Americans find paths around the pump, confounding economists

LOS ANGELES — Los Angeles legal secretary James Eric Freedner got fed up with high gasoline prices.

He put his 2003 Toyota Tacoma truck in the garage and switched to a Honda Nighthawk motorcycle for weekday six-mile commutes to Beverly Hills. He stopped driving to the beach on weekends and cut back on trips to check on properties he manages. He began grouping errands into one trip each Saturday.

The tradeoffs Freedner has made in the last year haven't necessarily made him happy, but they've reduced his gasoline consumption nearly 50 percent. And although he admits to feeling jittery traveling freeways on the Nighthawk, all the changes are permanent, unless gas returns to $2.50 a gallon.

"The price was just eating up what I earned," said Freedner, 57. "This is the best thing I can do to make ends meet."

Americans are getting serious about using less gasoline, confounding some economists who have argued that most people can't reduce their driving much because they have to get to and from work and make those necessary trips such as shopping and chauffeuring their children around.

The truth is more complicated, according to some energy experts: When the price reaches a certain threshold or the driving reaches a peak point of aggravation, people are willing to give up personal space and independence."There is an awful lot of what might be called discretionary driving," said Edward Leamer, an economist with the University of California, Los Angeles' Anderson Forecast. "Raise the price high enough, and you will see that there is a lot more that people can do."

For some, the next drop in prices won't be enough to send them back to their old driving habits.

"The trend will be toward more lasting conservation and longer-term savings if they are not just reacting to prices and have instead made a decision to change," said Bruce Bullock, executive director of the Maguire Energy Institute at Southern Methodist University's Cox School of Business in Dallas.

In California, the nation's biggest fuel market, drivers have been burning through less gasoline than they had the year before for six consecutive quarters.

Nationwide, motorists are conserving fuel by taking fewer trips, driving slower and paying premiums for the most fuel-efficient vehicles because of a doubling of gasoline prices since 2003, the Congressional Budget Office said in a recent report.

University of Southern California mathematics professor Kimra Haskell, began bicycling to work six months ago.

She had many reasons. Sometimes she felt a shooting pain in her driving leg. She wanted to make a statement about the Iraq war and U.S. dependence on foreign oil. The California lifestyle of driving everywhere for everything — even to exercise at a gym — had left her too dependent on her aging 1993 Honda Accord.

The trial run was on a clunky old Schwinn mountain bike. On the return trip of the 26-mile ride, uphill, she was ready to abandon the bike by the side of the road. But she persevered, bought a sleek Italian Bianchi Volpe bicycle and is building up to cycling to work five days a week.

Gas prices were only part of the story, Haskell, 43, said. "It was mainly the effects on my health, on the time it took out of my life, the stress of dealing with the traffic."

Bad news at the pump has been good for business at Troy, Mich.-based VPSI Inc., which leases six- to 14-passenger vans to businesses, governments and transit agencies. The company charges $900 to $1,200 a month for the vans, which allow employees to leave their cars at home. Employees with good safety records serve as drivers for their pools.

After averaging growth between 5 percent and 6 percent for much of its history, Chief Executive Jeff Henning said, growth has averaged 10 percent or more nationally since 2005. Southern California had the fastest growth in 2007, at 13 percent, although it takes extra incentives.

While most of the vans leased by VPSI customers in other parts of the nation are utilitarian at best, California vanpools tend to carry more expensive accouterments, such as high-back individually reclining seats, said Jim Appleby, VPSI's Southern California region manager.

"It takes a little bit more to get people out of their cars here," Appleby said.

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