]The Cambridge Energy report cites some fundamental shifts in consumer behavior that suggest the beginning of an enduring trend.
The report noted that
in California, where gas
prices have historically led the rest of the country,
consumption has declinedfor two consecutive years and hybrid vehicle sales are rising.
Now the rest of the country seems to be following. Sales of pickup trucks, minivans and sport utility vehicles have fallen below 50 percent of new passenger vehicle sales this year for the first time since 2001, the report says, as consumers turned to smaller vehicles in favor of fuel economy.
“It’s kind of stunning,” said
Aaron F. Brady,
of the report. “It was over 50 percent as late as February and by May it fell under 44 percent.
It’s like falling off a cliff.”
Drivers, meanwhile, are becoming more prudent in their driving habits, either by using public transportation, carpooling or just cutting down on unnecessary trips,the two authors said in an interview. “Public transit ridership is surging all over the country,” said Samantha Gross, the other author.While total vehicle miles Americans traveled grew by nearly 3 percent a year from 1984 to 2004, the rate of growth slowed suddenly in 2005 and 2006 and hasdeclined since then.The last time gasoline consumption declined for a prolonged period was during the oil shocks in the late 1970s and early 1980s, when annual United Statesconsumption declined by 12 percent. Fast-rising oil prices, a deep recession and improved fuel efficiency standards drove down demand for gasoline.The same situation is beginning to emerge today, according to the report, and basic home economics explains the trends. Since the 1980s, demand for gasoline hasclimbed fairly steadily, except in late 1990 and 1991 because of a sharp price increase related to Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait and a recession. That is because spendingon gasoline became a smaller percentage of family income, especially through the 1990s.Americans spent about 4.5 percent of their after-tax income on transportation fuels in 1981, according to Global Insight, a forecasting firm. As gasoline pricesdropped and family incomes rose, that percentage dropped to 1.9 percent in 1998. Today, it is back to 4 percent or more.
The national price for unleaded gasoline would need to average $4.23 a gallon “to create the same economic pain as in 1981