We'll adjust to gasoline prices

In July 2008, the average price of regular unleaded gasoline topped out at $4.12 per gallon.

Remember those days? Hybrid gas-electric automobiles, with their promise of 50 mpg, were sold before they'd been built, with some customers signing deals in June, then waiting six months  to get their cars. Meanwhile, gas-guzzling SUVs and full-sized pickups languished on showroom floors, with some truck manufacturers seeing sales decline nearly 30 percent, despite aggressive discounting.

But people weren't merely swapping out their cars — they actually began driving less, which was an unprecedented development. As a nation, we drove 12 billion fewer miles per month that summer than we did in 2007. We carpooled. We took "staycations." We combined multiple errands into one trip.

We bought bus passes. We walked, or we switched to two-wheeled transportation. A survey of 150 bicycle shop owners  that summer found that sales of bikes, accessories and service were soaring, and 95 percent of these business owners said that gas prices were having a direct, and positive, impact on their bottom line.

Then gas prices plummeted. By January 1, 2009, the average price had sunk to $1.61 per gallon — which, of course, caused Americans to get right back behind the wheel and begin piling up the miles once again. Sales of full-sized pickups soared. The bikes became recreational vehicles again, for weekend fun rather than daily commuting.


But now it's deja vu all over again. What will happen now that we're again facing the prospect of $4 gas? We'd like to believe that we learned something in 2008, that we now know how make a tank of gas last longer and go further. Necessity is a great teacher, and if history is any indication, most Americans will economize when forced to do so.

This kind of discipline, however, like a fad diet or new exercise program, is difficult to sustain over the long haul — and unfortunately, no one is predicting a 2009-like return to $2 gasoline. China, India and other developing nations are using more gasoline every month. Unrest in the Middle East could lead some of the world's oil-rich nations toward more democratic forms of government, but that won't necessarily mean crude oil prices will drop. Quite the opposite effect is possible.

So as we dust off our bicycles, investigate our ride-sharing options and look for some close-to-home vacation destinations, we'd be wise to see the adjustments we're making as true lifestyle changes, rather than temporary measures to get through tough times.

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