Gas prices change daily routines

With relief still a long way off, Colorado cops scour the streets on bikes, and L.A. commuters take the subway.

From commuters opting for trains in car-crazed California to Rocky Mountain cops trading SUVs for bikes, Americans are starting to reshape their actions to cope with rising gasoline costs.

Announcements this week that OPEC nations will boost oil output is expected to bring prices down in the long term, but not for several months. With pump prices still expected to hover close to $2 a gallon by summer, the increases have already crimped household buying power. Indeed, 41 percent of Americans in one Gallup poll say that gas prices have become an "economic hardship."

Though not a crisis by any means, higher fuel costs are nevertheless starting to change habits in ways both subtle and serious:

*In greater Los Angeles, where 6 million of 8 million commuters drive to work, carpooling and commuter rail are attracting a record number of converts. March figures for MetroLink rail, which serves the far-flung suburbs of the city, are up 13 percent in the first 20 days alone.

*In smaller towns across Colorado, school officials are looking at which textbooks to cut to pay for gasoline for buses. Others are raiding budget reserves. Police departments in towns such as Federal Heights and Fort Lupton may have beat cops trade their squad cars for bicycles.

*The travel industry is already starting to offer substantial discounts to encourage Americans not to forgo vacations this summer. Its concern: A $10-to-$40 fuel surcharge on airline tickets and high prices at the pump will prompt people to work in their gardens rather than visit Sea World or Old Faithful.

"We are seeing a collective American emotional reaction to the surge in oil prices," says Dennis Eklof of Cambridge Energy Research in Massachusetts. "A certain percentage of it is pure emotion, and a certain portion is legitimate preparation for more permanent behavioral changes if the prices continue to stay in the range they're in."

Where prices are headed

Dr. Eklof and others predict that gas prices will not stay at current levels, but changes will come later rather than sooner. Even though OPEC members have agreed to boost production by 1.45 million barrels a day, it will take at least four to six weeks before additional crude works its way through the global erector-set of pumps and pipes and tankers to make a difference.

Moreover, inventories in the United States, already unusually low, will take time to replenish. The summer driving season in the US, coupled with the recovery of economies in Asia, will likely keep demand - and prices - high, perhaps until the fall.

"It's a matter of demand and supply - the latter of which will eventually change," says Dillard Spriggs of Petroleum Analysis, a New York Consulting firm.

Riding the rails

Jerry Fein doesn't want to wait until autumn. He wants relief now, not when the Dodgers will probably be making another failed bid in the pennant race.

"This is ridiculous, absolutely ridiculous," says the aerospace engineer from Thousand Oaks, Calif., who switched this week to commuter rail for his 80-mile commute to downtown Los Angeles. "I bought a truck a few months ago when gas was $1.29, and now it's close to $1.90. There was no way I could afford that, so here I am on the train."

Riding the rails is putting money in Ann Joel's purse, too.

"I'm saving $150 to $200 per month by taking the train," says the legal secretary, who changed her method of commuting in the past two weeks because of what she calls "price gouging" by oil companies.

Nationwide, transportation officials say some of the same switches are occuring in a number of other cities, large and small. The Bay Area Rapid Transit in San Francisco, for instance, is reporting a surge in ridership.

As train use goes up, many long-time rail commuters are having to make adjustments - often uncomfortable ones - with their new seat mates.

"Our train cars are filling up with people, and our parking lots are filling up with cars," says John Schwarzenbach, an on-train "ambassador" for Los Angeles's MetroLink. "It's been a real shock to the regulars who were used to having a lot more room for themselves."

Others are even less diplomatic. "The new people coming on trains are creating a scarcity of seats.... Many of them are frankly pushy, even obnoxious," says Sheila Chulick, a counselor.

Besides riding the train, Ms. Chulick is making another behavioral change that reflects an increasing segment of Americans.

"We had a big vacation planned next month to drive to Laughlin, Nev.," says Chulick, whose family owns a pickup. She says her local Chevron now charges $1.92 for premium. "But with a bill of $40 to fill up my truck, we won't be going anywhere for a while."

Individual car owners certainly aren't the only ones being hurt by high pump prices. Truckers, as well as companies and government agencies that operate vehicle fleets, are also being forced to conserve.

True, some big transit operations can buy fuel in large quantities and get discounts. But others are hostage to recent hikes.

"We buy at the pump - we're harder hit than some," says Police Chief John Garavaglia of Fort Lupton, Colo., whose department is paying about $35 every time it fills up one of its 12 squad cars. "It doesn't sound like much, but it adds up for small towns."

Biking the beat

Because of similar costs, police in Parker, Colo., plan to park some cruisers this summer and have officers pedal the beat.

And small school districts in Colorado are also at risk. In Jefferson County, school buses log 4.8 million miles per year and use nearly a million gallons of fuel. That translates to a $400,000 higher fuel tab, if prices don't change. Ken Forrest, business manager for the Fort Collins-based Poudre School District, says he is considering cutting textbooks to help pay extra fuel costs for the district's 172 buses.

Still, for all the bite of higher energy prices, Americans are far better off today than in the gas crunch days of the late 1970s and early 1980s. Rising incomes and greater fuel efficiency mean people spend far less on energy needs.

"The average amount the American consumer pays for gas in relation to his income ... is down considerably from the early 1980s," says Mr. Eklof.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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