But Northwest states still use 56 percent more fuel per person than British Columbia

Seattle, WA—In the last decade Washington trimmed motor gasoline consumption by two percent per capita, trailed closely by Oregon with a one percent reduction. But residents of the Northwest states still use fully 56 percent more gasoline per person—and emit proportionately more pollution—than their British Columbia neighbors. That’s according to a new report by Seattle-based Sightline Institute (formerly Northwest Environment Watch), Fueling Up: Gasoline Consumption in the Pacific Northwest , which analyzes the Northwest’s gasoline consumption, fuel spending, and commuting patterns.

The report gives partial credit for the trend to efforts against sprawl in major metropolitan areas. “This is clearest in BC, where Vancouver’s denser neighborhoods enable transit and other alternatives to function more effectively,” says lead author Eric de Place, “but Washington and Oregon have also had some recent success.” Led by their most urban counties, Washington and Oregon were the only two states in the US to show no significant increase in the share of commuters who drove alone to work in the 1990s. Idaho, meanwhile, leads the Northwest in both per capita gas consumption and in drive-alone commuting rates.

Sightline is monitoring gasoline use as one component of a new index to measure the region’s progress toward environmental and economic resilience. Gasoline consumption is a leading indicator because it is the single largest source of greenhouse gas emissions from the Pacific Northwest, a principal cause of air pollution in cities, and one of the region’s most expensive imports—draining tens of millions of dollars from the local economy every week.

Other key findings include:

  • In the decade ending in June 2002, the Pacific Northwest’s total thirst for gasoline grew in step with population to 116 million gallons a week—a 21 percent increase overall, but only a one percent increase in per capita consumption. Northwesterners each burn 7.7 gallons of gasoline a week—three times the volume of water that they drink. Idahoans consume 9.7 gallons a week, Oregonians 8.5 gallons, Washingtonians 8.4 gallons, and British Columbians 5.5 gallons.
  • British Columbia’s lower consumption is mostly a result of the province’s compact communities and smaller road network: In greater Vancouver—home to half of all British Columbians—some 62 percent of residents live in neighborhoods with more than 12 people per acre, compared to 25 and 24 percent in greater Seattle and Portland, respectively. And per resident, Washington has a quarter more miles of streets and highways than BC, Oregon has two-thirds more, and Idaho has three times more.
  • But because of shifting demographics and upsizing vehicles, BC’s per capita consumption increased by seven percent in the last decade.
  • Idaho, whose vehicles grew the largest and whose cities sprawled more than Washington’s or Oregon’s, registered a disheartening 12 percent jump in fuel use per resident. Trucks, including minivans and SUVs, went from 41 to 56 percent of vehicles during the 1990s.
  • Although gasoline is about 10 percent cheaper in the Northwest states than in British Columbia, residents of the Northwest states buy so much more fuel that they spend about one-third more on gasoline each year. BC taxpayers also put less than half as much money apiece into roadwork each year as their American counterparts.
  • Within the Northwest states, residents of the most densely settled counties drive alone less. Over the 1990s, for every 100 additional employed residents, King County, Washington, added just 43 drive-alone commuters; next door, sprawling Pierce County added 89. In Oregon, Multnomah County added only 49 drive-alone commuters per 100 new employed residents, while Clackamas County actually added 110 per 100, as existing residents switched from alternative transportation to driving alone.
  • Vehicle fuel economy stalled in the last decade in the Pacific Northwest. Had the region not traded its cars for trucks in record numbers in the 1990s, the same pace of technological improvements in fuel economy would have brought steep declines in per capita fuel consumption, as it did in the 1980s.

Sightline’s Eric de Place points out that the Northwest’s fuel consumption is still high, particularly in the states. “We can do much better at reducing air pollution, limiting greenhouse gases, and keeping money in the Northwest economy,” he says. The report concludes with several recommendations for slowing gasoline consumption:

  • Make communities more compact by allowing more in-fill development; freeing developers from counter-productive regulations like minimum parking requirements; and adjusting zoning codes to allow a better balance of jobs and housing.
  • Limit sprawl and spending by restraining the growth of roads. Judge transportation and land-use proposals not in light of their impacts on traffic congestion but in light of their impacts on urban form.
  • Make the costs of driving variable, giving consumers opportunities to save money by choosing how—and how much—they drive. Promising examples of this approach include selling car insurance by the mile and variable tolls on congested roads.

Sightline Institute (formerly Northwest Environment Watch) is a Seattle-based nonprofit research and communication center that tracks the region’s progress toward a sustainable economy and way of life and identifies the most important reforms for the region to focus on.

Download pdf for “Fueling Up: Gasoline Consumption in the Pacific Northwest.” The report was reviewed by ten Northwest transportation and smart-growth experts.

October 24, 2002