Friday, October 31, 2008

As Gas Prices Go Down, Driving Goes Up

NYTimes | Doug Guidry gave up drag racing and boating last summer when gasoline prices shot up. Billy Castaneda put off trips to Houston to see his grandchildren. Randal Shul stopped playing paintball with his buddies to save gas.

Now, with gasoline prices dropping, all three men are hitting the road again. “Gas going down means freedom, even when everyone is worried about the economy,” Mr. Castaneda said as he filled his 1995 Oldsmobile 88 to drive 125 miles to Houston the other day.

The sharp decline in gasoline use earlier this year — with volume down nearly 10 percent in some weeks — suggested to many people, including the automobile companies, that a permanent change in American habits might be at hand. But with gasoline prices falling drastically in recent weeks, some American drivers are returning to their old ways.

What is happening in this blue-collar bedroom community of refinery, food processing and casino workers reminds energy analysts of what happened the last time the oil price collapsed. The frugality of the 1970s, when oil was high, eventually gave way to an era when people drove longer distances, lived farther from work and traded in their cars for minivans and then sport utility vehicles.

“Driving habits die hard, and they can reincarnate quickly,” said Christopher R. Knittel, an economist at the University of California, Davis, who studies gasoline demand. In the late 1980s, he added: “As soon as gas prices fell, there was no real incentive to drive less anymore. If oil prices continue to fall and the economy recovers, I would expect consumers to return to wanting larger and less fuel-efficient cars.”

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