High gasoline prices are sure something to complain about. Nationwide the current average price is $3.98 per gallon. That's up more than a buck from a year ago, and within spitting distance of the record $4.11 average set in 2008.
What I wanted to know was which cities get hurt the most (and least) when gas goes up. To get the answer I called up the Center For Neighborhood Technology, a think tank in Chicago that studies the costs of living and working in cities across the country. (See how your zipcode measures up here.) First insight: It's not enough to look at where gas prices are highest (that would be Hawaii, at $4.60) -- what matters most is how many miles you drive.
As explained by Research Director Linda Young, CNT's methodology utilizes data gathered by federal and state surveys that comes straight from the odometers of thousands of cars nationwide. Young says that by excluding the miles driven (and gas burned) by trucks and buses and travelers just passing through on the highway, this data gives the best zipcode-level pictures of how much driving the average household does in a year.
The booby prize for the metropolitan area that suffers the most from rising gas prices goes to North Carolina's Raleigh-Durham-Chapel Hill region. The cities and suburbs of "The Triangle" are close enough that people don't think twice about driving from one to the other. Yet in doing so, the average household racks up 21,800 miles per year. Assuming an average 20.3 miles per gallon, that means burning through 1,074 gallons per year, about $4,200 at current prices.
North Carolina does not fare well in the rankings. Close on the Triangle's (Tar)heels comes the Charlotte-Gastonia-Rock Hill region, with an average household gasoline demand of 1,061 gallons. In sixth place, the average household in North Carolina's Greensboro-Winston Salem-High Point metroplex spends $4,000 for 1,017 gallons per year.
In third place: Atlanta, where drivers burn 35 gallons of gas a year sitting in traffic jams, according to the Texas Transportation Institute's 2010 Urban Mobility Report. The average Atlanta household drives 21,300 miles a year, using 1,050 gallons of gas.
But what about the city that everyone immediately associates with traffic jams and car culture: Los Angeles. Incredibly, the city of angels is among the top gas misers. That's because residents of centrally located areas of L.A. don't have that far to drive to get to work or the beach. As a result, the L.A.-Long Beach area ranks second among the cities that use the least gasoline, just 630 gallons a year per household. As for the No. 1 least driving-est city? That honor goes to New York, where even in the unlikelihood that a household owns a car, they probably still get to work on the subway. The average New York household uses just 481 gallons a year to go 9,800 miles -- that's half the gas guzzling of the North Carolinian Triangle.
The suburbs of New York City and L.A. aren't so lucky. New Jersey's Monmouth and Ocean counties, which sit at the northernmost reach of the Jersey shore, ranks fifth in most miles driven. New Jersey's Middlesex-Somerset area ranks seventh. The Riverside-San Bernardino area east of L.A. comes in 10th. Though with California's high gasoline price of $4.27 per gallon, these folks have it almost as bad as those out in Raleigh-Durham.
Linda Young of the Center for Neighborhood Technology explains that the residents of the ex-urbs of major cities are effected the most by rising gas prices. In search of a house they could afford, they looked farther and farther away from the city center. That made sense as long as gas was cheap. But factor in today's elevated gas price and the closer suburbs are looking more affordable. "We should rethink the way people live and work and travel in these regions," says Young. She says North Carolina and Washington, D.C., (ninth on the list of gas guzzlers) are making progress on developing new light rail systems, and population-dense metro areas would benefit from trying to replicate European models. "The European transit system is really quite excellent. They sustain many residents' lifestyle without dependence on automobiles."
What gives? In the scheme of things, $4 gasoline is still pretty affordable. And not just relative to the $9 per gallon that those Europeans fork over. Think about it holistically. The U.S. Department of Transportation figures that insurance, license, registration, taxes, depreciation and finance charges on the average car come to $5,600 a year. So even if your household's annual fuel bill goes up 50% from $2,000 to $3,000, that raises your total car cost from $7,600 to $8,600, just a 13% increase. If you already have that much invested in your car, fuel costs are going to have to go up a whole lot more to justify not using it.
Still, it looks like Americans are slowly moving in the right direction when it comes to their transportation decisions. Since 2004, when crude oil prices really started taking off, we've reduced our per capita gasoline use by 8% to 435 gallons per year. Thanks to more efficient cars we're each driving 4% fewer miles per year.
Maybe electric cars like the Chevy Volt or Nissan Leaf will make a difference, but I doubt it. If you're in the market for a Volt it's probably only because you've got your old gas guzzler paid off. Most Americans in these tough economic times would be hard pressed to give up a reliable old gas-guzzler to drop $33,000 on a new Volt. Even in Raleigh-Durham, $33,000 will buy you eight years of good old-fashioned regular unleaded.