The price of gas really does matter after all.
There were more cars than ever in California in 2006, but for the first time in 14 years, the state's motorists bought less gasoline than the year before. The drop in sales was meager -- less than 1% -- but surprising given that nationwide, drivers are consuming more gas.
The Golden State, it seems, is different.
Prices that hovered above $3 a gallon prompted some Californians to cut back, others to park their cars altogether in favor of trains and buses, and still others to buy hybrids.
Ricardo Ramirez, a 24-year-old student who lives in Santa Ana, said the higher prices had forced him to watch his fuel gauge carefully and sometimes pass up family gatherings in San Juan Capistrano. Ramirez, who was buying $10 worth of regular at a Tustin 76 station Wednesday, said the price "determines whether I see my parents once a week -- or three times."
Ramirez wasn't the only one to muzzle the urge to guzzle: California's consumption in 2006 fell by 0.7%, to 15.8 billion gallons, figures from the state Board of Equalization show. They marked the state's first drop in gasoline use since 1992, when consumption fell less than 1%, the state tax agency said.
Compared with 2005, Californians used more gas in the first three months of the year, but less for the remaining nine months. During the lower-demand months, the statewide average price for self-serve regular stayed above the $3-a-gallon mark for 19 weeks, posting several new records and peaking at an average price of $3.33 a gallon in early May, the U.S. Energy Department said. The rest of the country endured considerably less punishment at the pump last year.
"The economic driver of this trend is clearly the cost of gas," said Judy Chu, vice chairwoman of the State Board of Equalization. The last big drop in California's gasoline demand was in the early 1970s, when an oil embargo led to gasoline rationing, Chu said, "but in those days, we didn't have the options of hybrid vehicles or expansive public transportation systems."
Both of those alternatives appear to have helped offset the state's relentless increase in registered vehicles and licensed drivers, which in 2006 rose 1.8% and 1.4%, respectively.
At the end of 2006, California was home to 33.9 million registered cars, trucks and trailers, including 135,425 hybrids -- vehicles that burn less gasoline because an electric motor sometimes takes over for the internal combustion engine. More than a quarter of the nation's hybrids travel California's roads.
Drivers also were more willing to leave their cars at home. Though not all of California's public transit agencies gained customers last year, ridership rose more than 5% on Los Angeles' regional Metrolink trains and jumped 6.5% on buses and trains run by the Los Angeles Metropolitan Transportation Authority, figures from the American Public Transportation Assn. show.
For Rose Hartridge of Rancho Cucamonga, the turning point came recently when she took a job at Allied Business Schools in Laguna Hills and was faced with a grueling commute. Hartridge, who was at the Tustin Metrolink station Wednesday, said she drives to Corona, carpools to work with a colleague and then takes the train back.
"This is the first time I've really used the Metrolink, and it's pretty nice," Hartridge said. Her new routine "beats the wear and tear on my car, and it's cheaper."
California's decline in gasoline use seems at odds with demand estimates from the government and industry experts that show gasoline use nationwide growing steadily despite the higher pump prices.
The federal Energy Information Administration reported that U.S. gasoline consumption rose more than 1% in 2006. But since demand slipped in California -- the nation's largest gasoline market -- some have doubts about the nationwide figure.
This week the energy forecasting agency said U.S. gasoline demand for April averaged 327.8 million gallons a day, a record high compared with the same month in previous years.
"The data is just showing that demand is continuing to increase," said Doug MacIntyre, a senior oil market analyst at the agency, which doesn't collect California-only data. "But prices are higher in California, so you would expect to see a greater impact on demand ... and it could be that there was just a lot more growth in demand outside of California."
Whether California's consumption continues to ease will depend largely on how high gasoline prices go and how long they stay there, said Tom Kloza, senior oil analyst at Oil Price Information Service.
This year pump prices across the nation are above year-earlier levels, which analysts say mostly reflects tight gasoline supplies and refinery glitches that cut into production. The average cost of regular gasoline in California has been above $3 a gallon since March 12, hitting that benchmark more than a month earlier than in 2006.
When prices get above a certain level, "you can ask 100 people, and maybe 97 of them will say they can't change their habits, but those other three will make changes," Kloza said. "I think it will have an impact this summer. People are looking at it, and they're saying, 'Here we go again.' "
Carl Boyett, whose company owns 35 Boyett Petroleum and Kwik Serv gas stations in California, was surprised that fuel use didn't take a bigger tumble.
"It should have been down 5% for as much as the price went up," Boyett said. "People talk about it a lot, that gas is too high and they're going to quit driving, but they don't."
Brendan Baggs, 18, can't downshift. The Irvine resident drives a Dodge Dakota truck to haul construction supplies, and he's already groaning at the prices.
"When I got the truck, gas was $2.20 a gallon, so I could handle it then," Baggs said as he pumped regular-grade gas priced at $3.259 a gallon. "It's killing me right now."