Our Survey: As Gas Prices Rise, Americans Drive Less, Carpool More, Take Mass Transit

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(Andrea Bernstein, Transportation Nation) Joe Guyon of Rock Hill, South Carolina says he's bundling his errands and eating locally. A listener in Augusta, GA says he "cuts off his car when I idle." Joe Manrique of North Palm Beach, Florida, says "since my daily commute is approximately 170 miles round trip, I try to walk as much as possible from my office to appointments." A contributor from Flushing New York says "I do my errands on the way home, no matter how tired I am."

Others have started carpooling, gone from being a two-car family to a one-car family, changed over from gasoline to waste vegetable oil fuel, or made sure they bundled errands, rather than driving on multiple shopping trips.

Or they are biking, working from home, going out less, or taking public transit.

Those are some of the findings of our survey with our partner The Takeaway (see map, just below) of gas prices and how they affect behavior.   And these results are bolstered by a number of  broader gauges of consumer behavior.

The American Public Transit Association is just out with a survey of traveler attitudes on public transit. APTA says some 54 percent of nearly 35,000 Americans queried said they planned to take public transit while vacationing this summer -- up from 51 percent two years ago. APTA spokesman Mantill Williams says that represents millions of travelers who will use transit in 2011 that wouldn't have in 2009.

And smaller cars began to sell more rapidly in April.  Hyundai, with its fuel-efficient fleet, reported a record 5.7 percent of the U.S. market.   All car sales are up, but for GM in particular, according to information provided to WNYC by Autodata corporation, car sales are increasing faster than truck sales. Escalade sales plummeted. Market share of the tiny Chevy (and inexpensive) Chevy Aveo soared.

In Houston in April, the number of people signing up for a carpool service tripled.

But we've seen this all before -- when gas prices spiked in 2008, and the changes in consumer behavior were sudden, and profound. Until they weren't.

As of March of this year, demand for fuel-efficient cars was still sluggish. In 2010, the Detroit Free Press reported, “hybrid car sales actually shrunk from 2.9 percent of new vehicle sales to 2.4 percent last year."

In May 2008, as gas prices in some areas topped $5.00 a gallon,  SUV’s were stuck on dealership lots. That month light truck sales -- usually about half of the U.S. market, plummeted to 43 percent of the market, according to figures provide to WNYC by Autodata.

And Americans were driving less, way less.

* In the year Ronald Reagan was elected president,  Americans were driving about 672 hundred billion miles a year.

*By 2008, we were driving five times as much. Needless to say, driving far outpaced population growth.

* But as the effects of the gas price hike sunk in, for the first time in well over a generation, Americans drove less on an annual basis –-
It’s true, Prius sales had been rising in May 2010, by about 41 percent over the year earlier. But SUV sales were up way more. The Chevy Suburban was up 100 percent over the previous year. The Chevy Equinox was up even more – by 256 percent. “This is absolute proof we have the shortest attention spans on the planet,” said Bill Visnic at the time, then a Senior Editor at Edmunds AutoObserver.com. “Just two summers ago, you couldn’t give away an SUV.” Then, gasoline was approaching $5.00 a gallon. As of March of this year, demand for fuel-efficient cars was still sluggish. In 2010, the Detroit Free Press reported, “hybrid car sales actually shrunk from 2.9 percent of new vehicle sales to 29.9 ">by about 57 billion miles.

* And transit ridership jumped to 10.7 billion trips, the highest in 52 years, according to the American Public Transit Association, or APTA.  APTA put ridership increases at well over ten percent in Denver, the state of New Jersey, and Dallas.

But then. Gas prices dropped. In May 2010, gas was a relatively cheap $3.00 a gallon.  Americans began driving again. By March of 2011, we were once again driving towards the historic 2008 high -– we were back up to over 2.9 trillion miles traveled.

And SUV sales? Way up. It’s true, Prius sales had been rising in May 2010, by about 41 percent over the year earlier.  But SUV sales were up way more. The Chevy Suburban was up 100 percent over the previous year. The Chevy Equinox was up even more -– by 256 percent.

“This is absolute proof we have the shortest attention spans on the planet,” said Bill Visnic at the time, then a Senior Editor at Edmunds AutoObserver.com. “Just two summers ago, you couldn’t give away an SUV.”

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