The Sightline Institute issued a report yesterday about rising fuel consumption in Washington, Oregon, Idaho, and British Columbia. While the headlines make this out to be an ominous sign, the overall picture is equivocal and quite mixed. After a decade of per-capita declines, 2009 saw a tiny uptick of 3 gal/year for the average Cascadian, a 0.7% increase. Overall consumption rose 2%, while diesel consumption (a key indicator of freight traffic) fell by 10%. While Washington and Oregon saw per-capita increases of <1%, Idaho and British Columbia drivers consumed 4% and 10% more, respectively.
There are interesting trends in this report, even if it strikes an unnecessarily sensationalist tone. Read it for yourselves, it is short, well-written, and very accessible. I would only make a couple of observations:
More after the jump.
(1. Sightline reported that British Columbia’s 10% increase represented a “binge” on gasoline in 2009. Given the preparation for the Olympics this is quite understandable, a point that Sightline stresses. But let’s remember that even with the 10% increase, British Columbians still consumed 25% less fuel per-capita than the average Washingtonian.
(2. The slight uptick in the midst of a downturn shows us that fuel consumption rates are extremely price-sensitive, and that this price sensitivity is not necessarily well-correlated with economic trends. In other words, even in a poor economy personal gas use can rise if the price falls sufficiently.
(3. The last two decades have shown those of us in the transit community just how steep our challenge is. We have enjoyed these per-capita declines while overall consumption has remained flat. Thus those of us pushing for transit in the midst of high population growth have to continually win major battles just to keep up. Whether this emboldens or depresses you is a matter of personal preference.
Sightline has done a good job aggregating these statistics, and the report will be a valuable reference for our daily discussions. But in an environment in which both per-capita and total consumption are relatively flat, we shouldn’t take a small rise as a huge call for alarm. It is just a further reminder that gas prices really matter. Gas taxes dramatically decrease consumption (again, look at B.C.). They are a user-fee – the type of tax most acceptable to traditional conservatives and libertarians – and thus they represent a policy with bipartisan possibilities going forward. As conservative columnist Charles Krauthammer said, “At $4, everybody gets rational.”