Paying a lot for gas, changing lifestyles a little

  • Article by: GAIL ROSENBLUM , Star Tribune
  • Updated: May 23, 2008 - 9:10 AM

As the summer driving season approaches, people are taking a second look at how much they drive, but many say there is little they can do.

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Willard and Vivian Stevens, of Richfield, put their tablecloth out as they started to set up camp for the weekend. The Stevens are avid campers but with the current price of gas they may do less camping this year. Willard said that when they filled up Thursday morning it cost them $117.

Photo: Kyndell Harkness, Star Tribune

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Succulent brats at $2.50 apiece were going fast at Bobby & Steve's Auto World near downtown Minneapolis last week. But while customers were downing them with ease, they couldn't be blamed for choking on the gas prices: $3.73 a gallon for regular, $3.93 for premium. By Thursday, less than a week later, a gallon of regular was $3.85 at Bobby & Steve's.

But ask people here and at other fill-up stops what they're doing to combat exorbitant gas prices this Memorial Day weekend and beyond, and the answer is a resounding, "Um, not much." Some because they don't want to fight it. And some because they can't.

Lisa Starwood of Cottage Grove, for example, is a house cleaner. She has to go where her customers are. And they're mostly in North Oaks.

"There's no bus," said Starwood, who stopped filling her Ford Focus at $40 (a full tank sets her back $50). "I have no choice. Four bucks a gallon? I'm gonna put it in."

Aaron Carity, 25, of Minneapolis, put $54 into his Audi A4 and will keep filling up -- "whatever it takes," he said.

Jane Webb, 47, was filling up her four-year-old Chevrolet minivan -- $78 -- at a SuperAmerica station in St. Louis Park, before heading to Madison, Wis., to pick up her college-age daughter. While her husband is riding his bike more, it's harder for Webb, a registered nurse at Methodist Hospital, to do the same.

"This is changing a lot of people's lives," she said. "But maybe not their habits."

It's hard to change habits

Drew McLellan agrees. He grew up in the Twin Cities and now runs a marketing communications agency in Des Moines, where habit-changing is essential in his work.

"Once we have gotten in the habit of something, we have to get really, really, really torqued off before we make a change," McLellan said.

He has blogged about rising prices on his website (www. drewsmarketingminute.com). He compares the furor to how we react when the cable company or bank gives us lousy service or raises its prices. We gripe, groan, threaten to take our business elsewhere. And then we usually don't.

"The pain of changing is greater than the aggravation you have with them at any given moment," McLellan said. "We're not buying gas because we want to have gas. We're buying gas because it gets us where we want to go. We don't perceive that what gas allows us to do is worth giving up for another 10 bucks a week."

And we really want to go on vacation.

"Vacations are a nonnegotiable part of contemporary life, even in challenging economic times," said travel industry spokesman Peter Yesawich.

A survey co-authored by the Travel Industry Association and Yesawich's Ypartnership found, in fact, that 59 percent of Americans will not change their travel plans this summer, even with rising gas prices, which reached an average Thursday of $3.83 a gallon nationally. That's 44 cents more than one month ago and 73 cents more than this time last year.

The Minnesota average for self-serve regular was $3.68 Wednesday, which is 44 cents more than one month ago and 51 cents more than this time last year, said AAA Minneapolis spokeswoman Dawn Duffy.

On Thursday, the user-contributed website TwinCitiesGasPrices.com pegged the average metro area gas price at $3.85 a gallon.

"We are seeing about a one percent drop in the number of people who are saying they're going to take a Memorial Day weekend vacation, which is the first projected decrease since 1998," Duffy said. "It is noteworthy, but not that much."

The Recreation Vehicle Industry Association found a similar nontrend: More than 75 percent of RV owners plan to use their RVs "at least as much this spring and summer as last year," spokesman Kevin Broom said.

Mostly small changes

That doesn't mean people aren't doing anything.

"People are still traveling but may cut their trip short," Duffy said. "One week turns into a long weekend. Or instead of going out East, they go to Chicago."

Others are compensating with economy, rather than luxury hotels, coolers in the car and fast food, instead of nicer restaurants, or fewer souvenirs.

"But people are still traveling and complaining about gas prices," Duffy said, "including me."

Other surveys also report small changes. In a recent nonscientific poll on StarTribune.com, 50 percent of 1,279 respondents said they "now think twice" before driving anywhere, while 26 percent said they have curbed driving in "small ways."

A recent Kelley Blue Book study comparing shopping habits from October 2007 to April 2008 showed that, while people might not be cutting back on gas, there was a 23 percent increase in the number of people who now resist buying "nonessential" items, and a 15 percent increase in people buying fewer "entertainment items" and restaurant meals.

Others said they are carpooling, taking the bus or working from home.

'It hurts at the pump'

Still, the motto this holiday weekend seems to be "same-old, same-old."

Larry Corbesia, 55, of Richfield, drives a 1994 Toyota truck to remodeling jobs, but he's trying to take the bus more, he said as he put in $5 in gas.

"It hurts at the pump, doesn't it?" he said.

Daon Karpan, 45, of Golden Valley, who was saving a few pennies filling up at Costco in St. Louis Park, said she and her husband are more conscious of driving his Camry hybrid when they can, and they take fewer trips overall.

But her 2008 Buick Enclave is still the drive-the-kids-around car.

Jimmy Martin of Golden Valley, also at Costco, said that, for the first time, he and three fellow musicians will carpool to an upcoming gig in St. Cloud. But, like Starwood, the pianist feels his hands are tied.

"I'm a musician," he said. "I have to go to jobs."

And he'll likely be filling up his Mazda and going to jobs in a year when some are predicting that gas will rise to $5 a gallon.

"Yeah," McLellan said, "and you know what we'll be saying then? 'Wouldn't it be great if gas were four bucks a gallon?'"

Gail Rosenblum • 612-673-7350

  • "Gas prices give us something to talk about. It's like living in Minnesota, where you want to talk about the weather all the time but you still choose to live there. It's more buzz than behavior."

    -- Blogger and marketer Drew McLellan

    "When you drive down Interstate Hwys. 394 or 494, you still see lots of people with only one person in the car. The traffic's still bad. ['People say] carpooling is a hassle, public transportation is a hassle. That's my personal time.'"

    -- Jason Toews, co-founder TwinCitiesGasPrices.com and gasbuddy.com

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