By Eric Fetters Herald Writer
Alan Shank knows he can get to work without burning a drop of gasoline.
He tried it last year on his “ancient” Schwinn bicycle.
Now, in anticipation of $4-a-gallon gasoline this spring and summer, he’s been faithfully attending spinning classes to get his pedaling power in shape. He also has purchased a new 24-speed bike, with hopes of commuting from his Mukilteo home to his Lake Stevens-area office on two wheels.
“It’s better than my old Schwinn,” Shank said last week. “I’m anxious to see if my fitness routine will cut down my time, so I can do this every day.”
No one’s predicting everyone will take to bicycles this summer if gasoline prices continue to move upward. But the prospect of sky-high gasoline prices is likely to prompt more to change some driving habits.
A year ago, the average price for a gallon of gasoline was just more than $2.60 a gallon. It topped out last May around $3.45 a gallon, a record it overtook this past week. Following the usual spring run-up in prices, it seems unavoidable that prices will surpass $4 a gallon by summer.
Many members of The Herald’s Reader Network said that level has them thinking seriously about cutting back on their driving.
They’re not alone: A recent survey done for by The Nielsen Co. found 70 percent of U.S. consumers are combining around-town driving for errands and shopping, while 39 percent said they’re just staying home more often. An estimated 65 percent of American car owners said they will “dramatically change” their driving behavior if gas hits $4 a gallon, according to a study for the Automotive Aftermarket Industry Association.
“Ever since gas hit $3.50 a gallon, our household has dramatically cut back on our driving,” said Catherine Wilson of Monroe. “I work outside of the home two days a week, and I run my errands on my way to and from work, and we don’t go for long drives or to the mall much anymore.”
She added her family is looking to buy a more fuel-efficient vehicle this year.
Jerry Stansfield of Everett said he’s more glad than ever that he’s not commuting every day.
“For the past seven years, I have been working at home as the owner of a business that requires only occasional travel,” Stansfield said, estimating he’s cut his household consumption of fuel by 60 to 70 percent. Still, he walks or rides his bicycle whenever possible.
Jerome Don Marable of Marysville said he’s even thinking twice about riding his fuel-efficient motorcycle these days.
“I already ride transit, been doing it for close to 20 years now. So that won’t change,” he said. “I don’t drive that much to begin with, now that the kids have left the house.”
Others also said they are riding the bus or Sounder’s commuter train more these days. Community Transit’s ridership numbers show they’re not alone, said spokesman Tom Pearce.
“They’re very strong. We’re continuing to see growth,” said Pearce, adding that ridership grew 7 percent in 2007, compared to 2006. In January, ridership was up another 8 percent compared to a year ago.
Three of the transit service’s five top months in terms of all-time ridership have come since last fall. That includes last October, which saw an all-time high of 968,654 passengers riding buses.
Others can’t realistically earn a living without their cars, even as gasoline gets more expensive.
“Since I live in Everett and commute to north Seattle, my cost of commuting will go up dramatically. I must have my car at work, as I am in outside client relations, and driving is just a part of my job,” said Julie Brown.
Diane McRae of Marysville said she has a Honda Civic and a short commute of just 7 miles, so she’s not sure how to cut back driving any more. To deal with higher prices, she’s deferring maintenance on her car, which she knows isn’t a good strategy.
Terri Anne Beauchamp said she’s just dealing with the prices, too.
“I do not think it will have any bearing on my driving habits, since almost all driving I do is necessary, such as going back and forth to work and going to doctor appointments,” the Everett resident said. “Public transport is not an option, since I work the graveyard shift and public transit is not set up to accommodate night workers such as myself.”
So far, it hasn’t affected business at Donna’s Travel Plaza, a busy hub along I-5 in Marysville.
“We’re still seeing the same number of trucks on the road,” said Brian Couch, who oversees the fueling station at the business. “Everyone needs the basics.”
But, he said, higher demand for biodiesel — which Donna’s sells — is raising the price of that fuel along with regular diesel and gasoline.
In recent years, when fuel prices have gone up, people typically have grumbled about them, but described them more as an annoyance than a real burden. That seems to be changing, however, as many Reader Network members said they are feeling the strain on their household budgets, especially with prices also rising for groceries and other household products — in part because of higher transportation costs.
“I will reduce spending on extras. My favorite coffees will be the first to go,” said Marilyn Matthews of Marysville.
“We will probably eat out less often unless we happen to be out doing other errands at the time, and then it will probably be only at lower priced restaurants,” said Jake Ritland of Marysville.
Becky Skaggs, a spokeswoman for Haggen stores, said fuel costs are part of the mix pushing food prices upward. Production of biodiesel and ethanol also has raised prices for corn and soybeans, basic ingredients for that fuel, in turn raising prices for things such as cereal.
Skaggs added gas prices and the resulting financial pinch can affect what groceries people buy, not just how much they might buy.
“As people drive less, there appears to be some changing in eating habits. People are eating out less and cooking more at home,” she said.
Chuck Wright of Mill Creek said he’s one of those cutting dinners out and specialty foods, along with “holiday gift giving, theater attendance … and other luxuries” to help offset fuel bills.
“We definitely are not going on a vacation. Prices are too high. My parents live in California and haven’t come to visit me in three years now because of the prices,” Anita Rutherford of Stanwood said.
Shank, who’s thinking of starting his bicycle commuting this week, said he’s eager to see how much he can save by keeping his car parked at least a few days a week.
“It’s amazing how much that daily commute adds up.”
Reporter Eric Fetters: 425-339-3453 or email@example.com