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In California, $2.20 gas crimps car culture

A switch to an environmentally friendly fuel is impacting lifestyles in a state full of drivers.

By Leila Wombacher KnoxSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / March 13, 2003

After paying $2.20 for gas in the San Francisco Bay area, student Chelsea Tamulevich has decided not to visit her parents as much. It isn't that she doesn't like her mother's cooking or the opportunity for a free laundry service. It's that Tamulevich's car, even though a fuel-stingy Honda Civic, costs twice as much to fill up now as it did a year ago, and she doesn't have the money to make the 500-mile round trip commute from San Luis Obispo, where she goes to college. "Judging by this last trip, I think I'm going to have to not go as often," she says.

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Tamulevich's decision to forgo some of her trips home symbolizes how many Californians are changing their lifestyles, in ways both subtle and significant, in the face of the highest gasoline prices in US history.

While energy prices have jumped nationwide in the run-up to war, nowhere are they more expensive than in the Golden State, the unofficial car capital of the world. If you were to suddenly plunk down in Los Angeles, you might think it was Amsterdam or Paris, except for all the spandex and mini-malls: Prices are now high enough - $2.10 a gallon on average - that they are approaching European levels. Nationally on Tuesday, the average gas price was $1.70.

For Homa Atash, a retiree living on fixed income, the price hike hasn't stopped her from filling her spotless Mercedes with premium gasoline, which was running $2.25 a gallon at a busy Chevron station in San Luis Obispo on Monday.

"In order to keep my car maintained, I have to buy expensive gas," she says, polishing her car windows with a rag.

Ms. Atash says she typically comes into San Luis Obispo from Los Osos, 10 miles away, three times a week to run errands and visit her daughter. But now that gas is so expensive, she is reconsidering how often she will drive into town.

Lifestyle changes

Indeed, small adjustments to driving routines are typical when gas prices reach new highs. But wholesale changes, such as taking public transportation or carpooling, are rare here.

"Some people will start consolidating their trips, for example doing several errands at once rather than making random trips," says Ron Cogan, editor of the Green Car Journal, an industry publication based in San Luis Obispo. "Others will cut out nonessential local trips."

In California that might mean forgoing a drive to pick up an afternoon coffee at Starbucks but not weekly trips to the nail salon.

Janet Hiller has certainly noticed how the price boards outside gas stations seem to change their numbers faster than a scoreboard at a Lakers game with Kobe off the bench.

The correctional officer at the county jail in San Luis Obispo raised her teenage son's allowance from $30 to $40 a week so he could afford to drive to school in his minivan. "His costs have gone up considerably," she says.

Isolated state

California has always had its own rules when it comes to the economics of gasoline.