Crying over gas? Europeans cope

Prices: Motorists abroad pay far more for petrol, buy smaller cars and drive less.

April 13, 2004|By Todd Richissin | Todd Richissin,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

LONDON - Laurent Garigue has one word for Americans griping about the cost of gasoline these days. Actually, he has many, but the first is, "Ha!"

"It's almost funny to hear about," he said. "I don't think they're laughing in America, but if they came here they'd see they have nothing to cry about."

Except that if Americans came here - and were paying Europe's gas prices - they might well shed some tears.

In the United States last week, gasoline was averaging about $1.76 a gallon for regular unleaded, with some motorists in California paying well over $2.

The average price of gasoline in Britain was $5.38 a gallon, a bargain compared with the Netherlands, where it was $5.69. In Germany it was $5.01. The French were paying $4.78.

The higher gas prices have led to the occasional protest in Europe, usually by truck drivers, but mostly people have responded in ways as unimaginative as they are effective: They drive less, take public transportation more, buy more fuel-efficient cars and occasionally walk to the corner to pick up milk rather than drive.

"It's just not part of our mindset to hop into the car anytime we need to go more than a few feet," said Garigue, who owns a fabric business in West London. "It is part of the mindset to kind of automatically calculate how best to take a trip."

That is one reason Garigue, in addition to his Mercedes-Benz, owns a Smart, a two-seat, buggy-looking car that seems as if it could fit into the trunk of most vehicles in the United States. It gets close to 60 miles per gallon.

The reason for the higher prices in Europe is predictable: taxes. When currency and measurements are converted, the $5.38 that Britons were paying for gas last week included $4.16 in taxes. Rates are similar throughout Europe.

In the United States, each gallon is taxed 18.4 cents by the federal government, and with state taxes added on, Americans pay an average of 27 cents extra.

"If not for our taxes, petrol would cost less than mineral water," said Richard Freeman, a spokesman for Britain's Automobile Association, an organization similar to AAA in the United States. "Nobody would put up with a 75 percent tax on anything else, but the petrol is different. It's just become a part of life here."

If the high taxes are keeping Europeans out of cars - and they are to a degree - they are working as designed.

The images of flocks of Dutch and Danes cruising their bicycles through the streets should not be mistaken for a lack of roads congested with cars. In the Netherlands, in particular, highways leading into Rotterdam and Amsterdam are bumper-to-bumper with cars during rush hour, and bikes are primarily a sight in larger cities, used mostly by those who live there.

And while there are about 500 cars for every 1,000 people in the European Union, compared with about 770 for every 1,000 people living in the United States, the number of cars on European roads has doubled since 1975.

"We still have the commuter problem in almost every part of Europe," said Adam McCarthy, manager for transport mobility for the International Automobile Federation in Brussels, Belgium. "The only way to get people out of their cars is to price them out, and then take the money from that and beef up public transportation."

In Britain, which with Holland suffers the worst road congestion in Europe, commuters can get old waiting for a train. More than 80 percent of commuter trains fail to arrive on time. But with few exceptions in Europe, a trip of most any distance is quicker by train than by road and commuter railways are generally improving.

That does not come cheap. In 2001, the last year for which figures are available, European Union countries collected about $357 billion in taxes on gasoline and road-use fees. Of that, about $86 billion was pumped into public transportation systems, according to the EU.

"The improvements help move people to public transport," McCarthy said. "Still, there are a lot of people who won't give up their cars no matter what, and that's where the taxes come in. If they're going to drive, they're going to pay."

Governments in Europe also have forced carmakers to increase gas mileage at a far faster rate than in the United States. In 2001, the most recent year for which comparative statistics are available, the average passenger vehicle in the United States got about 20 miles per gallon; cars sold in the European Union got 28, according to Eurostat, the EU's statistical bureau.

The European Union is debating ways to make driving cars even more expensive, with proposals to charge motorists a premium for driving in congested areas - already done in part of London - setting up toll roads and increasing taxes on the cars themselves according to how much they pollute and how much noise they make.

Environmentalists say they are pleased with what is essentially a penalty tax on cars and gas in Europe, but as the number of cars increases, gains in fuel efficiency are being wiped out.

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