As gasoline prices rise, businesses get creative

Firms offer telecommuting, van pools, and more to help workers spend less.

As gasoline breaks the $2.50 a gallon barrier, creative energy-saving ideas are beginning to flow from US business that could help Americans spend less at the pump.

• More companies are helping employees cut out-of-pocket fuel expenses through telecommuting programs.

• A campaign in Atlanta pays commuters $3 a day for three months if they switch to "clean commutes," such as bicycles and van pools.

• The car-sharing companies that are springing up offer a significant number of gas-sipping hybrids.

• The owner of some Milwaukee gasoline stations is giving a discount to cabdrivers who buy his brand of gas.

Yes, Americans, even with their long love affair with the SUV, are also starting to look for ways to cut down on gasoline expenses that are hitting as high as $500 a month.

"We are on the cusp of change," says Mark Routt, a senior consultant at Energy Security Analysis Inc. in Wakefield, Mass. "Looking back over the last year, Americans have had a taste of higher oil prices that have only gone up, and now they are starting to dial in lifestyle changes."

Indeed, the catalyst to this newfound interest in conservation is the soaring price of oil, which was close to a record $67 a barrel on the futures exchange Monday.

With two more weeks in the summer driving season, regular unleaded is now $2.55 a gallon nationally, according to

Americans say the prices are strapping them financially. On Friday, an Associated Press-AOL poll of 1,000 adults found that 64 percent say gas prices will cause them money problems in the next six months.

According to an analysis by Mark Wolfe, director of the National Energy Assistance Directors' Association, gas prices will cost a family with two cars $533 more this year than last - $917 more than two years ago.

"For people who are low income, this is like your entire salary increase goes to energy and for those on fixed income, it's even worse," says Mr. Wolfe.

At least according to anecdotal evidence, the price spike has Americans investigating ways to cut down on their bills.

In Milwaukee, Andy Khullar, who owns 18 gasoline/convenience stores, is giving a discount to a large taxi fleet when the drivers buy his brand of gas. "Everyone is watching their pennies," Mr. Khullar says.

Some motorists are opting for car- sharing companies, which offer members a fleet of cars that can be reserved on an hourly or daily basis. One such company is Seattle-based Flexcar. Its flat fee includes, among other things, gas, which isn't as big of a cost to the company as some might think: Sixty percent of the Flexcar fleet are hybrids.

"Business is good for us," says Lance Ayrault, Flexcar CEO. "I don't know if we can directly attribute it to spiking gas [prices]. Certainly as gas approaches record highs, we get a lot of inquiries."

Another approach is evident in San Ramon, Calif., where the Bishop Ranch Business Park is throwing every inducement managers can think of at commuters so they won't drive to work solo. Almost 30,000 commuters clock into one of the 350 companies in the business park. But with the incentives funded by the park's developer and Chevron Corp., 30 percent of employees don't drive to work by themselves.

Van-poolers, for instance, get half of their van-pool fees rebated after committing to the service for three months, according to Marci McGuire, transportation manager for the Bishop Ranch transportation center.

On top of that, free buses shuttle workers 55 times a day from Bay Area Rapid Transit stops to Bishop Ranch and back. And if an emergency calls an employee away, he or she can take advantage of six free taxi rides. "Only about 2 to 3 percent of people use that service per year. But it's the biggest objection people have to giving up their car," says Ms. McGuire. "They say, 'I have children in school. I have to drive!' "

Those who take the plunge into car- and van-pools often find it worthwhile. That's the case of Kellie Prince Anglin, who works for Fiserv, an Atlanta financial services firm. She estimates that she used to pay $500 a month for gas for her Dodge Durango.

But in three months of van-pooling, Ms. Anglin estimates that her monthly gas expenses plummeted to $170. She also enjoys the increased free time in the morning. "I have a laptop with a wireless card, and I find myself working some on the way in. We even play Trivial Pursuit in the van one or two times a week," she says.

Both Fiserv and the local Clean Air Campaign pay 20 percent of the van-pool fee.

For yet others, the campaign contributes the sum of $3 a day for a "clean commute."

Still other companies are trying to help employees cut gasoline expenses by participating in telecommuting programs. In the Atlanta area, such companies as Georgia Power, General Electric Energy, and Children's Healthcare of Atlanta are allowing employees to work at home.

"There is a lot more interest in the programs across the board because of the high gas prices," says Michael Halicki, communications director of the Clean Air Campaign, which recently sponsored a study of the issue. The survey, which will be released this week, found that employees working at home reward their employers with extra hours of work. "They get up to 20 percent more work from them than from office-bound counterparts," he says.

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