What if gas became unaffordable? Americans say they are most likely to use different transportation

ANN ARBOR — This summer, in most parts of the country, average pump prices have been nearly a dollar per gallon lower than the previous three years. But the price of oil can be quite volatile, and so what do consumers say they’d do if gasoline became unaffordable?

Personal vehicles are a staple form of transportation for most U.S. consumers, whether for traveling to work or escaping to distant places. Moreover, cars have a long-standing symbolic link with Americans’ sense of independence. Not surprisingly, pressures to reduce car use often evoke psychological resistance.

at-5-69-on-dark-skySince its inception in October 2013, the U-M Energy Survey has asked a representative nationwide sample of consumers, in an open-ended format, about what they would do differently to get around if gasoline prices reached a level that they thought would be personally unaffordable. In a separate question, the survey asked what level pump prices would have to reach before they were viewed as unaffordable, and the average answer has been in the range of $5.50 to $6.00 per gallon.

Averaging across the past seven quarters of data (October 2014 through April 2015), the survey respondents who own a personal vehicle consistently reported the most willingness to use different modes of transportation (e.g., public transportation, biking, walking). Such a response was given by almost half (47%) of those surveyed. The next most common response, given by 34% of consumers, was that they would drive less (34%).

Other responses to the question were driving a smaller or more efficient vehicle (19%) and carpooling (17%). Fewer (9%) reported that they would consolidate the number of times they drove (combine trips). Very few (3%) said that they would not change their travel behavior.

The nearly two-year period examined by the U-M Energy Survey to date saw some notable swings in gasoline prices, with the national per-gallon average ranging from a high of $3.75 in June of 2014 to a low of $2.17 this past January. Nevertheless, most responses to the travel behavior question changed little over this period. The only notable change was in the most recent sample (April 2015), when a significantly greater proportion of respondents (54%) said that they would use different transportation (compared to 48% or fewer consumers in previous quarterly samples).

Digging deeper into the data, we do find a greater difference in how consumers say they would alter their travel behavior based on self-reported income. Consumers in the lowest income bracket were more likely than those in the middle and top brackets to say they would use different transportation (55% vs. 44% and 40%). Respondents in the middle income bracket were somewhat more likely than those in the low and top brackets to say they would drive less.

Notably, consumers in the lowest income bracket were least likely to say they would drive a smaller or more efficient vehicle. A car with higher gas mileage per gallon would reduce a consumer’s driving costs; however, a limited family budget is a clear barrier to acquiring a different vehicle.

For a closer look at the data, download our technical brief on this topic.

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The U-M Energy Survey is administered four times a year through a set of questions added quarterly to the Thomson Reuters/University of Michigan Surveys of Consumers, conducted by ISR since 1946.

University of Michigan Energy Institute
The demand for economically and environmentally sound energy solutions is urgent and global. The Energy Institute builds on the University of Michigan’s strong energy research heritage at the heart of the nation’s automotive and manufacturing industries to develop and integrate science, technology and policy solutions to pressing energy challenges.

Institute for Social Research
Established in 1949, the University of Michigan’s Institute for Social Research is the world’s largest academic social science survey and research organization, and a world leader in developing and applying social science methodology, and in educating researchers and students from around the world.

Thomson Reuters/University of Michigan Surveys of Consumers
Based on telephone interviews with 500 U.S. households conducted every month, the U-M Surveys of Consumers is a rotating panel survey based on a nationally representative sample that gives each household in the coterminous U.S. an equal probability of being selected.

Contact: Amy Mast, 734-615-5678, amymast@umich.edu