August 8, 2006

As the Price of Gas Goes Up, The Nation’s Odometer Slows Down

History Repeats Itself

FigureIn the nearly 100 years that Americans have been driving cars, the inflation-adjusted price of gasoline has drifted steadily downward, save for two sharp spikes up. One occurred a quarter century ago. The other is happening right now.

In both instances, the public reaction has been the same – roughly half of all adults say they’ve scaled back on their driving, while the other half say they haven’t.

Among the slight majority (55%) in the latest Pew Research Center survey who say they’ve cut back, there’s an inverse correlation with family income – that is, the less income a driver has, the more likely he or she is to have scaled back. Also, rural residents are more likely than those who live in cities or suburbs to have scaled back. Aside from that, there are few age, gender, regional or other demographic variances between those who’ve cut back and those who haven’t.

FigureNor is there much difference based on the type of vehicles people drive. Even though there has been a sharp decline in recent months in the sales of gas-thirsty vehicles such as SUVs and pickup trucks1, owners of these vehicles are no more, or less, likely than the rest of the public to say they’ve scaled back on driving.

There are, however, some differences based on how many miles people travel. Heavy travelers are less likely than light travelers to say they’ve cut back.

The findings are from a Pew survey among a nationally representative sample of 1,182 adults conducted from June 20 through July 16, 2006.

In addition to the 55% of the public who say they have cut back on driving in response to the recent gas price hike, a slightly greater number — 58% — say they’ve given serious thought to getting a car with better gas mileage the next time they buy or lease, the survey finds. Also, about two-in-ten (21%) say they have started to car pool more often in response to the gas price spike, and about one-in-eight (12%) say they have started using mass transit more often.

FigureYounger Americans (those ages 18 to 29) are significantly more likely than their elders to have contemplated buying a more fuel- efficient car, or to have started to car pool or use mass transit more often. They are no different from older Americans, however, when it come to cutting back on driving.

Hispanics are more likely than either whites or blacks to report having started to use mass transit and to car pool more often. Also, not surprising, many more city dwellers (20%) than suburbanites or rural residents (both 8%) report that they are using mass transit more often as a result of the gas price spike.

However, despite all these self-reported efforts to conserve, a sizable majority of the public – 71% — says that higher gas prices are too difficult a way to achieve the goal of energy conservation, while just 17% says that there is a benefit to higher gas prices because it forces people to conserve energy.

Those most likely to hold the minority view on that question include college graduates and people with annual incomes of $100,000 or more. About one-quarter of both groups say there’s a benefit to higher gas prices because its leads to energy conservation. Liberals, especially liberal Democrats, are also more likely to take the minority view on this issue (24% and 30%, respectively), but overall, Republicans, Democrats, and independents hold similar views on this question.

Gas Consumption: How Responsive to Price Changes?

FigureThe survey findings are in sync with market data which show that, over the past several decades, when gas prices have declined, consumption has risen – and vice versa. This is classic consumer behavior, but economists have long noted that when it comes to gasoline prices, such trends tend to be more apparent over the long term than the short term. That’s because it’s difficult for people to adjust quickly to a sudden change in gas prices; most consumers cannot lightly make the decision to buy a new car, and most workers cannot easily change their commuting patterns. But over time, attitudes and behaviors do respond to market price, at least to some degree.

That was the case a quarter century ago, when a reduction in oil supply from the Middle East drove prices at the pump up to what is still their historic peak in this country – topping out at about $3.12 a gallon (in today’s dollars) in March, 1981.2

FigureDuring that period, a spate of polls (for more details see the appendix in the full report) found that somewhere between 43% and 58% of the public said they had cut back on driving, with some of the variance in those results probably the result of slight differences in the wording of questions on different polls.

More recently, gas prices spiked up sharply last September in the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, then declined by an average of about 60 cents a gallon over the winter, but have since returned this summer to near their post-Katrina peaks of about $3 a gallon.3 During this current run-up in prices, as in the late 1970s, public opinion polls show that roughly half the public is cutting back on driving – though once again, there is a range of response to this question (from a low of 48% to a high of 71%), in part due to slight variations in question wording.

Who Drives What…

FigureNo matter how people have responded to the recent surge in gas prices, the survey finds that the kinds of vehicles people drive affirm some familiar stereotypes in the popular culture.

Some 55% of all drivers say they most often drive a car while 19% say SUV, 17% say pick-up truck and 9% say van or mini-van.

But there’s a significant gender variance in these patterns. When it comes to their primary vehicle, more women than men drive cars (61%, compared with 49% among men); SUVs (21%, compared with 16% among men) and vans (12%, compared with 6% among men). Meantime, men (28%) are nearly five times more likely than women (6%) to drive a pick-up truck as their primary means of transportation.

There are also differences by community type. More than a quarter (27%) of rural residents drive a pickup truck as their primary vehicle, roughly double the percentage of city residents (13%) and suburbanites (15%) who do so.

When it comes to SUVs, the most significant variances are by age, income and having kids. Nearly three in ten (29%) of those who earn more than $100,000 a year drive a SUV as their main vehicle, compared with just 10% of those who earn less than $30,000 a year. Also, SUV drivers account for 25% of the 30-to-49-years old drivers, but just 9% of those ages 65 and older. Parents of minor age children are more likely than those without such children to be driving SUV’s.

Figure…and How Far

More men than women are heavy drivers (defined as having driven at least 15,000 miles in the past year); so are more younger drivers than older drivers; more high income drivers than low income drivers; more suburban and rural drivers than urban drivers; and more drivers who live in the south, west and midwest than in the northeast.

Not surprisingly, people who like to drive tend to rack up the most movement on their odometers. And so do people for whom the primary vehicle is a SUV or pickup truck rather than a car, sedan or minivan.

About the Survey

Results for this survey are based on telephone interviews conducted with a nationally representative sample of adults, ages 18 years and older, living in continental U.S. telephone households.

Survey interviews conducted under the direction of Princeton Survey Research Associates International. Interviews were conducted in English and Spanish.

Bear in mind that question wording and practical difficulties in conducting surveys can introduce error or bias in the findings of opinion polls.

Read the full report for more details.