Minnesotans keep driving like gas costs $4 a gallon

  • Article by: BILL MCAULIFFE , Star Tribune
  • Updated: December 15, 2008 - 10:03 PM

Minnesotans apparently resisted the lure of plummeting gas prices in October, driving fewer miles than they did in October 2007.

The 3.1 percent decline is part of a long-term local and national trend that has coincided with rising gas prices. Nationally, October mileage was down 3.5 percent, part of what the Federal Highway Administration called "the largest continuous decline in American driving in history."

Many wondered whether the gas price drop in October -- about 34 percent in Minnesota -- would lead drivers back to a higher-mileage habit. And while Minnesotans drove less than they did the year before, they drove more than they did in September. They even drove more than in the usually high-mileage month of July, though July, too, had seen a year-to-year decline.

Frank Pafko, director of the office of environmental services for the Minnesota Department of Transportation, said he wants to wait to see the mileage for November -- an entire month in which gas prices stayed low -- before concluding that Minnesotans will continue to throw mileage trends in reverse. "I think the change will be permanent. But I don't think we have enough data yet to prove that."

Others believe there are strong forces keeping cars in the garage. Minnesotans have fewer jobs to drive to than they did a year ago, noted Scott Anderson, vice president and senior economist for Wells Fargo & Co. The recession means fewer business deliveries. And savings on gas might only be going toward other needs, Anderson said.

For instance?

"Food!" he said.

George John, a marketing professor at the University of Minnesota's Carlson School of Management, said he believes that during the summer of high gas prices, many people cut back on "unscheduled" trips, and chose to use more fuel-efficient cars, if they had the option.

Meanwhile, he said, they've come to focus less on the drop in gas prices and more on the recent pain of $4-per-gallon gas and the possibility of its return.

Short term, people are more willing to adjust their behavior in the face of rising prices than to become profligate during a decline, John added.

"If prices stay or go down any more, my guess is that we'll see driving habits change [back]," John said. "That casualness might return a little bit."

Meanwhile, a study by the Brookings Institution, scheduled for release today, ranks the Twin Cities metro area 19th in vehicle miles traveled per capita among the largest U.S. metro areas. It had a 3.3 percent increase in per capita mileage since 2002; declines nationally and in Minnesota began to take hold at mid-decade. The national leader in per capita miles driven in that period was Los Angeles, while the greatest percentage increase was in New Orleans, at 37 percent.

Out of 100 cities, only 26 had mileage decreases since 2002.

Bill McAuliffe • 612-673-7646

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