With gasoline prices expected to reach record highs this summer, Americans are taking a closer look at the trail of crude oil from refinery, to pipe, to pump. Experts now credit two years of surging prices to a lack of new refineries and strict pollution-control laws mandating complex varieties of gasoline.
In Chicago and Milwaukee, for example, regulations could bring prices there well above $2 per gallon. The national average last Monday was $1.70.
The prices have drawn the ire of millions of motorists. But a look at prices and services around the globe confirms that US gasoline remains among the least expensive and environmentally friendly in the world.
We recently asked our foreign correspondents to buy some gasoline, record the price, and describe the experience of filling up abroad. They also note a few reasons why prices might be high or low, and share some local strategies for getting the most petrol for your penny.
The price: $1.50 to $2 a gallon, with two grades of unleaded to choose from. Prices here fluctuated in the past two years, but not dramatically.
The service: Gas stations in north China are not temples of florescent lights as they are in the US. They are innocuously placed in parking lots, hidden between shops, and easy to miss. Don't expect much more than gas and oil.
Stations in the affluent south are shiny, large, computerized, "Westernized." You can buy candy, and soft drinks, and have your windshield cleaned by smiling young ladies who offer you tea. In employment-scarce China, there is apparently no self-service. Most pumpers are cheerful, wear well-kept uniforms, and seem like the hale, model gas attendants in 1950s American TV ads. Lines form now and then - usually due to a sudden surfeit of tiny red cabs that buzz everywhere in Beijing now.
The secrets of the road: "Semi-official" private gas stations are now showing up outside city limits. Gas there is cheaper, but may contain harmful water or fluids. People in China can also buy a "gas ticket," good for 10 or 20 liters. The tickets are valid for one year, and often are used when prices rise.
In addition, car buying has skyrocketed here. VW, Audi, Citroen, and Mercedes are popular in cities. A 1998 study indicated 6 percent of high-income Chinese families, and 1.2 percent of the middle class, own autos.
- Robert Marquand
The price: American motorists may think it's outrageous to pay $2 per gallon for gas, but Japanese drivers pay almost $5. Despite the slowing of the economy, the price of gas has not yet fallen.
The service: When you drive into a gas station, an attendant usually directs you to a gas pump. They then come to your window to take your order. While the car is being filled, attendants clean your windows and empty the ash tray. Some even check the oil. After the tank is filled, the attendant guides you out of the station, and even goes out onto the street to stop traffic. In an effort to attract customers, some stations are now offering self-service with lower prices.
The secrets of the road: Many Japanese families don't own a car. City traffic is dense, and parking costs are sky high. Another factor: the time and cost of obtaining a driving license. Driving schools last a few months and cost about $4,000; the tests are tricky. Still, many Japanese rise to the challenge in hope of enjoying the dream of a weekend drive out of the clogged cities.
- Hana Kusumoto
The price: It varies from $1.18 to $1.32 per gallon; outside Moscow - $1.09 per gallon. Last year, the Moscow price hovered around $1 per gallon and then went up in a couple of surges.
The service: Gas stations are often self-serve in the capital. The driver pays in advance per liter. Few station attendants go beyond serving gas. It's hard to imagine that anyone would check the oil, unless you were obviously car-illiterate and the engine was about to blow.
The secrets of the road: Moscow is a heaving sprawl of a city, with several times more cars on the road today than the road system was built for. Unfortunately, gas stations are few and far between. At times, it's a short wait to get gas. But more often, drivers must be aware of the location of sometimes-hidden gas stations, and plan journeys the way Mad Max might have: as a gas-consuming road-warrior commando who looks very hard at his gas gauge every time he passes a station, and decides not to fill up.
The price: Anywhere from $2.65 to $3.40 per gallon. Gas stations in the bush (up in the Masai Mara National Reserve, for instance) charge almost double, because of transportation costs. Price hikes this year have led to much complaining in the newspapers.
The service: It's easy to find a gas station in Kenya, particularly in the big cities. And don't look to pump your own fuel, as there are always more attendants than anyone needs and lines are rare.Stations look much the way they do in the US, with minimarkets, bathrooms, and public phones.
