This Just In: People Care About How Much Gasoline Costs

As reported in this NY Times piece, vehicle miles traveled (VMTs) in the U.S. dropped 4.3 percent from March 2007 to March 2008, the largest month-on-month decline since record keeping began in 1942. The rising cost of gasoline is changing people’s behavior. And we’re only at $4/gallon.

Among the impacts the authors list: “Big box retailers are suffering as customers balk at driving to the mall.” No quantification given, but one would assume that the authors probably aren’t just making stuff up. Meanwhile, some convincing back-of-the-envelope calcs done here and here suggest that higher fuel prices shouldn’t have much of an effect on the big box retail business model.

Other interesting factoids: the average cost in cents per mile traveled is currently 15; it hit a low point at 5.6 in 1998, and peaked at 17.1 in 1980 (note that the 1980 figure also reflects a lower fleet fuel economy). Were people reacting so strongly to high gas prices in 1980 as they are now? Perhaps we have more of “perfect storm” situation now, with our sagging economy, low consumer confidence, and reduced discretionary income for all but the top earners. But perhaps it also has something to with a change of national consciousness — people becoming more aware that there are alternatives to lives that revolve around driving.

ABSENT-MINDED UPDATE: Of course, the main reason gas prices are hitting harder now than they did in 1980 is because people drive a lot more. For example, this EIA report shows household VMTs increased 53 percent from 1.5 to 2.3 trillion miles between 1988 and 2001, while over the same time period the number of households rose by only 17 percent.