Oil Prices and Driving Habits

OIL PRICES AND DRIVING HABITS….So how much have Americans cut back on driving in the past few months? Here are a couple of data points.

First, on the right, is the weekly amount of motor gasoline produced in the United States as a percent of the amount produced in the same week last year. If you sum up the first 18 weeks of the year, gasoline production in the United States is down about 0.7% compared to the same period last year. This is a pretty rough measure of gasoline consumption, but still suggests that high prices have had only a fairly modest effect.

Second, via ThinkProgress, is a USA Today chart taken from Federal Highway Administration data. It only goes through February, but it’s a more direct measure and suggests a reduction of about 5% in total miles driven. This is nothing to sneeze at. Sure, considering that gasoline prices have gone up about 50% since the beginning of last year, even 5% might not seem like much of a reduction. But if you add in population growth, it means that per capita miles driven is down about 6% compared to last year. If you then compare it to the 1.5% annual growth we’ve been experiencing for the past decade, it means that per capita driving is down about 7-8% from its trendline. That’s the first time this has happened in a long time.

Still, there’s a caveat. In Los Angeles, for example, driving is down and use of mass transit is up. But will it stay up?

Not everyone who switches to biking, walking or carpooling will stick with it, MTA spokesman Dave Sotero said. The MTA usually sees a temporary increase in riders when gas prices reach certain thresholds, like $3, $3.50 and $4 a gallon, he said. Then ridership goes down once people become accustomed to the higher cost.

If oil really does go up to $200 per barrel, maybe MTA will finally be able to hold on to a few of those new riders.