Rising gas prices don't change drivers' habits

October 22, 1990|By Doug Birch

While the average price of gasoline has risen by more than 25 cents a gallon in Maryland in the 2 1/2 months since the invasion of Kuwait, Baltimore-area drivers have been slow to change their commuting habits and are not rushing to public transit, transportation experts say.

Several of those experts and drivers also predict that commuting habits won't change until the price of a gallon of gasoline reaches $2.

"People are certainly thinking about [conserving]. Doing it is something else again," said William F. Zorzi Sr., spokesman for the Maryland chapter of the Automobile Association of America.

"It's like fixing a roof," he said. "People think about it. But they don't get around to doing it until the first downpour." It's his gut feeling, he said, that the deluge motorists are waiting for is $2-a-gallon gasoline.

Gas station dealers say they are selling significantly less of their product, and the head of the state's Energy Office predicted that Maryland would probably follow the national trend and reduce petroleum consumption.

But the statistics available so far don't show that. Gasoline consumption in Maryland increased by almost 1 percent in August -- the first month of the crisis -- over the same month in 1989, the state comptroller's office reported last week. No later state figures are yet available.

The number of riders using mass transit in Maryland fell in August and September compared with the same months in 1989, the Mass Transit Administration said.

The August figures were down almost 9 percent for the Metro and almost 4 percent for the bus system. MTA officials blame the lingering effects of a 10-cent increase in the bus and Metro base fare on Dec. 3, 1989. Traffic flowing through the state's seven toll bridges and tunnels rose slightly -- by one-half of 1 percent -- during the month of August, said Thomas E. Freburger, spokesman for the Maryland Transportation Authority.

No later data were available, but Mr. Freburger added that he had heard no informal reports of sharp drops in toll traffic.

Hal Kassoff, state highway administrator, warned against drawing conclusions based on one or two months of data. He pointed out that consumption, toll figures and mass transit ridership numbers for August represented vacation travel and not long-range commuting patterns.

But he said he had no evidence of a decrease in traffic in the state.

As long as no gas lines develop, he said, many drivers will probably cling to old patterns. "People's lifestyles get influenced by their travel," he said. "They live in a certain place, work in a certain place. They get locked into patterns."

Nationwide, petroleum use has decreased. An Oct. 5 petroleum status report for the U.S. Department of Transportation reported that consumption fell 9 percent in September, compared with the same month in 1989.

Donald E. Milsten, director of the Maryland Energy Office, said that when the new state figures come out, "I suspect they'll show the same thing for September."

Service stations report that fuel sales are off, with many dealers experiencing an 8 percent to 10 percent drop and some reporting a 70 percent drop, said Roy Littlefield, executive director of the Greater Washington and Maryland Service Station and Automotive Repair Association Inc. He called the higher state consumption figures for August "a puzzlement. . . . I haven't talked to a dealer yet who says his volume is up."

Yet the Dillon Bus Co. of Millersville, which runs a 6:05 a.m. daily service from downtown Baltimore to Laurel, added a second bus in mid-August and a third bus last Monday, said Ron Dillon, the company's general manager.

He said all of his state-subsidized commuter bus lines, which travel between Annapolis and Washington as well as Baltimore and Laurel, had reached capacity since gas prices started leaping.

"We actually need to be running more equipment," he said, but the state has no more money to expand service.

Leslie Boring, new car sales manager at Bob Bell Ford Suzuki in Glen Burnie, said more customers were buying his Festivas, rated at 35 miles per gallon. Fewer wanted to test-drive the less fuel-efficient Thunderbirds, he said.

But consumer interest in smaller and less-expensive cars, he added, may be caused as much by the region's sluggish economy.

Donald Brewer, the commuter assistance officer for Baltimore County and a cheerleader for ride-sharing, said the number of calls to his office had doubled. But he said there was no way to find out how many callers then joined a car or van pool.

Shelly Hettleman, a 26-year-old legislative aide to Representative Benjamin L. Cardin, D-Md.-3rd, said she had been thinking about taking the train instead of driving her Honda Accord from Mount Washington to Capitol Hill each morning.

But so far, the only change in her life is that she spends more time shopping for gasoline.

Susan E. Wood of Dundalk, a systems analyst with Social Security in Woodlawn who uses a car pool to get to work, said her group had posted notes on bulletin boards seeking new riders. But no one has called, and those she has approached say they don't want to give up the flexibility their cars give them.

Travel choices

For information about car-pooling, van-pooling, park-and-ride programs and mass transit, readers may call the following:

Anne Arundel County: 222-RIDE.

Greater BWI Commuter Transportation Center: 859-1000.

Baltimore: 396-7665.

Baltimore County: 887-3554.

Carroll County: 857-2145.

Harford County: 879-2000 Ext. 103.

Howard County: 992-2017.

Mass Transit Administration: 859-POOL or (800) 492-3757.

State Railroad Administration (Maryland Rail Commuter Service): (800) 325-RAIL.

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