Thursday, May 15, 2008

Oil on the Brain

I just started reading Lisa Margonelli's book, Oil on the Brain. Margonelli's quest for deeper meaning in the oil economy begins at a San Francisco gas station in the summer of 2003. At the time, unleaded regular was $1.61.9 a gallon.

Barely five years later, gas prices have more than doubled. The average per-gallon cost has reached $3.73 in the U.S., and recently topped $4 in San Francisco. The good news is -- to the surprise of some -- American travel behavior is starting to change.

Two shifts demonstrating this have made news recently. First: More Americans now ride mass transit. From last year to this, ridership on regional rail lines is up 8% in southern California, 11% in Philadelphia, and 28% in the Miami area, USA Today reports. In Seattle, interest in vanpools has climbed by 17% over 2007.

Second: The New York Times reports that Americans bought more small, fuel-efficient cars in April 2008 than ever before. One in five cars sold that month were compact or sub-compact models, up from one in eight ten years ago. And for the first time, four-cylinder engines proved more popular than larger six-cylinder models.

When Leonard Doyle of The Independent interviewed me for a story about this, I told him I thought the trend toward smaller cars was great (even though four out of five vehicles sold in the U.S. are still medium to large). But, I added, what would really excite me is a shift to more walking and cycling. It would not surprise me if this were happening already, although I haven't seen statistics showing such a trend as yet.

Back to Lisa Margonelli's book: the gas station where she begins her story is not far from where I was born and is, I guesstimate, about two miles -- a brisk half-hour walk -- from the apartment where I spent the first few months of my life. Gas prices notwithstanding, that's a distance that most Americans, these days, would probably still drive. But more of us, now, would go in smaller cars, or take the bus.

It's a start.