The situation is the reverse in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Here, people often leave their cars in front of the stations for days. Once they get to the head of the line, a liter costs just 26 cents. Meanwhile, the streets are always empty, and everyone walks around.
The secrets of the road: Many customers don't fill up their tank, but rather buy just enough gas for their next journey. (Clearly, they don't have enough money.) Taxi drivers, for example, usually head straight to a gas station after they pick up a passenger.
The same applies in Uganda, where most people fill up enough for just one or two drives. To counter this, stations offer freebies (mostly soap and detergent) to anyone buying more than a certain amount. An odd quirk: Some Ugandan stations have young men who do quick manicures and pedicures for female customers.
- Danna Harman
The price: About $3.64 per gallon. Gasoline prices have been rising all over Europe in recent months, and are now at their highest ever. The most expensive place to buy gas: Britain, where a gallon of unleaded gas costs $4.14 ($3.06 of that in of taxes).
The service: Normally there is no problem finding fuel, but lines formed in France last September, when prices rocketed and gas stations ran out of stocks. Most filling stations are self-serve, located on the main roads, often with grocery stores attached, selling anything from firewood to sandwiches and soft drinks. Mom-and-pop gas stations, which cannot compete on price, are increasingly rare.
The secrets of the road: Differing gas prices in Europe make it worthwhile for drivers living near some frontiers to go abroad to fill up. British haulers complain they are being undercut by French truckers who fill specially enlarged tanks at home, drive through the Channel tunnel on Monday morning, and work in England until they nearly run out of gas and go home to buy more.
British motorists, paying the world's highest prices, have been encouraged to boycott petrol stations in a "Dump the Pump" campaign that blocked roads all over the country last September. But most have gotten used to paying through the nose.
- Peter Ford
The price: Roughly $2.43 per gallon. Prices spiked upward over the past year as the global oil supply tightened.
The service: No self-serve or long lines; an attendant fills your tank. Some metro-area stations have minimarts, selling flowers, cards, and assorted junk food. You can pay by credit card, but you still have to hand the attendant your credit card and sign the bill. (No do-it-yourself paying at the pump.)
The secrets of the road: With one of the worst air-pollution problems in the world, New Delhi recently required all commercial vehicles and public transport to switch to the latest pollution-free fuel - compressed natural gas - but private autos can continue to use unleaded gasoline for the foreseeable future.
On the road, the roundish Indian-made Ambassador, a knock-off of a 1950s British design, remains the most popular car. But the Daewoo Cielo and the Japanese-designed Maruti Zen are catching on fast.
A final word about driving in India: Don't. In most cities you will have to maneuver around cows, honk at human-pulled hand carts in the fast lane, and scratch your head in astonishment, as six lanes of cars magically fit into three painted lanes of road. Nearly six people die on Delhi's roads each day. Take a cab; it's cheaper.
- Scott Baldauf
The price: About $2.20 a gallon for regular unleaded. It's a national price set by the nationalized PEMEX petroleum company. Under current regulation, the price rises 22 cents a gallon each year.
The service: Anyone who thinks Mexico is less than civilized need only visit a gasoline station to disabuse himself of such thinking. Here attendants fill your tank, wash your windshield, check your "levels," and do their best to sell you additives and other products you probably don't need (all for a small tip, up to 50 cents). There's never a need to hop out of the car and pump your own gas in a torrential rain or the blistering sun.
The secrets of the road: People here say that gasoline in Mexico is of a lower quality than gas in the United States - which explains why many Mexicans who live along the northern border prefer to "fill 'er up" in America. The irony is that oil-producing Mexico still has much of its gasoline refined in the US.
In Mexico City, you're much better off driving a late-model car that meets government emission standards. It's a way to legally avoid the city's day-without-a-car program, which seeks to lower the capital's high pollution level by keeping the average fume-spewer off the streets one day a week. The most popular cars: VW Jettas and Chrysler vans. The most-feared cars: window-tinted sedans driven by private bodyguards and carrying scary-looking "goat horns" or ramming bars across the front bumper.
- Howard LaFranchi
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor