Come what may, 'I will continue to drive my car'

Bill Wineke
Wisconsin State Journal

Aug. 22, 2005

The energy economists seem really upset with me these days.

Gasoline cost $2.69 a gallon Wednesday. Yet I seem to be too stupid to notice. I just keep driving my car rather than changing my "habits."

They predict that when the price of gasoline tops $3 a gallon - it's already there in some big cities - I will see the light, consign my auto to the scrap heap and find alternative transportation.

They're wrong. I won't. Even if the price of gasoline hits $5 a gallon, I will continue to drive my car.

There's a reason for that, though the pundits seem unable to grasp it.

The reason I drive my car each day is that my employer expects me to show up for work. I suppose if there was dependable, convenient mass transportation from my home in Stoughton to my office on Fish Hatchery Road, I might use it. But there isn't.

I also drive my car for pleasure. Last Saturday, my wife and I drove to the State Fair. We also plan to continue to visit friends, attend cultural events, perhaps even buy groceries.

So do you.

This idea that we're all driving around wasting gasoline and will somehow change our driving habits once the price of gasoline gets high enough goes only so far. Most of us are going to pay what it takes to get where we have to go.

So if I was going to look at how the price of gasoline changes people's habits, I wouldn't make the same cause- and-effect line between price and consumption that I read about every time the price of gasoline goes up another dime, which seems to be an almost daily occurrence this month.

Instead, I'd look at what people aren't doing. Here's what I'm not doing:

I'm not eating out as often. All I have to do is to skip one meal in a sit-down restaurant and I save more than the amount I pay in an increased monthly bill on my gasoline credit card. That changes my life hardly at all. It does have an effect on a restaurant owner, a cook, a waitress and a dishwasher. They're all going to have a harder time paying their gasoline bills now that my wife and I save $30 by not eating a meal at their restaurant.

I'm not going to buy a new shirt. That will save another month's increase and have a corresponding tiny effect on a sales person, a manufacturer and some underpaid worker in Bangladesh.

So the price of gasoline does cause problems - but the way we resolve those problems probably isn't by cutting back on our consumption of gasoline.

In the long run, the higher gasoline prices will affect consumption. People will buy more fuel-efficient vehicles and manufacturers will make them. The last time gasoline was this expensive - on a constant dollar basis - was in the early 1980s, when I drove a 10-year- old Chrysler that got 13 miles to a gallon. Now, I drive a 9-year- old Toyota Avalon (it's about the same size) that gets 25 miles to a gallon.

Therefore, even at $3 a gallon, gasoline will cost me half as much to drive a mile as it did during the early 1980s.

For society as a whole, then, the best way to develop gasoline conservation will be to let the price keep increasing. But, then, I'm not a waitress in that restaurant I used to frequent, so it's easier for me to smile at the gas pump.