to go to the store presumably has "panniers," which is the cycling term for the bags that you hang from your luggage rack (what would be called "saddlebags" when riding a horse). I wonder if they make an insulated version to allow for the carrying of cold or frozen items like milk, beer, or ice cream.

Posted by: Rich | May 20, 2008 4:15 PM | Report abuse

Rich, I just take a backpack with me and throw the groceries in there. But yes, for longer rides, saddle bags are nice so you don't have all the weight on your back.

Posted by: Laura | May 20, 2008 4:57 PM | Report abuse

as a biker, I appreciate that the law does not apply to me if I had to stop at stop signs and lights and not cut people off biking would suck chimp balls

Posted by: Anonymous | May 20, 2008 5:06 PM | Report abuse

I appreciate that Metro buses don't have to follow traffic laws and that DC has a free left turn on red. Please don't change these!

Posted by: Candy | May 21, 2008 10:57 AM | Report abuse

The comments to this entry are closed.

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