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Wednesday, June 13, 2007

A ride in the country

By Dick Hirsch
Can I afford to continue driving? I asked myself that question again last week after I took a ride in the country to meet an old friend for dinner. The roundtrip totaled 110 miles.
On the way home I did a little simple arithmetic, dividing 110 by 20 miles per gallon of gas, and then multiplying by $3 per gallon (although I had paid more), thus calculating that this drive in the country cost me over $15 in gas. I enjoyed the ride and the dinner and I will probably make that same trip again in the future because I am thus far unwilling to change my behavior because of the price of gas.
It’s a stubborn reaction, I realize, but like most Americans I am so dependent upon the automobile that other options have little or no appeal.
I can still remember the conversation that took place years ago where an insurance executive friend made what seemed to be a dire prediction.
“Gas is going to cost us a dollar a gallon by summer,” he said. “We’ll see how far people go when they‘re paying a buck a gallon.”
I wasn’t the only listener as he made that statement. He had a small audience and not a single person was ready to believe gas would ever break the dollar threshold. We all knew gasoline had always cost much more in Europe and most of the world but US prices were lower. “Where did you get that information?” they asked. “First hand,” he said. He had just been on the phone with a friend in California who had paid 99.9 cents, and who predicted that pricing was moving east as we spoke.
We all shook our heads in wonder, curious to know what was happening in the world of petroleum, and how we would react and adjust to that price, if and when it ever went up on the sign in our neighborhood. We were at that time paying about 85 cents for a gallon of regular, and the price had been escalating. This must have been about 20 years ago.
The price did top a dollar that summer and has been heading upward ever since. How did we react?
We adjusted. We never thought any of us would be able to accept the rising price with equanimity, but we have. The transition was easier than expected; we are so committed to the automobile, that there seems to have been relatively few who have curtailed their driving.
I filled up in Tonawanda a week ago. At the next pump was a man with a small truck. As I was watching the spinning dial of my pump approaching $40, his fill-up ended and registered $61.75. I pretended not to notice.
“I can’t drive this thing much longer,” he volunteered. “I don’t really need a truck and we have a small car at home. Besides, I only work about seven miles from home and I’m thinking about riding a bike to work.”
He might have been thinking about it but I doubted he would ever proceed with that plan. There was nothing I could say to console him. I cannot advise you, either. Should I have suggested trading the truck for a hybrid? People who own hybrids seem to endorse them, but prices are high and it will take years of saving to compensate for the higher purchase price.
I recently returned from a 1,700 mile drive during which I cruised through six states. The highways all seemed crowded, the roadside stops were busy and the gasoline stations had lines of cars with motorists patiently waiting for their opportunity to fill their tank to the brim.
There was little enthusiasm for the task with the prices hovering at over $3 a gallon, a number that didn’t seem to deter many drivers, and contribute to a noticeable reduction in traffic.
Those old enough to remember when gas was an incidental rather than a major expense have made a most astonishing transition. They can remember when, as young drivers, they might pull into a service station and order “two dollars worth.” That would give them about six gallons, enough for some serious cruising. Today it buys a little over two quarts. There are fewer fill-ups today because of the expense, and I regularly pass a station with a sign on the pumps announcing the minimum purchase is $5. I’m expecting them to change that sign any day.



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