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Gassing up around the world

By Monitor World correspondents / May 14, 2001



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.

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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.

CHINA

Beijing

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

JAPAN

Tokyo

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.