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Easing Off the Gas

by Roger Valdez

Northwesterners are using less gasoline.

Gas chart gifFor our latest research report, we looked at gasoline consumption data in the Northwest for 2008 and found some significant drops. In fact, total gasoline consumption saw the biggest drop since 1980. It would be easy to attribute this to high gas prices and the economic downturn we experienced last year, but the fact is that this drop actually marks an acceleration of a trend that's been going on in the Northwest for nearly a decade.

That's right. Per capita gasoline consumption has dropped in 8 of the last 9 years. Northwesterners are leading the way as the nation takes steps to get off the volatile fossil fuel roller coaster. So, while price and economic factors play a role, we can also track a decade of smart trends that reduce consumption: several decades of smart growth policies, increased transit use, and improved fuel efficiency are just a few.

And even now that gas prices are a bit lower, early 2009 data indicates that our healthier new habits are sticking. In early 2009, Vehicle Miles Traveled have dropped as well adding some depth to our picture of how folks in the Northwest are taking steps to get off the volatile fossil fuel roller coaster.

What does it mean for local decision-makers? For one, investments in freeway capacity no longer make as much sense as investments in transit, walkable communities, and efficiency.

The full report is available here. Here are some of the key findings:

  •  We’re using less gas. Gasoline consumption is falling in the Northwest states of Idaho, Oregon and Washington. In 2008, per-person consumption dropped to the lowest level since 1965, and total gasoline consumption had its biggest drop since 1980.
  • Our travel habits are changing. While gasoline prices have been volatile, declines in gasoline consumption per capita have continued through the fluctuations of the last decade. Last year’s dramatic price swings resulted in record-high transit ridership—and for some northwesterners, these changes are sticking
  • Unemployment is up. Recession has hit the Northwest hard, and many are out of jobs. Last year’s combination of high fuel prices and tight family budgets trimmed fuel consumption dramatically.
  • Smart policies lead to long term progress. Policy changes—like better transportation alternatives and more-compact urban growth—can sustain momentum toward lower gas consumption.
  • Smart investments give us more choices. Declining gas consumption and driving have implications for transportation spending. They suggest prioritizing road maintenance and transit investments over highway building.
  • This piece originally appeared in Sightline Institute's blog, The Daily Score.

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A stat of possibly even more interest is the stopping of the year-on-year increase.

In the UK, petrol (gasoline) consumption for road transport stopped increasing in about 1990 (as the graph in the article does in 2000). It has seen some reductions in the past 3 or 4 years in the UK as well.

However, the obvious reasons for this - increased public transport use or better fuel economy don't explain the change. What does show a correlation is the number of miles driven.

Unfortunately, this has been almost completely replaced in the UK by air travel!

Posted by: John Kazer on 5 Jul 09

"taking steps off the fossil-fuel roller-coaster"? Gasoline is just one hump on the roller coaster. There are other fossil fuels. Our reading of EIA numbers is that fossil fuel use continues growing. Gasoline use is a variable cost that households can adjust quickly (taking the car keys away from the teens, combining trips, canceling vacations) down to a certain point.

Posted by: fpteditors on 15 Jul 09

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