In 2002, there were no hybrids available and there were only 3,461 electric… (Genaro Molina, Los Angeles…)
California drivers, long a symbol of America's love affair with cars, are enamored with saving fuel these days, so much so that they're setting the national standard for burning less gasoline.
In the first six months of this year, Californians used nearly 7.3 billion gallons of gasoline, down 1.7% from the same period last year and off 3.5% from the first half of 2002.
"In California, the freeways are so crowded that it's probably not a noticeable difference, but it's real and it's important," said Michael Sivak, a research professor at the University of Michigan's Transportation Research Institute.
What's more, the state has been lowering consumption even as it's been adding drivers. The nation's most populous state had 23.8 million licensed drivers at the beginning of this year. That's 1.8 million, or 8.3%, more people behind the wheel since 2002.
Californians aren't the only ones putting the brakes on fuel consumption. Motorists across the nation are hitting the pump less often because of high fuel prices, economic stress and improved car technology, experts said.
"You aren't buying as much gasoline if you can't find a job," said energy economist James Williams of WTRG Economics.
Although drivers in other states also are using less fuel, Energy Department statistics show California has been taking the lead during the last several years when it comes to saving gasoline.
Among the states with the most licensed drivers, only Texas kept consuming more fuel nearly every year for the last decade, according to Energy Department data. Now, even Texans have taken a dramatic turn: Retailers sold 6.3 billion gallons of gasoline in the first six months this year, down 7% from the same period last year, but still up 7% from the first half of 2002.
Still, with 9 million fewer licensed drivers, Texas consumes 459 gallons a year per driver. That's compared with California's 321 gallons.
At the other end, drivers in Florida and New York stepped on the gas, buying fuel at a slightly faster pace this year compared with the first half of last year. The states of Pennsylvania, Michigan, Illinois and Ohio have managed sharp drops in gasoline use, but those states have stagnant populations and haven't been adding drivers.
Some of the decline in gasoline consumption is tied to the severity of the recession, the tepid recovery that has followed and the high price of fuel.
"This would really be something to celebrate if we were in a period of economic growth," said Tom Kloza, chief oil analyst for the Oil Price Information Service. "We could cite government leadership. We could celebrate people deciding to buy a lot more fuel-efficient vehicles."
"But I think a great deal of it is a manifestation of the misery out there of people living paycheck to paycheck."
In troubling economic times, consumers are reaching for the least expensive opportunities for change.
Supermarket cashier Jodie Moore, 25, commutes from Venice to the San Fernando Valley in the 17-year-old Volvo her dad gave her. But on weekends, she said, she stays closer to home, which she and her friends described as being AWOL — always west of Lincoln Boulevard.
"I park my car on my two days off, and I don't use it again until I have to go back to work," said Moore, who relies on a new Linus Dutchi one-speed bike that her family helped her buy. "So that's two days of not driving a car. It's a way of cutting back without sacrificing too much, and it's also fun."
Research by Sivak of the University of Michigan shows that Americans have mostly managed to avoid the temptation to drive more even as they switched to more fuel efficient vehicles, comparing statistics from this year with 2007. Drivers this year reduced their driving distances by 6% compared with the first six months of 2007, Sivak said, adding that new-car buyers this year were picking vehicles that had 11% better fuel economy than new-vehicle buyers in 2007.
Americans tend to purchase vehicles that get better mileage in times of high fuel prices and high unemployment, Sivak said.
"Some of these changes are economically driven," he said, "but they are also technologically driven."
In California, one change stands out — the increase in hybrid and electric vehicles.
In 2002, there were no hybrids available and there were only 3,461 electric vehicles registered in the state. This year, the number of hybrids registered in the state is approaching 400,000, according to the Department of Motor Vehicles, and the number of electric vehicle registrations is nearing 100,000.
Consumer advocates contend that Americans — fed up with the oil industry, dependence on foreign energy sources and high gasoline prices — are venting their frustrations through their driving behavior.
"The pain in their wallets is causing them to rethink their lifestyles," said Jamie Court, president of Consumer Watchdog in Santa Monica, a frequent critic of Big Oil. "People tend to be a lot more environmentally conscious when just ignoring it is going to cost them something."
The changes are even more significant, Court said, given the steady rise in the number of drivers.
"It shows that ultimately we can solve both the higher emission problem and the higher consumption problem associated with more drivers if we can continue to improve fuel efficiency technology," Court said.