Rising Prices Prompt Sustainable Behaviors

Amid daily stories about rising gas prices, there is a growing discussion about how those rising prices will affect US driving patterns.

Some polls indicate that prices are unlikely to affect our behaviors dramatically unless the prices get really high.  After all, lots of Americans feel that they do not have options when it comes to driving; a house in the suburbs and a job downtown means a long daily commute.  In many communities there is a lack of viable public transportation alternatives that serve whole areas.  That is true in my community of Madison, Wisconsin.  Bus service extends beyond Madison’s city limits in some directions but not all.

At the same time, there are indications that price does affect our behaviors.  We noted some months ago that the US Department of Transportation has reported that vehicle miles travelled in the US has been flat or declining for more than 47 months.  More, we would note that humans tend to be notoriously bad at predicting our own behaviors; it seems likely that people will do whatever they can to mitigate rising costs at the gas pump.

This week the Los Angeles Times reports that auto manufacturers are definitely—finally—responding to consumer concerns about higher gas prices by offering more fuel efficient vehicles.  Edmunds.com reports that the 2012 models are on average 16% more efficient than the cars available to Americans in 2008.  That is an average savings of $400 per year.

Like so many sustainability issues, though, there is not just one strategy forward.  Part of the answer is simply driving smarter—little things like driving the speed limit, avoiding jack-rabbit starts, idling less and making sure your tires are properly inflated can increase the mileage you get out of every gallon of gasoline you purchase.  Taken together these actions can improve fuel economy by over 10%.  More, participants in Cool Choices’ games report that these driving strategies can reduce the stress associated with driving—an added bonus to be sure.

Driving less—even just combining errands—can help, too.  And of course it helps a lot if you can bike, walk, share a ride or take public transit to some locations rather than driving.  At Cool Choices, we offer players lots of points for these actions because we know shifting away from single-occupancy vehicles to more sustainable travel options is a big change.

Another part of the answer, of course, is choosing the most fuel efficient car available to you; and when comparing options it is useful to think about gallons per 100 miles traveled, rather than mpg.  (Calculate gallons per 100 miles traveled by dividing 100 into the vehicle’s average mpg; a 2012 Ford Explorer has an average mpg of 19.5 so 100/19.5 = 5.1 gallons per 100 miles.)  A Toyota Prius uses 2 gallons of gasoline to go 100 miles; a Chevrolet Equinox uses 4 gallons and a Volkswagen Passat uses about 3.7.  The gallons per 100 miles calculation can help you determine the potential savings of a switch from one vehicle to another.  A driver that commutes 100 miles per week, for example, can save 1.2 gallons of gas per week in a Ford Focus over a Ford Taurus.

Taken together all of these small actions add up.  As per industry predictions earlier this year, demand for gasoline is down from last year.  While we still tend to drive way too much, the trend is going in the right direction.

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