For immediate release: August 29, 2012
Seattle, WA – As northwesterners head to the pump for Labor Day, a new report shows our appetite for gasoline a waning. After more than a decade of rising and volatile prices at the gas pump, northwesterners’ consumption of motor fuel is now on the decline. But high oil prices meant that the region still spent a record $22 billion on petroleum in 2011.
Last year, each resident of Oregon and Washington burned an average of 7.2 gallons of gas per week—the lowest level in nearly 50 years. And per capita consumption has dropped even lower in 2012.
Total gasoline consumption in the two states hit a plateau in the late 1990s, and started to decline in 2008—mostly because northwesterners have been driving less. In 2011, Oregon and Washington residents travelled 13 percent fewer miles per capita on state-owned roads than the peak year of 2002. “The high price of gas has taken a bite out of our driving,” said Clark Williams-Derry, Research Director at Sightline Institute and principal author of the report.
Young Americans have led the way in cutting back on car travel. In 2009, employed drivers aged 16 to 34 drove 16 percent fewer miles than their same-aged counterparts in 2001. “In addition to high gas prices, social trends and new technologies have spurred younger Americans to rethink their driving habits,” said Williams-Derry. “Driver’s ed is more expensive, new licensing laws are more stringent, and the rise of digital media has partially replaced the need for a car.”
Increased vehicle efficiency has played a surprisingly small role in the decline of gasoline consumption. “Despite stricter federal standards and more customer interest in high-mpg cars, the real-world efficiency of the nation’s vehicles improved only slightly over the last decade,” said Williams-Derry.
Demographic, economic, and political trends point to further declines in gas use in coming years. Today’s more-efficient vehicles will eventually penetrate the market; the average real-world fuel economy is predicted to rise to 26.7 miles per gallon by 2027, up from 20.5 mpg today. And as baby boomers continue to retire, a large segment of Northwesterners will leave their peak driving years behind.
These trends have major implications for state transportation policy. If northwesterners continue to use less gas, state transportation agencies could face serious revenue shortfalls—and may be forced to reconsider their expensive plans to expand the region’s highway network.
Sightline Institute is the Northwest’s sustainability think tank, providing research, graphics, and commentary on the region’s most important trends.